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Review

Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West

By Nayan Shah

November 4, 2013

Review By Hugh Johnston

 

Nayan Shah observes that historians get it wrong when they privilege permanent populations over transient, the nuclear family over other domestic arrangements, and polarized rather than various gender roles. He complains – fairly — that historians omit much vital human experience, or treat it as non-normative. And when race is part of the story, they miss more. To answer that, Shah has undertaken the formidable task of illustrating what they have been leaving out, bringing to light a hidden history that has, nonetheless, unmistakably left its evidence. What he has to work with is the legal record — the instances in which the law has dealt with a particular group of marginalized people. His subjects are South Asian migrants to the United Sates and Canada whose stories emerge from civil and criminal court cases in California, Washington, and British Columbia. His period is the early twentieth century — the two or three decades that followed the first arrival of South Asian migrants in these jurisdictions. His period is defined by his sources and that is justified because, as Shah observes, the record dried up as the number of transient South Asian immigrants declined.

Shah explains that his research began in the University of Chicago Law Library with his discovery of a 1928 compendium of California sodomy cases. These involved Punjabi and Chinese defendants and they led him to searches in California court records and later British Columbia and, as his frame of reference grew, took him to murder cases, divorce petitions, civil suits over property, citizenship cases, and business partnership disputes. In these cases he has found material illustrating South Asians living on North America’s racial/sexual borderlands; and all this he has marshalled into a comprehensive picture. The research he has undertaken is formidable, in terms of number of library and archival collections he investigated, his energetic testing and sharing of his findings before going into print, and the specific instances he has uncovered. It appears that he has identified nearly everything that the legal record can yield — for example, more than 100 cases of illicit sexual relations between South Asians and whites, Chinese or native American males.

One might ask if this many cases has any statistical significance in a record extending over two decades or more for a floating population numbering at its peak many thousands. But that is not the point. The stories that Shah tells of interracial marriages, business partnerships, personal attractions, seductions, solicitations, entrapments, betrayals, assaults, and souring disagreements are all richly suggestive of the adverse social and legal environment that his subjects had to negotiate. His descriptive writing about individual incidents is clear and straightforward although his analytical sections can lapse into passive constructions and loose generalizations. And the research, while amazingly extensive, is understandingly far from exhaustive. Shah has not caught up with all of the secondary literature touching on his ambitious project, nor fully plumbed the archival collections he has searched. That said, this is an impressive book full of engaging detail that lifts the veil on a realm of experience we need to incorporate into our general history.

Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West
By Nayan Shah 
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.  xiv, 347 pp.  Maps and illus. $27.95 US, paper