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Dispatches from a Relucatant Rebel

Review by Katie Stobbart

Reluctant Rebellions
Shauna Singh Baldwin
UFV Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies, 2016

To hear a person read aloud allows a story to breathe and truly speak. The words inhabit the hands, mouth, and lungs of their reader, adopting the cadence and resonance allowed by the body in the oral delivery of language. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s collection of 15 speeches and essays is best served to the ear, which gives full weight and nuance to its stories and calls to action. With its calm certainty and conviction about the way forward, Baldwin’s oral presentation at a reading of the work recently has stayed in my ear

Through well-researched discourse informed by personal experience, Baldwin explores culture, gender, race, and religion, showing how cultural contexts and stories of the past have led us to where we are today. It can be tempting to hold a book like this aloft and say, gesticulating, “This! This is what is happening right now.” We can read Reluctant Rebellions in light of an impending Donald Trump presidency and related shifts in the global political landscape, we can read it in light of the refugee crisis and our approaches to immigration and multiculturalism, and we can sink the prose like an anchor into our present waters, which may seem increasingly bleak. But we should also allow a book like this to be timeless; the problems Baldwin enumerates are not new, but deeply embedded in our cultures, our authoritative bodies, and our own bodies. As Baldwin illustrates in Reluctant Rebellions, particularly in the essays “Re-forming Our Epics” and “Mind-Dancing with Language,” we can trace modern attitudes and ways of conveying cultural ideas back to some of our earliest and longest-living texts.

While Baldwin discusses religion and race, the conversation in Reluctant Rebellions is especially centered on gender. But where the feminist movement is sometimes criticized for its focus on white, middle-class women to the exclusion of others, Shauna Singh Baldwin is, as she might say, a bridge; she has both a North American and South Asian cultural context to draw from in her assessment of challenges facing women and men in patriarchal society. Perhaps one of the strongest passages demonstrating this is the one confronting the idea of Sikh feminism, in which she presents a compelling counterargument for those who claim feminism is an exclusively Western movement:

If feminism is so Western, it should now have achieved parity with men for Western women. If feminism is so Western, Western women should be now have control over their bodies and reproduction. If feminism is so Western, Western women should never be targets of domestic or gun violence, or rape. If feminism is so Western, women in the ‘developed’ countries should receive the same pay as similarly qualified men, family names should be passed down by mothers, and illegitimacy should be an anachronism.

Equality among genders, as Baldwin repeatedly supports throughout her book, is not yet a reality in any culture. We negate and diminish supposedly “feminine” qualities like compassion and sharing; we use ultrasound technology to prevent girls from being born; and we block women’s ability to make choices about our life choices and our own bodies. I say “we” because regardless of culture, race, religion, or gender, we are all individually and collectively responsible for change. But how do we change? How do we strive for justice? Baldwin’s argument suggests we should do so in part by altering our way of thinking, and by changing our stories. She writes of stories as sources of guidance in the face of great challenges.

Stories show us how to overcome obstacles, how to live in the face of suffering, tyranny, illness, loss, or grief, and what we can become. So we need them.

As you might expect from an author of several books of fiction, story is one of the main vehicles for Baldwin’s discourse in Reluctant Rebellions. She begins with story, she uses it to illustrate her strongest claims, and she gestures to story and stories as integral tools in the reluctant rebellions she urges her readers toward

I think of myself as someone who rebels, who pushes back upon encountering injustice. But there are instances—as there are for everyone—when I’ve failed to do so, when my inner rebel has failed to win over the appeal of staying silent, the appeal of safety from the consequences of speaking or acting. This is what makes the kind of rebellion Baldwin talks about in her book difficult: rebelling can challenge our own sense of security. But it is a false sense of security, and the consequences of complicity are ultimately far worse than those of speaking up.

In a story, characters are strong when they make things happen, instead of remaining passive. In a sentence, active voice is stronger than passive voice; active voice requires a subject performing an action. We can take this lesson from language and from story to direct ourselves on a path of strength and assertion of ourselves as strong characters in an incredibly broad narrative. Reluctant rebellions are the acts, great or small, which contribute to the reshaping of our cultural narratives. Baldwin explains:

Reluctant rebellion is a mode of thinking that questions boundaries and pushes back, kindly and firmly … You can be a reluctant rebel at any age, rebelling against categories, your children’s expectations, injustice—in any circumstance where rational anger against injustice is appropriate … Reluctant rebellions point out sexist behaviour so no one can hide behind radition and patriarchal assumptions.

Books like Reluctant Rebellions are necessary. They broaden our perspectives. They reinforce our convictions. They bolster our compassion. They give us the tools to assert ourselves in societies that are not, however much they may profess it, built on notions of equality. And, when we allow our voices to share their words, they help us to reframe our shared stories to guide us as times change.

Katie Stobbart is the editor of Raspberry magazine, a publication featuring coverage of art, culture, and community life in the Fraser Valley. She writes from Abbotsford. Her poetry and art has been published in Louden Singletree and by the Poetry Institute of Canada.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #21