A conversation with Shailja Patel
CNN calls Shailja Patel ‘the people-centered face of globalisation’. Her publishing debut, Migritude, based on her acclaimed one-woman show, was an Amazon poetry bestseller, a Seattle Times bestseller and was shortlisted for Italy’s Camaiore Prize. Migritude is taught in over fifty colleges and universities worldwide.
Patel’s poems have been translated into sixteen languages. Her essays appear in Le Monde Diplomatique, The New Inquiry, Internazionale and Counterpunch among others. Honours include a Sundance Theatre Fellowship, a Voices of Our Nations poetry award, the Fanny-Ann Eddy Poetry Award and the Nordic Africa Institute African Writer Fellowship.
Patel is a founding member of Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice, a civil society coalition which works for an equitable democracy in Kenya. The African Women’s Development Fund named her one of fifty inspirational African feminists, ELLE India magazine selected her as one of its twenty-five New Guard Influencers and Poetry Africa honoured her as Letters to Dennis Poet, continuing the legacy of renowned anti-apartheid activist poet Dennis Brutus. She represented Kenya at the London Cultural Olympiad’s Poetry Parnassus in 2012. Her work currently features in the Smithsonian Museum’s groundbreaking ‘Beyond Bollywood’ exhibition.
This conversation took place via Google Chat during a hot Nairobi afternoon and a wintry New York morning.
Shailja Patel: Thanks for the piercing meditation on Baga. It gave many of us words that we were lost for.
Emmanuel Iduma: Thank you. I have been thinking about your use of ‘unworded’ in response to the essay.
SP: That’s a good place to start. I’ve been thinking about the point – or pointlessness – of words in unwording times. Annie Dillard writes ‘what would you say to a dying person that would not enrage in its triviality?’ What can an African writer say about Baga? Or say to the survivors of Baga that wouldn’t make them spit? How do we make sense of this unimaginable, unbearable thing that has happened? ‘Never again’ is useless. ‘Blacklivesmatter’ is useless.
EI: I think you’re asking: what can words do?
SP: And what are words good for?
EI: I think writing is fundamentally an act of traversing emptiness, of attempting to bridge distance. Maybe this is how we begin to imagine our work in these unwording times. That is, how can writing bring us closer to the dying happening around us?
SP: Keguro Macharia teaches me about form as a container for feeling. Words as ritual: a formal structure for grief.
EI: Keguro’s words are ‘ethical imagination’ and, of course, Yvonne Owuor uses those words too. I spent the last three months trying to figure out what that meant.
SP: Your Baga piece threw out lines of connection across the severing that violence creates. We retreat into the self-protective numbness of trauma. Someone has to speak to restore community. Audre Lorde asks: how much of this truth can I see and still live unblinded? How much of this pain can I use?
EI: The genocidal scale of violence today, especially because it’s reported in real time, is designed to make us numb, to make us merely observers. My faith in writing as a way to un-numb (if I may use that word) has never been stronger. It’s a question of urgency, isn’t it? What matters to me right now? What affirms my life and that of others?
SP: Un-numbing by activating the ethical imagination was the heart of the ICC Witness project — poems by Kenyan writers on the post-election violence in 2007-8. And today, Kenya has just passed the Security Act, which makes that kind of witnessing a potential crime. I’m thinking deeply about writing that imagines and nurtures ethical life — life-affirming writing, writing against the splitting and dehumanisation that surrounds us. And how to do it in a way that honours the dead, does not deny the atrocities.
EI: Do you ever feel that the word ‘activist’ is not enough to describe your impulses as a writer?
SP: I was trained as a political economist and my first career was in finance. It’s impossible for me to write without considering relationships of power, silenced histories and resource flows. I bring the entirety of what I know to everything I write — from love poems to a riff on sugar. ‘Activist’ as it’s used in Kenya is inadequate for me because it’s come to be associated only with spectacle — bodies on the streets pitting themselves against the violence of the militarised neoliberal state. Activism defined in this way erases reproductive labour, life-nurturing labour, intellectual labour. In this space, I write to enlarge and complicate that macho narrative. I amplify and valorise the care economies that sustain and repair the bodies on the street, suture the wounds and regenerate the worlds destroyed by warfare.
EI: An activist but also a poet, yes. Returning to ‘form as a container for feeling’ I imagine that, as a poet, you might treat words as objects?
SP: Not sure what you mean. Unpack ‘words as objects’ please?
EI: Well, I was thinking about when you wrote ‘earning the meaning of words’. This earning seems to me like a physical act. And, because you were writing about your saris, writing through them so to speak, do the words become physical?
SP: ‘Before you claim a word … you have to earn its meaning’ has to do with the materialism of words. Words as matter. The concept of personal and communal honour that lies in keeping your word; your word being ‘good’ — meaning solid, trustworthy, a promise that can be counted on. Walking your talk. As a writer, I believe fiercely in the integrity of words — I don’t use words like ‘love’ or ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ lightly. The saris in Migritude as word materialised — yes. They are the circulation of global capital, of histories erased. And in the making of the show, I also experienced them as generative — tellers of stories, texts in themselves, palimpsests of art, weaving, culture, trade, Empire.
EI: Is ‘migritude’ a word you should use with integrity?
SP: Ha. Hoist with my own petard [smiles]. What comes up for me is this question you sent me earlier: ‘I’m thinking of an Adrienne Rich poem in which she writes, “I’m standing in your poem, unsatisfied … ” In some way I had a similar feeling reading Migritude — as if I was being told that the ‘condition of migration’ in today’s world cannot be resolved’. What I mean by the integrity of a word draws on Alice Fulton’spoetics of inconvenient knowledge. In order to claim a word and use it with integrity, you have to see everything it includes, even those things that cause you critical discomfort. You can’t talk of ‘justice’ selectively. Or ‘truth’ that erases anything that troubles your narrative.
EI: Certainly. Vilem Flusser says that a word must be considered in its ontological and etymological senses. What is the history of the word, yes, but how does it operate in the world.
SP: To use the word ‘migritude’ with integrity, you have to embrace the inconvenient knowledge that the state of migrancy can befall anyone on the planet at any time. Anyone can be displaced by climate crisis, financial and political crisis, gentrification, war, natural disaster … we are all past, present or potential migrants. When I put this to interviewers or audiences who think of themselves as secure and dominant, I see them instantly squirm and try to deny that they could ever be ‘those people’.
EI: I’ve always thought that migration sometimes begins with an impulse. In many cases (and travelling across a migrant route last summer confirmed this for me) a migrant has no time to explain the reasons for moving. It’s sudden, imperative.
SP: But we must remember that many peoples have always been nomadic. I’ve begun to realise how ignorant I am of these histories. The construction of African nation states with borders, for example, are a form of violence against pastoralists. ‘Development’ in post-independence Africa is a war on nomadic peoples and a grabbing of their commons. Sandile Dikeni reminds us that the nation state is an eighteenth-century European construct. Its primary function on the African continent is to enable ethnicised elites to capture resources.
EI: I’m irritated by the fact that it’s okay to say ‘flaneur’ in Europe, but when you come to Africa the idling pedestrian becomes a ‘loiterer’.
SP: In Nairobi, it’s a crime to sit on the streets. Idling is criminalised. Bodies simply occupying space, rather than generating profit, are suspect.
EI: But also, with the new nation-states, new empires have arisen. Do you think it’s equally important to speak against these new hegemonies?
SP: I don’t see new empires so much as Empire repeating and refining itself, with ever more sophisticated killing technologies. It’s amazing how resistant the world is to seeing and thinking about Empire. I get empiresplained ALL the time by those who are disturbed that I keep calling attention to disposable people.
EI: There’s a terrible complicity that occurs with comfort, in any way. Once you can successfully imagine that you’re distant from all the troubles of the world, you begin to think people declaiming empire are wasting their time.
SP: You have to persuade yourself that it’s unquestionably necessary for others to be sacrificed for your comfort. At a distance, of course. You yourself wouldn’t torch someone’s home to secure your personal supply of electricity or petrol, but you’re OK with Shell or the World Bank doing it on your behalf. Seeing is labour. Thinking through alternative ways to share the world is labour.
EI: I wonder, at times like this, if metaphor isn’t the most useful way to speak directly. Is this why you write poetry, to speak to multiple concerns in one poem?
SP: Poetry is where metaphor comes into its own. But I find myself in these days impatient with having to nudge people into awareness of other lives, other realities outside their own, through skillful deployment of language. It seems axiomatic to me that satire for example, should not mock the oppressed. That if your cartoon kicks those who are already kicked every day of their lives, you’re not an edgy artist, you’re a bully and an asshole.
EI: As Keguro Macharia wrote, ‘I don’t understand the idea that writers should defend the right to offend.’
SP: Exactly. So to have to court the imagination of the comfortable, to seduce the privileged with image and story, into simply seeing the Other as human — it enrages me.
EI: And I believe this was at the heart of Migritude.
SP: The courting? Or the rage?
EI: The courting.
SP: Maybe the next book needs to be undiluted rage.
EI: The next book! What are you working on now?
SP: Uh-oh. I wasn’t going to mention the next book. I’m wrestling hard with it right now. History keeps happening in real time – so inconsiderate – and the political and human emergencies of the moment take priority. When I return to the manuscript, they force me to expand its scope. The book explores constructions of race, masculinity and nationhood.
EI: How would you know when to stop?
SP: That’s exactly the problem. My friend Jeff Chang says: at some point you have to make peace with not knowing enough and just go for it. I haven’t made that peace yet.
EI: That’s so hard. I’m quite interested in knowing if you think there’s a space carved out for ‘East African Asians’ today that didn’t exist before?
SP: I don’t think in terms of ‘East African Asians’. It’s ahistoric, given the 2,000 year history of Indian Ocean migrations. It’s othering and balkanising in a time when we’re all being forced into tribal enclaves in Kenya. I’ve said elsewhere: ‘There are only three tribes in Kenya. The Haves. The Wanna-Haves. And the Have-Them-Removed.’
EI: Understandably. Would you use ‘migritude’ to describe any identity in Kenya?
SP: We still have half-a-million people internally displaced by the post-election violence of 2007-8 and the political clashes of the preceding decades. Entire communities are being violently evicted from their lands at the Coast. Indigenous peoples being burned out of their homes in the forests of Central Kenya by the World Bank and land-grabbing politicians. Last year, we saw the ethnic cleansing of Kenya’s Somali community — over one million people.
EI: Your book is at once an autobiography, a prose-poem, a memoir and an account of the artistic process. Was it strange – maybe even incongruent – to work on a book like this?
SP: It was a demanding exercise in finding the form to fit the content, which was originally created for theatre. I was fortunate to have a visionary editor – Sunyoung Lee of Kaya Press – who saw a book that embedded the performance script into a larger multi-part narrative. The content shapes the form.
EI: I’m also thinking about the poignant authority of your voice. You’re making declarations, almost as if you’re looking squarely at all the terrible immoralities of empire. And I wonder, how did you build up so much boldness?
SP: A childhood spent taking on bullies who were bigger than me — and losing most of the time. Growing up I was always an outlier and I got comfortable with being unpopular. I return to that principle of personal honour, which, for me, is fidelity to truth and justice.I’d much rather be at odds with power than out of integrity with myself. The systems I interrogate are simply larger bullies. Capitalism is the planetary uber-bully.
EI: I remember reading that you preferred to be called ‘a brown Kenyan’. I don’t know how comfortable you are with talking about this, but did writing Migritude cast a special light on that identity for you?
SP: Actually, I prefer to be called Kenyan without qualifiers. ‘Brown Kenyan’ is my corrective to the factual error of describing brown people on the African continent as ‘Indian’. I find the ethnicity qualifier, like the gender or sexuality qualifier, always has an agenda to marginalise. Minority writers are assumed to be writing about identity; women writers are told their subject matter is gender; queer writers are asked about sexuality but the writing of straight hegemonic men is taken to represent the universal human condition. So Philip Roth, for example, who writes about his penis, is an ‘American writer’ while Toni Morrison, who writes about the foundational histories and ideologies of the USA, is a ‘black woman writer’. If it’s important to identify me by ethnicity, then it’s equally important to describe Ngugi wa Thiong’o as a Gikuyu-American Kenyan, Binyavanga as a Tutsi-Ugandan-Gikuyu Kenyan, Chimamanda as an Igbo Nigerian, Soyinka as a Yoruba Nigerian and so on.
EI: Do you wish there were more writers dealing with text-for-theatre? I mean writers writing on the African continent?
SP: I don’t see a paucity. There are many African spaces nurturing writing for stage – Sundance East Africa, theatre festivals across the continent – and some amazing voices feeding those spaces, and also writing for radio, TV and cinema.
EI: That’s comforting to learn.
SP: The problem I see is not a shortage of new writing for stage. It’s the failure of African states to create viable performing arts sectors that offer sustainable livelihoods to cultural workers. We need infrastructures that develop, produce and tour new work by local writers on equitable terms. Lupita’s success in Hollywood is a matter of national pride, but Kenyan actors and playwrights fight a constant losing battle to get paid to make work in Kenya. It reinforces a culture where serious arts careers are only possible for the children of the wealthy.