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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Forbidden Desires and the Racialization of Citizenship

Review: Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West, by Nayan Shah. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 368 pp. $26.95 paper. ISBN: 9780520270879.
By Kritika Agarwal |
JANUARY 3, 2012

The murder of Darrah Singh by Edward Bowen, a twenty-one-year-old English laborer, in a rooming house after a round of drinks at a saloon; the apprehension of Sikh men on the streets of Vancouver for soliciting sexual encounters with white youth; a transnational estate battle between two women, Nami Singh of Punjab and Soledad Garcia Jubala of New Mexico, both of whom claimed to be married to Jawala Singh – these are some of the stories that Nayan Shah tells in Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (2012).

Using archival records dug up from county courthouses to the National Archives, Shah spins an intriguing narrative of the lives of South Asian migrants on the west coast of the United States and Canada in the early twentieth century and the intimate relationships they forged with each other and with other ethnic groups. The book, however, is not so much about South Asian migrants as it is about what the intimate lives and relationships of this one particular transient migrant group in the North American West can tell us about migrant mobility and its relationship to the formation of non-normative kinship, social, and sexual associations among migrants.

As Shah notes, South Asian migrants to the United States and Canada in the early twentieth century were largely a transient group. Predominantly male, these early transnational migrants were workers whose communities remained in constant flux as they moved from place to place in search of a livelihood and to escape racial persecution. Their movements were often under constant surveillance, both by the state as well as the local white populace who viewed them as racial and economic threats. In effect, Canadian and U.S. laws which regulated their migration, restricted the bringing of their families, and prohibited the ownership of property, forced South Asian migrants in a state of transience that rendered them as “marginal and replaceable labor,” (2) whose very presence threatened the settled, white republic.

Building on some of the emergent themes from his previous book, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2001), Shah illuminates how transient migrants often developed “intimate ties that [were] expressed in transnational kin networks, interracial marriages, and various temporary intimate encounters,” including prostitution and same-sex relations (7). These experiences, Shah argues, are often marginalized in historical scholarship that tends to focus on settled, heterosexual households in favor of other forms of intimate ties and families that challenge the assumption that the “nuclear family is the necessary model for social vitality and political participation” (6). Thus, Shah pays special emphasis on spaces such as streets, saloons, ranches, dormitories, boarding houses, etc. and the possibilities they offered to migrants to forge intimate, yet often transient, social, sexual, and economic relationships.

Stranger intimacy, however, often posed threats to normative gender identities and transgressed sexual and racial norms. Thus, another aspect explored in Shah’s book is the regulation of sex and gender through criminalization of intimate sexual acts, public intimacy, interracial marriages, and other forms of queer sociality. Shah notes how criminalization, in addition to restrictions on immigration, naturalization, and owning property, effectively rendered transient South Asian migrants as outsiders to the nation, while simultaneously allowing for capitalist expansion and providing a “subsidy” for whiteness and heterosexuality. The treatment of transient migrants, Shah argues, demonstrates how a seemingly marginal group can nevertheless be integral to the construction of how society defines itself and what it deems to be “normal.”

Shah illuminates all this by carefully gleaning life stories of South Asian migrants from court records including legal cases and disputes, marriage licenses, labor and property agreements, as well as naturalization records. While some stories, such as those of Bhagat Singh Thind and Tarak Nath Das have been told before by others, much of the value in Shah’s book, for those interested in South Asian history, lies in his carefully constructed narratives that provide a glimpse into the intimate lives and social relationships of early South Asian migrants. Shah finds meaning in everyday encounters and life events and uses them to unearth the terms on which social, cultural, political, and economic membership was defined for migrants, as well as how they in turn offered resistance to these terms. In all this, Shah’s book should be a welcome addition for queer theorists, as well as those interested in South Asian American history.
Kritika Agarwal is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at SUNY, Buffalo.