Written by Katelyn Connolly
Migritude is a text obsessed with movement. The content of Shailja Patel’s striking work of poetic theatre, first staged in 2006 and published in book form in 2010, is a meditation on the history, politics, and emotion of migration. Her story moves across Africa, Europe. and North America. Its form is an exercise in the fluidity of style, genre and narrative voice. In performance, it calls upon dance and choreography to drive home spoken word. And the text itself came to me and passed from my hands in a remarkably diffusive manner. My friend read Migritude for a class called “Reading Resistance” at a college in Portland; she mailed it to me because she knew of my interest in memoir and witness; I passed it along to my old roommate here in Austin because her family are Gujarati emigrants, like Patel’s own. Each of us reads for a different reason, and the text continues to move physically across land and through new lenses of meaning.
But Migritude isn’t only about movement. It is also about power. Power as wielded by colonizers to enact violence on the bodies and minds of the colonized, and the power of art to resist. Patel grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, in a community of Asian Africans that often lived as outsiders during periods of intense nationalism in Kenya and Uganda. She delves deep into the history of this political impulse, exposing how British and American military interventions armed the soldiers and installed the dictators that created these regimes. Traveling just a few years farther into the past, Patel uncovers a glossed-over history of Kenyan independence that she only learned recently. A section early in the play juxtaposes “the history we read in school” with “the history we didn’t read…the oral testimonies of women survivors” of British concentration camps and abusive imperial soldiers. At its core, Migritude is anti-colonialist and anti-white supremacist, replacing the history that has been canonized by Western institutions with the voices of black and brown people and the stories of communities displaced by imperialism. Just as Aimé Césaire’s concept of négritude seeks to affirm black history and culture in a context of colonization by white people, Patel’s migritude looks towards a world where the consciousnesses and experiences of migrants are legitimized.
The text’s refusal to be categorized by genre is itself an act of resistance. Traditional autobiography, established poetic styles and accessible, marketable drama all carry the baggage of Western epistemic dominance. Yet the very language used to describe Migritude demonstrates the combative nature of this text, which exists outside the boundaries of what is historically deemed acceptable for entry into the canon. Migritude does not transcend genre, it defies genre; it is not just personal, it is political. There is agency apparent in every choice Patel makes. Though she may have been acted upon by colonial forces during parts of the story she tells, she is never passive in her role as storyteller.
Migritude also impacts the reader/listener/viewer when it assumes the role of family memoir. The concept for the entire project was inspired by Patel’s “suitcase full of saris,” gifted to her by her mother as a sort of dowry before she ever even married. The saris reference Patel’s other country of heritage: India, the land of her ancestors, was another landmass colonized relentlessly by the British. Patel recognizes a trauma playing out over many generations of her family history. The saris also represent her parents’ sacrifices to guarantee a good education for her and her two sisters—the sacrifices that allowed Patel to become an artist, though her parents’ hands were weathered with labor. The poem “Shilling Love” describes all the ways her parents proved their love to their children, though “they never say / they love us.” And in a series of vignettes written in her mother’s voice, Patel seems to be thanking her even while she displays the conflicts they endured throughout her childhood and adolescence. Some of the most powerful pieces in the book feature her parents, because that is where love mingles most fully with political rage.
Patel notes in interviews that poetry is not change, but perhaps could inspire it. The poetry of Migritude is important reading for anyone interested in the movement of language towards action.