See No Stranger, a Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur, reviewed by Rachel Walker Cogbill

The title See No Stranger aptly captures the central message of this book: when we look at another person, we should not see that person as a stranger but rather as a part of ourselves.  What better message could there be for all of us interested in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to Central Vermont?

The author, a Californian Sikh activist, espouses revolutionary love even while she has experienced much hate and grieved with victims, documenting this with both oral history and film.  Her own family and religious group were often targeted after 9/11, yet much of the violence against Sikhs did not make the news.  Still Valarie Kaur’s experience with injustice goes beyond being a member of this one group.  She has traveled to Guantanamo; she has worked in maximum detention centers as a lawyer; she has been a part of political campaigns, community organizing, and demonstrations.  She has been a witness to both the tragedy of events and the amazing courage and resilience of victims despite their pain.  Valarie Kaur speaks with great authenticity of both the range of injustice and the simultaneous struggle for justice, compassion, and understanding.

At the same time this book is a memoir of Valarie Kaur’s own personal life and struggles.  She speaks with an intimacy that draws one into her own life, in some ways so similar and in some ways so different from one’s own.  The reader begins to trust her as a wise and intimate friend and can hear truths not easily heard from others.  After savoring her book over months with a book group, I wrote a poem about one chapter excerpted below.  I cannot more highly recommend taking your own journey with this book, which will surely touch you in ways you have not been touched before. Valarie Kaur begins with loving others, then loving our opponents, and finally loving ourselves as we learn to breathe and push for transition into a better world. What could be more impactful in our badly divided world today?

   Touched by See No Stranger
by Rachel Walker Cogbill

Yesterday a friend said to me
“As a mother I am only as happy as the least happy of my children.”
I think of children everywhere, and grown children
And their mothers, maybe fathers.
I know my worry for the pains of my children,
Relatively small that those pains may be.
I know just enough to imagine:

The immense grief, the anguish
Of Ros, the mother visiting the son in the Supermax Prison,
Who says he is okay, by phone on visiting day,
But she watches his eyes change.

I think of the mothers
Of the young soldier / guard at Guantanamo being corrupted by his job;
Or of Omar, his prisoner,
A youth imprisoned in Guantanamo at 16,
Just for throwing a grenade,
Shaped for one third of his life
By the inhumanity of a prison
Beyond human rights.

Of a prisoner finally released
From the solitary confinement
Of endless days, weeks, and years
In the SuperMax Prison,
Who said,
They made me an animal; I need to learn to be human again:
To talk, to walk, but never to choose being in a crowd again.”

I feel grief.
I feel the stories as if they were my own.
What is the magic of this author
Who tells stories so well,
That I trust enough to walk in her shoes –
And thereby all the shoes of those whose stories she tells,
And even in the shoes
Of those of us gathered together
To share the book,
As we reach more quickly
That deep heart-space together?

What is happening to my heart, and my being,
As I, too, am heard into new being
To be able to look through that glass a little less darkly
With you,
My friends.