Well, I didn’t get as many books read for #ReadIndies Month as I had hoped – out of my image here I have read and reviewed three, started and rejected two and am part-way through one. But I did read two extras that came in during the month, and I don’t think I thought I’d get all of them read.

Here’s a great work of sociology, recently updated and republished by Daraja Press, a not-for-profit independent publisher based in Quebec, which “seeks to reclaim the past, contest the present and invent the future. Daraja is the KiSwahili word for ‘bridge’. As its name suggests, Daraja Press seeks to build bridges, especially bridges of solidarity between and amongst movements, intellectuals and those engaged in struggles for a just world.”

I first read this book in the 1990s and then spotted it in The Market Gardener Reader’s My Year in Nonfiction post in November 2021 and ordered myself a copy. Out of the eight print books I acquired that month, I have read and reviewed three – these are coming to the top of my print TBR now so should get to the others soon.

Amrit Wilson – “Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain. New and Expanded edition”

(18 November 2021)

The book is celebratory because it makes us realise how far we have come. The conservative views on mixed marriages that some Asian women express in the 1970s is no longer a dominant view in this country, and that is reflective of progress. However, institutionalised racism, the scraping away of social welfare programs that aid mothers, the gig economy that exploits and works against people of colour, have not made life easier for Asian women, and this book is a great reminder of how far we have to go in order to achieve equality and justice. (Foreword, p. vii)

This book was first published in 1978 and was a pioneer in studies of South Asian women (Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Christian) in the UK, a magnificent work of oral history which was published as the Grundwick Strike was still happening. I came across it in the mid-90s, presumably from Lewisham library, in its original edition: this edition was published in 2018, on its 40th anniversary, and has lots of additional content.

The new foreword by Meena Kandasamy makes it clear how important it was at the time in understanding structural oppression and how so much in the book hasn’t changed in the intervening 40 years. After Wilson’s introduction, which interestingly documents her battles with the White feminists of Virago Press, her original publishers (when she protested against the printing of selected sections in the newspaper and resorted to threatening direct action, she found,

‘She’s running amok in the Observer office! Stop her’ The displeasure I incurred from Virago as a result of this event was long-lasting. I realised that the warmth and support that they had shown me when I was writing the book had been conditional on my accepting their white middle-class version of feminism. (p. xvii)

The original content takes a wide view of the history of South Asian immigration into the UK, mostly looking at larger waves in the 20th century, and pointing out that people came from both India/Pakistan/Bangladesh and East Africa when they were expelled from previous UK colonial territories. It’s interesting to have the book point out the beginning of the changes in policy which worked against people being able to come to the UK as the government decided whose labour it wished to exploit when.

Wilson looks at the village economy most people came from, but also the life of luxury some people from East Africa lost, and how disconcerting it was to have to map that life onto a poor, urban, exploited life in a capitalist Western country. We’re taken through chapters on themes such as isolation, family, work outside the home, school life and marriage, each blending together oral records which Wilson recorded herself then translated into English, then there’s a powerful chapter of only oral testimonies from various women, in “Sisters in Struggle”. Labouring under both their own patriarchy and the capitalist one of institutionalised racism in the UK is a double burden that some women are sinking under heart-breakingly.

After Wilson’s own reflections, there’s a super long section called “In conversation with Finding a Voice: 40 years on” which includes pieces by women reacting to the book and discussing the role it’s had in their own lives, activism and practices. This includes the very necessary discussion of where we might find Queer spaces in these women’s testimonies, never made explicit in the originals, giving an added dimension, and also a piece by Wilson’s daughter about the experience of living with the book, typewriter noises in the evenings after Wilson’s day job was done. Last, there’s a section of photographs of powerful women in mostly strike situations, black-and-white and grainy but still moving.

This book is a call to collective action and sisterhood, a memorial and an instruction to keep going. In her Reflections, Wilson points out White feminists need to let Asian women work on their own problems while standing in support, not intrude and try to sort their issues out for them, and the valuable material she gathers in this book is indeed because she was part of the communities she was studying, speaking to the women in their kitchens in their own languages. I was so pleased to be able to revisit this wonderful work.

This is Book 6 of my contribution to #ReadIndies month!