|Interview by David Wesonga and Ogova Ondego
Published July 16, 2007
|Shailja Patel performs Migritude in Vienna, Austria
Poetry, to most people, is a drab, abstract form of writing reserved to a few eccentrics. But this view may hold true only before one watches Shailja Patel, a spoken word artist, bringing poetry to life on stage.
Patel has just staged Migritude which she describes as an epic journey in four movements, in Nairobi and Mombasa. Written, produced and performed by Patel under the creative direction of Kim Cook, the performance was charged with energy and brought out the acting prowess in Patel who describes herself as “geographically, politically and nationally African” as “I have never been to India”. She speaks to DAVID WESONGA and OGOVA ONDEGO on her art, heritage and global citizenship.
You recently premiered a performance in Kenya referred to as Migritude. What is it and how has it been received?
Migritude is a 90-minute spoken word theatre show. It uses the historical stories that have been passed on to me by my mother to uncover the facts we don’t know of colonialism and imperialism in Kenya and in India. It also tracks the history and experience of the south Asian Diaspora, of Indians.
Was your mother a poet, too?
My mother could have been a poet. She was very much a story teller and I guess that is where I get the urge to tell stories.
Where else has Migritude been performed apart from Kenya?
It had its world premiere in the San Francisco Bay Area before going to Vienna, Zanzibar and Italy.
Why do you refer to Migritude as a journey? What inspires you to do it?
Migritude is a journey because the very word draws from three roots: migrant, attitude and Negritude. Negritude was the renaissance of the 1960s that reclaimed and celebrated African culture, and black culture.
Migritude is about reclaiming and celebrating the migrant experience. The making of the work draws from this idea of journeys, of travels, of Diaspora which could be either forced or voluntary across the globe in the 20th century. The making of the work has been very much a journey for me; a creative, political and artistic journey into reclaiming myself as a Kenyan and contemporary African artist.
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What is your take on pan-Africanism that Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi is championing?
Greater unity in Africa and the consolidation of political, economic and social power of the African continent could benefit all Africans. However it is unclear how a United States of Africa would benefit the majority of the people on this continent if they didn’t organise their own lines of leadership distribution, rather than just consolidating the existing power structures across the continent.
Say something about your background.
I was born and raised in Kenya. I am a third generation East African of Indian Gujarati heritage. My grand parents migrated to East Africa from the Indian sub continent. My father was born and raised on Pemba Island. My mother was from Mombasa. I grew up in Nairobi where I attended Hospital Hill Primary School and Loreto Convent, Msongari.
You have talked of fusing Asian and African elements in your poems. How do you do it?
Usually I don’t use the terms “Asian” and “African” because I found that we still have this mental barrier in Kenya where we define anything that originates from brown East Africans as Indian or Asian and anything that comes from black East Africans as African. If you look at the history of Africans, there have been Indian influences on the continent for over two thousand years. If you go to the Swahili coast, you will see that the food, the clothing, the culture, and the music draws elements of migrations from the Indian sub continent, the Gulf and Arabia, and northern Africa. So contemporary East African culture is a fusion of the heritage and the successive migration of Bantu, Nilotic, Hermitic, Arabic and Indian people. And to me it is not useful to separate them like this is “Asian”, “African”, “southern African” or “northern African”. It is much more useful to say this is contemporary East African culture.
I was born and raised in Africa. I consider myself an African. I have never been to India. Geographically, nationally, politically, I locate myself in Africa. To me there is nothing surprising about my work being African and also drawing on most cultures that make up contemporary East Africa. For example, some of the soundtracks we use in Migritude are from Burundi, India, Afro-Asian Hip hop in Canada and in North America. I think that there is a generation of artists, of young contemporary Africans who refuse to be “ghettorrised” and told you are an artist from this part of the world, so you should only make works that reflect that part of the world. We are all global citizens, who grew up ingesting arts from traditional dances to Madonna, to break-dance, hip-hop, and as global citizens and conveners and participants in global culture, we are also making a culture that reflects that universality.
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Your performances have so much energy, especially with the fusing of colours. How do you manage to get to appeal to senses in such a short poetic oratory?
The energy comes from being passionate about what I do. To be an artist and to be making art outside the mainstream, art that is not commercial, and that is challenging and groundbreaking, it has to be your central purpose in life. I give credit to my director, Kim Cook, for the fusion of the creative elements. She has also been much a collaborator, a part of the creation of Migritude. She specialises in making innovative works with individual artists who have something to say but don’t necessarily know the right form in which they want to take it on stage.
|Shailja Patels arranging saris from her traveller’s suitcase during the staging of Migritude
Say something about your heritage in relation to the works of art you create.
First I would say the most powerful element of that cultural heritage is that I am a Kenyan of the post-independence generation. And I think there is a particular way that all of us who were born and educated in Kenya after independence were very strongly influenced first by what we were taught and by what we were not taught about the history of our country. So a huge part of my work is about excavating the history that was not taught in school: the real history of the Mau Mau, betrayals of independence, post-independence oppression, the Jomo Kenyatta regime, the consolidation of power under one party, and the successive layers of state power that destroyed political plurality.
What do you tackle in your poems?
The first piece of Migritude tackles the impact of the empire of colonialism and imperialism, particularly on women. I talk about the testimonies of women survivors of the British concentration camps during the Mau Mau years and the ways in which they were tortured and imprisoned. I also talk about Maasai and Samburu women in northern and central Kenya who were raped and terrorised by the British military. The central themes in my work are the ways in which war, imperialism, militarism and capitalism impact women directly and ways in which women reclaim their voices and bodies to fight back.
The spoken word performance is beginning to take its place in Kenya. What do you attribute this to?
First I think it was a fire waiting to be lit. When we hosted the first poetry slam at Club Soundd in Nairobi in 2005, the response was so huge it was clear that Kenyans had been hungry for a long time for a form of creative self expression that was accessible, that was fun, that was immediate, that was powerful, that anybody could do, and there are thousands of young Kenyans who have been waiting for a platform to express themselves creatively and they just needed a space and a form that permitted them to do it.
Caroline Nderitu may be considered a leading performance poet in Nairobi. Have you ever worked with her?
No. Caroline Nderitu has certainly done a tremendous job in bringing poetry to the public consciousness in Kenya. I look forward to the day I will sit down and have a conversation with her.
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Critics have dismissed Nderitu’s poetry as not being serious work of art. What do you think of her works?
I have tremendous respect for anybody who has the courage to express themselves and to create a body of work and to put it out to the world like Caroline Nderitu has. It is not my job to criticise the work of others but to support them and make my own work. There is room across the whole spectrum for all works in Kenya. The model of criticism that says we should not be hearing this form of work on this subject really impoverishes us.
Any one who says Caroline Nderitu should be writing about other topics should write about such topics themselves. Making films, making arts about those topics and any artist has a right to choose their own subject matter and their job is to be true to that subject matter.
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Some of your works border on mime and stage acts; do you set out to mime or is this just part of your stage presence?
That is some of the aspect of performance which I fuse in my recitals but not just miming as a separate art.
Critics say your works have more to do with the Diaspora than the real issues back home. That you are a voice from the Diaspora for the Diaspora. What do you say about this?
I think that is the one way to describe my work and I think it is something that is valuable, just beginning to recognise the impact of voices from the Diaspora in contemporary African art. I think it is also important to recognise that the Diaspora is not something separate from what is going on in Africa. Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been based in the US for many years yet he is still central to the Kenyan literary scene. So the word Diaspora needs to be understood as an expansion and extension rather than a classification of “you are on the continent” or “you are in the Diaspora”.
Some of the concerns raised in your poem border on female issues. What is your take on the spoken verses, “Vagina monologues,” by Eve Ensler?
Vagina Monologues has done quite a useful job around the world in breaking the silence around women’s bodies and empowering many women to talk honestly about their bodies. I have a problem with the model of Vagina Monologues where the writer takes the voices of all women and puts them on stage and creates a script. The basic model of Vagina Monologues is that it has to be done unscripted all around the world rather than allowing women to write their own experiences. That is not the model of work I subscribe to. The platform from which I make work is larger to let everybody to claim their own voices rather than claiming to speak for them. I don’t feel that imposing a script of American women’s voices on women around the world is more powerful than it would be to hear about Kenyan and Ugandan women writing about their own vaginas and bodies.
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What do you think is the major undoing for poetry in East Africa?
The largest challenge to poetry and indeed to any form of art is the economic extremity that most people face. When I was growing up and wanted to be a poet and a writer, I was told I could not make a living as a poet or writer and that I should have a profession to put food on the table. There is little time and space for people to enjoy or create art because the business of survival is so demanding and does not leave the imaginative space where people can see art as something enjoyable. We have to feed the body before we feed the soul.
Publishers refuse to sanction works like poems on the grounds that they don’t sell. How commercially viable is poetry in the written form?
The model on which books have been published and distributed is outdated. In our current economy and technological world, we don’t need somebody else to publish our work. You can type up your own work, design your own cover, and print and sell your own books and make a profit. So I would advocate for artists to publish their own work and become their own publishers, and distributors instead of relying on the idea that another person has to publish, promote and distribute your work.
You seem not to be averse to using obscene and four letter words that many Africans find offensive. John Sibi-Okumu brought this to your attention during your Nairobi performance of Migritude.
To me the real obscenities in the world are poverty and violence that both surround and are normalised in Kenya. We’ve normalised the fact that there are beheadings going on in Mathare, we’ve normalised the level of horrific sexual violence against women where every thirty minutes in Kenya a woman is raped. And yet it doesn’t shock us and horrify us is that our children are growing up in that world but we try to protect them from honest language about the body. That to me is hypocrisy and denial. And to me if we are to protect our children from obscenities, then we need to create a world where they are not exposed on a daily basis to poverty and violence.
What don’t you address in your poetry?
There is obviously a huge amount of issues in the universe that I haven’t tackled yet but I hope I will have another 30 or 40 years to address them. There are things like pop culture that don’t really interest me. I don’t really address pop culture.
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Why are you in art and not the field of finance in which you worked previously in London? Would it be accurate for any one to describe you as a failed corporate player masquerading as a poet?
I have always had a passion for words and justice. And to communicate through words of vision, the world that I want to live in and that has always been my central calling. I was not in any way at home in the world of finance or in the corporate world which was completely at odds with my values and the way I wanted to live.
I think it would be very fair for them to call me a corporate failure because I was absolutely a failure in the corporate world. I have no problem being called a failure in that world. I address that in one specific piece of Migritude: how as migrants we paint a picture of how successful we are in what is seen as how we define mainstream success, i.e. somebody should be making lots of money.
As for ‘Masquerading as an artist’, I try not to identify too much with labels. I try to focus on just doing the work and let others find the labels that fit it.
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What do your parents and sisters think of your work as a poet?
I think my parents still have an element of fear and uncertainty about what I am doing or whether they should provide me with security. They are also of the generation that has a lot of fear around their children speaking openly about politics, about some of the topics that I address. So they worry about my personal safety and the consequence of some of the things that I am saying. I think the family of any artist is a little bit uncomfortable with what they put out to the world because being an artist means often putting out things and saying things that are uncomfortable and laying out family secrets. My two sisters have actually been incredibly supportive.
What, so far, do you consider to be your achievements as an artist?
I think it is good not to identify commercial success or even external acclaim with your own true gauge of the quality of your work. At the end of the day it is only you who knows whether you have succeeded in what you set out to do. Capturing what you wanted to say and capturing it in truth, in beauty and in power. My true achievement is when I feel I’ve really spoken in any performance with integrity and I have communicated to someone and I have touched them and moved them.
What are your failures or regrets?
There are always regrets and failures. But my director is very good at telling me that there are no mistakes and there are no failures; that there are only discoveries. I think that is a valuable approach to take. So when you start calling me a failure, then you are making judgment. So if you treat everything as a discovery and as the next step of the journey then you keep growing. My greatest regret is all those times I didn’t speak out of fear against political issues.
If you had it to do over again, how different would you live?
I would trust my voice as a child, I would begin believing like I did at the age of 12 that I could be a poet and that I could be an artist and pursue that with single-minded determination.
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Why do you think black East Africans appear hostile to Asians?
The root cause has always been scarce resources and capitalism which the supporters of capitalism use to create scarcity of resources and then create competition for those resources then the most powerful people can profit.
Despite European colonialism and oppression, black Kenyans and Ugandans, for example, are not hostile to them as they are to Asians. Why do you think this is so?
The divisions that we should be looking at are divisions of class and economic resources.
Why do Asians in Kenya appear to be aloof, isolated and only buried in their own world?
I would challenge the statement that brown East Africans hold themselves aloof because there is actually a long history of economic and social integration of peoples in East Africa. There are communities who are descendants of intermarriages between Indians and the local communities. Brown people in East Africa were key in the founding of the modern trade movement. Just as there was a huge number of black Africans activists, politicians, writers and authors who fought against increasing totalitarianism and who were silenced, tortured or killed, so also there was a whole group of Asian radicals and activists who rejected single party rule. Some, like Pio Gama Pinto, were assassinated while others were detained without trial.
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When her “Africanness” was questioned during the launch of African Woman magazine in May 2007, former Miss India Kenya Pinky Ghelani vigorously defended herself saying she was born, raised, attended school in Kenya and holds a Kenyan passport besides representing Kenya as a judge abroad.
Kamlesh Pattni of the Goldenberg infamy, too, has argued that he was born in Kenya, attended Kenyan schools and drank same water like the rest of Kenyans when his “Kenyanness” was questioned when he announced his foray into politics.
Across the border in Uganda, a group of Asian community leaders met President Yoweri Museveni and requested that the country recognises them as one of the “tribes of Uganda” in order to have all the rights of citizenship following protests by black Ugandans over Museveni’s allocation of a section of Mabira Forest to an Asian family for use as a sugar plantation.
What would it take for Asians who you say have been in Africa for more than 2000 years to become “African”?
Having more conversations and having them more openly and beginning to talk to each other instead of talking about each other is what it will take to challenge and examine our own prejudices, fears, and ignorance of other communities.
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What can black Kenyans learn from the Asian joint family concept that is both a source of strength and restriction?
The one thing that brown and black people in Africa have in common is actually the extended family. And I guess there is little difference between the extended family in Indian and the African community.
I think it is absolutely true that any one who has a strong family network is going to have more choices as opposed to the other.
I think where strong families have managed to survive is where they have been able to basically use the resources of capitalism to their advantage.
Are joint families still as important in Asian community as before?
There is no such thing as a monolithic community in Kenya called the Asians. There are brown people of all economic classes, of different statures, hierarchy, of different histories, and some of them have strong family networks while some of them don’t. For example I have been brought up in a nuclear family and have never been in contact with either of my grandparents. They died when I was quite young. I lived in a home with my two parents and my two sisters. There was no joint business with family members; my father was an individual entrepreneur who worked very hard to start his business and run it single-handedly for over thirty years.
All pictures courtesy of Shailja Patel