Rebel with a Cause

  • Shauna Singh Baldwin
    Reluctant Rebellions: New and Selected Nonfiction. Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies (purchase at
Reviewed by Susan Fisher

Shauna Singh Baldwin, author of three novels and two collections of short stories, is not a reclusive literary figure. Management consultant, restaurant owner, public speaker, polo player—Baldwin is always vitally engaged in the world around her. And in her case, that world is a complex, multi-dimensional place. Born in Canada, raised in Pakistan, and educated in the US, Baldwin belongs to no one nation or culture. In Reluctant Rebellions, her new non-fiction collection, Baldwin examines from this polycultural perspective the social and political ideas that motivate her fiction.

Some of the items in this miscellaneous collection deal explicitly with her writing career. “Conflict on the Page” explains how she got past the “nothing ever happens” impasse in her own writing. “Ruthless Terrorist or Valiant Spy” introduces Tiger’s Claw, her 2005 novel about Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman who spied for the British in World War II. Tiger’s Claw is not straight biography: Baldwin discusses how she mixed research and invention in re-telling Noor’s story. While “Ruthless Terrorist” by now feels somewhat dated—it was a promotional piece written eleven years ago—it remains a useful reference for students of Baldwin’s work.

Similarly, “Questions for Rumi” introduces her 2012 novel The Selector of Souls, explaining how it took shape over the span of seven years as she began “chasing images and voices.” Baldwin describes herself as a storyteller whose aim is to “create and explore situations where people find they must change, and make moral choices.” The situation in Selector of Souls is the murder of a girl baby, killed by her grandmother because the impoverished family cannot afford another daughter. While Selector is a novel about invented individuals, it is also a kind of social science, based on the very real problem of “missing” girls in the South Asian population and the decisions of parents not to have those female babies. In “Don’t Blame the Technology” (originally published in the National Post), Baldwin examines how technology, in the form of ultrasound and other forms of prenatal testing, is enabling and amplifying the traditional preference for males. Baldwin deplores the situation, especially for mothers who are pressured to give up their daughters. However, she does not want Indian parents demonized for their choices. She points out that if people in the developed world did not have a social safety net, perhaps they too would choose sons over daughters.

Another literary piece, “For whom do you write?” examines J. G. Farrell’s 1973 novel The Siege of Krishnapur. Having missed the irony that is Farrell’s essential tone, Baldwin dismisses Siege as the work of a benighted imperialist. She concedes that it “is humorous once you overlook his Eurocentrism,” and even allows that Farrell might be forgiven inasmuch as Siege was published before Edward Said’s Orientalism. But Farrell hardly needed Said’s example in order to write his devastating critique of the Raj.

As one might guess, Baldwin has a polemical side. While this is mediated in her fiction through dialogue and characterization, it comes to the fore in her non-fiction. In “Mind-Dancing with Language,” an address given at a conference on the South Asian diaspora, she encourages her audience to remain multilingual:

We in North America are so anxious to assimilate and learn English that we willfully lose our multilingual abilities by the second or third generation. The practice of sending children to residential schooling is gone, yet scorn and silence can still kill our ability to dream in our ancestral languages.

This stopped me in my tracks. People of the South Asian diaspora in North America typically speak Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, or Punjabi, none of which is endangered. Moreover, no one of South Asian origin was ever sent (as far as I know) to Canadian residential schools. Why would a writer of Baldwin’s intelligence conflate these two situations? Baldwin is undoubtedly sincere in her solidarity with victims of colonialism, but in striving too hard for rhetorical effect she undermines her case.

In “No Place Like Home,” delivered at an event to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident, Baldwin presents what happened as damning evidence of Canadian racism tout court. For a writer whose avowed purpose is to explore how people make choices in difficult situations, there is surely more to say. What, for example, about Canadian workers who knew from bitter experience in the coal mines and fish canneries that unscrupulous employers would use Asian migrants to depress wages? Their opposition to the arrival of South Asian migrants was undoubtedly racist, but it was also founded on realistic fears about economic consequences. While I have reservations about the early part of this essay (especially when Baldwin seems to compare the incident to the Holocaust and Guantanamo), it does evolve into a thoughtful discussion of how we construct communities and nations. Who is in and who is out? Does our community consist of our co-religionists, of those who carry the same passport, of people who trace their ancestry to the same homeland? These questions remain as urgent today as they were in 1914.

A particularly effective essay, one that does not overstate its case, is “The Power of One,” which recounts how in 2012 a gunman killed six worshippers at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Baldwin’s own community. The title refers not only to the devastation that a single armed man can inflict; it also expresses Baldwin’s fundamental faith that “though one person has the power to do great damage, each of us also has the power to create, heal, build, repair and replenish.”

In the final essay, which gives this collection its title, Baldwin exhorts South Asian women to become “reluctant rebels.” She advocates a feminism that cannot be dismissed as an ill-fitting Western import. South Asian women, like women everywhere, have the right to shape their own lives, yet, as Baldwin acknowledges, they are constrained by powerful ties of kinship and affection. Baldwin’s analysis may not be ideologically pure, but it is certainly compassionate. She recognizes that, caught as they are in complex webs of loyalty, women can shape their lives only with “incremental change” and “with kindness and concern for social justice.” As both a storyteller and an activist, this is how Baldwin herself proceeds. Her mode of being in and writing about the world lends to this collection, as it does to her fiction, a moral seriousness that makes Baldwin always a writer worth reading.

This review “Rebel with a Cause” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 121-123.

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