- Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West by Nayan Shah
Stranger Intimacy is simultaneously an ambitious wide-ranging study and a narrow one. It is ambitious because it draws on archival research—mainly in legal records—in three countries and provides examples from both the western American states and from British Columbia, the Canadian province where, in the first half of the twentieth century, most South Asian immigrants settled. It is narrow because, contrary to the implications of its title, it deals almost exclusively with the approximately thirty thousand men who migrated to North America from India in the first decades of the last century. Immigration laws meant that few women joined their husbands even before laws and administrative procedures, including strict medical tests, virtually halted immigration from India.
Asserting that boundaries are not fixed, Shah questions what he calls “three conceptual stabilizations that haunt historians and constricts their ability to write about movement and change” namely permanence as opposed to transience, “polarized sexuality,” and the nuclear family household (6). Legal cases help demonstrate how transient migrants were vulnerable to exploitation and how legal discrimination as “white privilege” was used to exclude the racialized, to protect property, and to preserve propriety through laws against sodomy and miscegenation. Drawing on queer theory, he questions what he calls the “myth” of the “respectable nuclear family” (270).
Many migrant workers responded to their lot with “stranger intimacy” which satisfied “their appetite for passionate engagement,” their “determination to smash alienation,” and their “desire for visceral solidarity” (55). Shah asserts that “the paradox of stranger intimacy … offers a way of conceptualizing everyday encounters that can either invest in sustaining hierarchy or produce egalitarian social and political arenas, ethics, and associations” (273). Stranger intimacy, he contends, challenged barriers of race and class. He shows how immigrants from India endeavoured to cope with discrimination by fighting in the courts for their legal rights in labour contracts and property matters and in finding companionship through interracial marriages, often with Mexican-American women who some county clerks saw as being of the “same race” and therefore not subject to anti-miscegenation laws.
Court records put flesh on the theory and demonstrate how legal records—both civil and criminal—can be a gold mine of information for historians. Shah uses them effectively to show how the migrants sought public recognition and [End Page 1106] dignity and developed transnational kinship networks and such temporary “intimate encounters” as prostitution and homosexual relationships with men and boys of non-Indian descent. Some “intimate encounters” were complicated. One example must suffice. A man, who had been married in Punjab while a boy, migrated to New Mexico, where after marrying and divorcing one Mexican-American woman he married another who bore him four children. After he was killed in an accident, the legal conflict over the estate raised questions of the legitimacy of child-marriages in India, showed how alien land laws could be circumvented, and revealed that by marrying Indians, American-born women risked loss of their American citizenship.
Legal records, of course, are inherently biased since they cover only those who had problems; they rarely capture the histories of those whose lives proceeded smoothly. Shah wisely emphasizes that Indians were not a monolithic group but varied in their capital and skills and their skin tone, language, ethnicity, and religion. One can only assume that most never ran afoul of the law. And, a few immigrants were able to bring their wives to North America and form families. Admittedly, not a typical example, a recent publication, Jewels of the Qila: The Remarkable Story of an Indio-Canadian Family by Hugh J.M. Johnston, reveals experiences that are quite different from those told by Shah.1
Although Shah understandably limits his study to the West, his work implicitly raises questions about the few Indians who ventured to the East. Did they suffer the same discrimination and surveillance? Nor does Shah always explain why something happened at a particular...