Given the sheer number of books that arrive in the mailbox, I rarely pick up a title and start reading immediately. But something about Migritude (debuting from fabulous indie publisher Kaya Press: ‘Smokin’ Hot Books’!!) demanded ‘read me NOW!’ Once opened, I could hardly put it down.
Shailja Patel defies easy check-it boxes. She’s not quite African because even after multiple generations in Kenya where she was born and raised, ‘brown’ people can’t feel safe as they watch their Ugandan neighbors violently expelled during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. She’s not at all Indian as she’s never lived there in spite of Gujarati relatives. She’s definitely not British in spite of her UK college education. And she’s not quite American as real Americans are never made to wait a frightening four hours for parents to emerge through customs after they have been held without cause.
Her artist’s life, too, is not easily defined. She’s a poet, storyteller, performance artist, activist … and her first book reflects her hybrid, morphing creativity: “A battered red suitcase holds my trousseau – 18 saris collected by my mother, to give to me when I married,” Patel begins. “Migritude is the mantra that unlocks the suitcase, releases the stories.” She’s a peripatetic migrant with attitude to spare … welcome to Patel’s unique Migritude.
Those once hidden stories debuted to live audiences in 2006 and became a globe-trotting performance that combines the price of colonial history, family chronicles, mother/daughter exchanges, personal journey, and voices of women from around the world who dared speak out. From the imperialist commodification of Kashmiri into cashmere, mosuleen into muslin, ambi into paisley, the rebirth of chai as “a beverage invented in California,” Patel breaks open violent, destructive history, both distant and far too near.
To her performance recorded in ink and paper comprising the book’s first quarter, Patel adds a companion “Shadow Book,” which she describes as “an extended debrief with an old friend: an accounting of behind-the-scenes and after-the-fact stories, memories, and associations … to illuminate Migritude by offering context.”
In the third section, Patel includes the “poems [that] are the soil in which Migritude germinated” – from “What We Keep” that gives voice to a fragile elderly aunt teaching her to make “good puris,” to “Eater of Death” in which a desperate Afghani mother mourns her husband and seven children murdered by American bombs.
In the final, shortest section, Patel includes an “idiosyncratic” chronology of political and personal history, and ends with two interviews because “[a] good interview, like a good poem, throws up surprises and discoveries for its participant as well as for its readers.”
Lucky readers are certainly in for ‘surprises and discoveries’ here. Close the book and your first reaction most likely will be ‘I WANT TO SEE!’ Stay tuned: her skeletal website as of this writing is still under construction, but surely a tour schedule will be included … see you at the theater!