Sokari Ekine reviews Shailja Patel’s ‘Migritude’, a collection of ‘beauty’ and a ‘poetic masterpiece’.
We have traveled half the world
with hearts open,
we’ve seen everything.
Always remember who we are,
where we came from,
and you’ll never do evil
(From ‘What we keep’ ©)
‘Migritude’ is a gift of which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes:
‘A vibrant, gendered, wordsmith’s voice, speaking Africa, Asia, the metropole, history, the present – the world.’
In the introduction to ‘Migritude’, Vijay Prashad writes:
‘I came to Shailja Patel’s Migritude joyously, embraced by the first few lines about the teardrop in Babylon. The embrace didn’t falter. The words held me. They are a song.’
I, too, did not deviate from that first embrace.
One has great expectations from a text which begins with such poetic imagination as ‘It began as a teardrop in Babylon.’ My mind flew to all the teardrops shed from the dignities stolen by imperialism, injustice and hate, the indignities endured in exile, the collusion of global capital and imperialism in the political and socio-economic tyrannies which force us to flee our homelands.
We see this as I write, with the murder of Ugandan LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activist David Kato and South African lesbians and transgendered women and men who are being raped and murdered because of their sexuality and gender identity; with the women of Congo, many of whom face rape and other terrible acts of violence every day; with the people of Egypt who are demanding freedom from the tyranny of Mubarak and his US/Israeli allies; with the millions of people of colour, who dare to cross borders and face constant hostility in the US, Germany and the UK; with the surviving indigenous peoples of America whose lives are impoverished and history erased with whiteness.
Through her own life journey and mixing prose and poetry, Shailja’s ‘Migritude’ exposes and shares the tears of history, merging personal stories with reflections on violence, colonisation and migrant journeys which flow horizontally and vertically, through the lives of women.
It is best I start at the beginning and go with my feelings, which are not linear but bounce around, moving between sadness, joy, anger, hope, irony, knowing and not knowing.
‘Migritude’ is a gift, but not a gift on a plate. Rather, it is poetry woven with performance which requires imagination. And this is one of the many gifts of ‘Migritude’ – we get to expand and explore our imaginations. And we learn. It’s about how we imagine ourselves, our histories, our political journeys. It is also about facts, facts of our histories which we are never told and facts of the politics of empires and post/neo-empires which are full of deception and exploitation.
‘Migritude’ has many beginnings. The first is in the sixth century BCE and the first depiction of the motif Ambi in Central Asia which, on the arrival of barbarian imperialism, is later stolen by Scottish weavers of the small village of Paisley. Ambi becomes Paisley, Mosuleen becomes Muslin, Kashmiri becomes Cashmere and Chai becomes ‘a beverage invented in California’.
Later, in 800 AD, there is the beginning of the relationship between Africa, Arabia and Asia, brought about by ‘flourishing’ trade and travel between the peoples of these regions.
Another beginning is the gift of her wedding trousseau. Shailja’s mother had been collecting saris and jewellery for the day Shailja would get married. It wasn’t happening so she gave up, broke tradition and offered her daughter the gift of a red suitcase full of exquisitely beautiful saris, an act which Shailja interprets as recognition of her chosen path as equally worthy of that of her sisters’ marriage, an act of feminism and the knowledge that one has the power to change the way things are, an act which would lead to the performance of ‘Migritude’.
So I imagine I am lying down, half-struggling to extricate myself from the red, gold, green and turquoise blue saris with which Shailja performs to break the silence of violence, violation, rape, war, indignity, empire. The other half of me struggles to cocoon and protect myself in their softness.
The book is roughly divided into three parts. The first is ‘Migritude’, which was ‘created dangerously’ to ‘reclaim and celebrate outsider status’ and to ‘tell the invisible stories of empire war colonialism, the impact on those that are on the receiving end of these global forces’. It tells of Shailja’s parents and their personal uncompromising struggle to ensure their three daughters have the gift of education; the Maasai and Samburu women in Kenya who were raped systematically for 35 years by British soldiers stationed on their land; the women of Iraq and Afghanistan – abducted, vanished, killed; the indignities unleashed by border patrols on people of colour.
The second part, ‘The Shadow’, is the story of Shailja’s ‘creative journey’ and the making of ‘Migritude’ a ‘behind the scenes and after the fact, vinaigrette of memories and associations’. Here she tells of her discovery of the origins of Paisley in ancient Babylon, which forged her to engage with complex and multiple migrations.
Similarly, history as told by the empire is full of half-truths and erasure, such as Idi Amin being a guard in the Kings African Rifles which were used to quell the Kenyan Mau Mau uprisings and from which he learned to torture from Britain’s finest; that Britain, Israel and the US sponsored the coup which brought him to power and unleashed terror on millions; and love, which in the Western context is often reduced to the banal by repetitious words and expressions. Following a performance in Genoa, Italy, Shailja learns from a member of the audience that during his childhood in rural Italy, life was so harsh that parents dared only kiss their children when the were sleeping, because any affection when they were awake might weaken their ability to survive.
The third and final section is devoted to poetry, Shailja’s journey from poet to performer and, most importantly, for her work as an activist, her personal shift from ‘self-protected silence to political expression’. As Shailja learns, yes, you can run in a sari!
I end with another quote from the cover of ‘Migritude’ which captures both the beauty of this poetic masterpiece and its explicit call to action.
‘Migritude is poetry as documentary. It is non-fiction as testimony. It is authorship as survival. Of course Migritude defies categorization – the best art always does.’ Raj Patel
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* Shailja Patel is a Kenyan playwright, poet, performer and activist. 'Migritude' is published by Kaya Press.
* Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks.
* This review was first published by New Internationalist.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
 Taken from ‘Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work’ by Edwidge Danticat.
 An interview with Shailja Patel by Preeti Mangala Shekar of the Women’s Magazine.