Shailja Patel

Poet, theater artist, and activist
 Sailja Patel

Photo by Heather Lewis

Music Credits:  excerpts of Flux Bikes performing “Day Ride” from their album, Flux Bikes. Used courtesy of Free Music Archive.


Shailja Patel:  There is a reason that people seek out poetry, even if they’ve never read a poem in their lives, even if they think poetry is something totally esoteric or trivial or irrelevant. In the most powerful moments of our lives, in moments of love, passion, birth, death, marriage, all the great rituals of our lives, suddenly people want poetry.  Nobody has ever read a financial statement at a funeral. Nobody has ever read a political essay at a wedding. So, some part of us really knows that poetry has this incantatory value, this ability to create a kind of power and feeling that is a mystery in some ways, but that is the magic of poetry. 

Jo Reed: That is poet, playwright, performer and activist Shailja Patel. She is the author of Migritude and this is Art works the weekly produced by the national Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

With Migritude, Shaila Patel has created a 90 minute spoken-word tour de force. Migritude explores themes of heritage, war, liberation and, of course, migration. Shailja Patel was born and raised in Kenya to a family of Indian heritage. Her trousseau of saris, passed down by her mother, becomes the means by which she unfolds the hidden histories of women's lives from India to East Africa-- the same journey her grandparents took when both regions were under colonial rule. 

Migritude weaves together memoir, political history, and astute observations about the capriciousness of migration. It's an award-winning theater piece that has resonated with people on three continents. In fact, it was so successful as a spoken word performance piece that Shailja Patel reworked Migritude into a book of poetry. And that transition--from the spoken word to the written-- was where I began my conversation with Shailja when she was in Washington DC for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. 

Jo Reed: Your book Migritude, began as a performance piece and you took a different trajectory. It’s usually page-to-stage and you’ve gone stage-to-page. 

Shailja Patel:  And I have say that it’s a route I would recommend more because creating work for performance is really one of the most powerful forms of editing possible. On the stage, everything you say, everything you do has to count. There is nothing on stage that does not have relevance and significance to the story. So in a way, when you make work for stage, you are paring your work down to its bones, to the essence.

Jo Reed: How perfect for poetry where every word, every word, and indeed its placement on the page has to have meaning.

Shailja Patel:  Absolutely.

Jo Reed: The title of your work, Migritude, is a word that you created. What did you have in mind?

Shailja Patel:  I wanted a word that would capture the idea of migrant attitudes, migrant with attitude. I was playing and riffing off the idea of negritude and migrants. Negritude was the movement in the 1960s that reclaimed and celebrated Black African culture as something powerful in its own right, something that didn’t need to be measured or assessed according to the standards of European culture. So, I was asserting the same thing for migrants and migrant movements, saying there is a voice, a world, view, a space that migrant inhabit that is unique and powerful and defined by itself, not by how close they’ve come to assimilation, not even by where they came from, but the state of being a migrant.

Jo Reed: Explain what you see the state of being a migrant is? What does it encompass for you?

Shailja Patel:  It begins with embracing and inhabiting precarity, understanding that conditions and circumstances are impermanent, living in a state of not just transit, but even when you think you have arrived at some kind of stability, understanding that that stability is fragile, that political and economic circumstances can change. One of the things I like to say, which often creates some discomfort in people who are born in America and born White and middle class is that just like disability, the state of being a migrant can strike anyone. Anybody can become a migrant as a result of environmental crisis, financial crisis, and political crisis. We’ve seen in just the last two decades is whole communities uprooted and destroyed. We saw that with Katrina. We saw that with Hurricane Sandy. We’re seeing it with the growing climate crisis across the U.S.

Jo Reed: We see it in Detroit.

Shailja Patel:  Yes. People suddenly become homeless and we suddenly have ghost towns. People become displaced by just the wiping out of their entire savings. We have tent cities in San Jose, not very far from where I live in Oakland. So, anybody can become a migrant and we do in fact have huge internal communities of displaced people, migrants, within the U.S. who are invisible.

Jo Reed: What inspired you to tackle this issue artistically?

Shailja Patel:  Well, I am a migrant. I have migrated continents twice in my lifetime, and speaking from the voice and the politics of a migrant, inhabiting the space of understanding the global forces that drive migration has always been central to my work, getting people to understand the politics and the economics of migration and breaking down the barriers in their heads of “us” and “them,” that migration is something out there, outside me. And Migritude came from a suitcase full of saris that was passed down to me by my mother. She had been collecting saris and jewelry for me since I was a baby to give to me as my trousseau when I got married and a few years ago, she gave up on me getting married any time soon and said with a small degree of bitterness, “It’s time for you to take your saris.” So, I had this suitcase full of these exquisite heirloom saris that I felt tremendously guilty about because I wasn’t wearing them; I wasn’t using them in my daily life as an artist and an activist. So, I began to think about how I could integrate them into my life, how I could bring out their stories and use them for performance. And as I began to research their histories, as I began to take each sari an unfurl it and trace the motifs and the design and the weaving, they began to tell me stories about Empire, about colonialism, about migrations going back thousands of years, and the histories we don’t know of how Empire was enacted on the bodies of women.

Jo Reed: Well, your own story, your family’s story is also one that is quite familiar with migration and with colonialism. You were born in Kenya. You’re African.

Shailja Patel:  Yes.

Jo Reed: But, your parents were born in Africa too, but their families came from Southeast Asia.

Shailja Patel:  Yes. My grandparents migrated to East Africa in the 1920s and I’m third generation East African. One of the things I trace in Migritude and one of my favorite parts of the book is the time line at the end, which goes all the way back to 2000 years BC, which is when the first brown people landed on the African Continent. So, for many thousands of years there has been this Indian Ocean trade and these movements of people between Africa and Asia.

Jo Reed: And certainly another thing that India and Kenya have in common is that they’re both post-colonial countries and indeed were victims of the same colonizer.

Shailja Patel:  Yes and my parents grew up in colonial Kenya, which was very strictly and heavily segregated. So, they went to all Indian schools and grew up in very segregated Indian communities where they had very little social and economic interaction with Black Africans. Post-independence, those racial barriers broke down to a certain extent, but that stratification has certainly had a huge part in post-independence Kenya and in some of the tensions between different races.

Jo Reed: In your book, Migritude, you have a wonderful poem about history, "History Lesson" Can you read a little bit of that?

Shailja Patel:  Absolutely. I’d be happy to. “Less than 20 years before I was born, there was a gulag in my country. I knew nothing of it until 2006. This is the history I learned in school (Standard 3-Standard 5, Hospital Hill Primary School). The first man and first woman were Gikuyu and Mumbi. They gave birth to the nine clans of the Kikuyu. The Mugwe was the leader who parted the waters, long before Moses, and led his people to freedom. Koitalel arap Samoei predicated the coming of the white man and the railway (a long snake, spitting fire). He led the Nandi people against the first British invaders. Waiyaki wa Hinga, paramount chief, went unarmed to a supposedly friendly meeting with the British Officer Purkiss. He was killed! We scribbled “Purkiss Pig-Face” in the margins of our textbook. We burned with the righteous outrage of nine-year-olds. We sang about the Maji Maji uprising in Tanzania to the tune of Boney M’s rivers of Babylon. <Sings> By the rivers of Rufiji / To Mahenge plateau / Hey hey we’ll win / when we drive out the Germans / Maji Maji / Sprinkle maize, millet and water / protest us from German guns / we’re fighting for independence / for our daughters and sons / Maji Maji <ends singing>.”

Jo Reed: That’s wonderful. Thank you very much. In that poem, you talk about a number of things that happened in East Africa. One of them is the Mau Mau Uprising, which you see is quite important. Tell me why. 

Shailja Patel:  Mau Mau was the liberation struggle through which Kenya won independence. It was the armed uprising, the armed resistance to British colonialism that eventually made the project of Empire in Kenya untenable. It was what forced the British government to finally grant Kenya independence, and it shaped our national history because that war of liberation, like all wars, created terrible rifts between those who were in the struggle and those who were not in the struggle. There was a whole cadre of Kenyans who collaborated with the British and who were part of the British army and they were involved in killing and incarcerating the Mau Mau and the entire communities who were put in concentration camps. So, the legacy of the Mau Mau has not been resolved until this day. It is only in the last year, in 2013, that some of the remaining surviving Mau Mau veterans who were tortured in the camps, they were castrated, raped, tortured in horrible ways; they finally won a ruling in the British High Court against the British government to claim reparations for torture. So, over 60 years after the gulag, after the concentration camps, after the atrocities visited on the Mau Mau, the British government has finally begun to acknowledge what they did.

Jo Reed: You grew up in a post-colonial Kenya. What was the history lesson you were taught when you were a child?

Shailja Patel:  Well, I’ll read you the relevant bit because this was really my journey of discovery with Migritude, learning that the history I was taught in school was all lies. We learned in school that we attained independence peacefully, without bloodshed. We were the model the rest of Africa was supposed to look to, a happy, multiracial nation where Whites, Asians and Africans all lived in harmony. In Kenya’s was of independence, fewer than 100 Whites and over 25,000 Africans died. Half of the Africans who died were children under 10. Sixty thousands White settlers lived in Kenya at independence in 1963. The new Kenyan government was required to take loans of 12.5 million pounds from its ex-colonial master, the British government, to buy back stolen land from settlers who wished to leave. 

Jo Reed: And that is not what you were taught.

Shailja Patel:  No. That is not what any Kenyans were allowed to know. It actually became illegal early on in post-independence Kenya to even talk about the Mau Mau and the remaining Mau Mau fighters who tried to claim compensation from the Kenyan government became persona non grata. So, the new Kenyan government was very invested in erasing the history of the Mau Mau, and basically creating a single party state.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here’s my question. So, you have a trunk of saris that your mother sent you, your trousseau and you know that you want to do a performance piece. It makes sense because I’ve read your book, but just sitting here, that seems like a conceptual leap, from that to a history of the Mau Mau. Can you tell me how you got there?

Shailja Patel:  It wasn’t a leap for me because I knew I wanted to tell the stories of Empire and the stories of women’s bodies. To me, the stories of the saris were the stories of women’s bodies, and what isn’t known about women under colonialism. So, some of it was simply tracing my own historical interests and then connecting them to the saris. Some of it was actually in a kind of-- I really think of the saris as my collaborators. There was one in particular which was a scarlet chiffon sari, which was the one used for the Mau Mau piece, and to me it spoke of war and it spoke of blood, and it just naturally connected with liberation struggles and the very bloody battles that were fought for independence.

Jo Reed: On a more practice level, how was it working with the saris because I’ve seen excerpts of Migritude, the performance and you do very elaborate things with them. You certainly drape them on your body, but you use them in many different ways and that would require, I would think, a lot of dexterity.

Shailja Patel:  I trained for two years with two different dance coaches and choreographers and a director to develop the movement vocabulary, to find a conversation that we could have on stage that would make the saris a part of the story rather than simply props. So, from the beginning, I worked with a brilliant director, Kim Cook, who was very committed to creating good art and to excellent stage craft and to making an integrated piece of theater that was not just political, that was not just driven by a political agenda, but that was good theater and good art and good storytelling. The process of whittling down what finally went on stage was akin to making a film. If you were a filmmaker, you shoot a hundred hours of footage and you condense it down to 90 minutes of film. The final show, Migritude, was 70 minutes long. Originally, we had over four hours of material, of text and different pieces and different performance segments, and we had to cut, cut, cut, cut and some of that was heartbreaking and brutal because some of my favorite pieces ended up on the floor, but it was a process of constant editing and rearranging and splicing and experimenting to find what was the final form and the best possible final show.

Jo Reed: It’s interesting because saris themselves in the West in any case are kind of fraught with these stereotypes. They are both exotic and then they also allow people to put women in another box, a little bit like hajib. And that was something you worked with as well on the stage.

Shailja Patel:  Yes. It was one of my fears initially about making this work was that it would end up being exoticized and that there wouldn’t be a way to make the work strong, political and feminist not because saris are not strong, political and feminist. They certainly are. They’ve been worn in battle and worn by women in jail, jailed by the British and worn in every situation of combat, but because of people’s stereotypes about saris and about the bodies that wear saris. So, some of what we did on stage was actually demonstrate the wrapping and the unwrapping of saris and in one of my favorite segments of the show, as I’m talking about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin and at the end of the piece, as I unwrap the sari, I also unwrap the history of Idi Amin’s military coup in Uganda, which was sponsored by the British, by the CIA and by Israel. And so, that became the central vehicle of the show, that as the saris were demystified and deconstructed to the audience physically, their notions of what they thought they knew about history and their assumptions about history were also blown apart and they were forced to unravel what they thought they knew and to gain new knowledge.

Jo Reed: Do you mind reading “Swore I’d Never Wear Clothes I Couldn’t Run or Fight in”? 

Shailja Patel:  I'd be happy to. “The Hindu epic, the Mahabharata says: That is a well-governed state where a woman adorned with all dress and ornaments, and unaccompanied by men, can move freely and fearlessly in its roads and lanes. Since the U.S. invaded Iraq, thousands of Iraqi women and girls have been abducted, vanished, a phenomenon unknown under Saddam Hussein. When societies are blown apart, women become prey. “Looking pretty,” my mother said. “Looking pretty is the least you could do. Looking pretty is the least you can do, Shailja, to make up for not being a boy. You are not safe as a girl,” my mother said. “If you had a brother to protect you, you could go out at night. If you had a brother to protect you, we would let you.” But how could I run if a man attacked me and I was wearing a sari? How would I fight? As a child, I knew of women strangled in their saris; women doused in paraffin and burned in their saris. Saris made you vulnerable, a walking target. Saris made you weak. No one told me about women who went into battle in their saris, worked the fields in their saris. Why didn’t anyone tell me about women who labored on construction sites in their saris? All I heard was, “You have to be careful in a sari. You’re exposing the body.” Don’t let the pallav slip under the breast - that’s obscene. Don’t let the petticoat show the panties - that’s obscene. Allure without being sexual. Be beautiful without being aware of it. Attract without meeting anyone’s eyes. You must never act as if you owned your body. It’s draped and displayed for the edification of others. Watch the women in Bollywood movies. Combine coy virginality with hip-swinging sex appeal. As a child, I swore I would never wear clothes I couldn’t run or fight in. My legs would never be hobbled.”

Jo Reed: That is a wonderful, wonderful piece. Thank you for reading it. I really appreciate it. What made you decide that a great deal of your work in politics would be through art, through performance and through poetry?

Shailja Patel:  Poetry is, first of all, to me, the most powerful and economic way of conveying truth. My background and training are as a political economist and then as an accountant. So, I’ve been exposed to huge volumes of material and an excess of theory, of numbers of data, and I find often that there’s two or three central facts that can be condensed from large volumes of material that are the essence of what people need to know. And there is a huge industry dedicated to obscuring these facts, to hiding this information from people so that they don’t know. You could say that the economy of Washington, D.C. is really dedicated to the production of vast amounts of material that obscure the central truths that people need to know. To me, poetry is one of the most powerful ways of distilling the truth and then communicating it with such clarity and precision that it’s unforgettable because we’re bombarded on a daily basis with much more information than we can retain, and much more than we want to even absorb. Most of it is depressing. It’s enraging, it’s too much, and in order to function, to just get on with our daily lives and do what we need to do to survive, we have to filter out about 95% of the information that comes at us. Poetry cuts through our mental defenses. It enters us through the gut and through the heart. It creates a space where we’re allowed to feel, really feel, even if it’s just for a moment what it’s like to be human, what it’s like to be larger than our contracted space of just the daily struggle for survival, and in that moment, we connect with what it is to be alive and to be human and feeling on the planet and that alters us. 

Jo Reed: The decision to take the performance piece and make it into a book, what led you to that?

Shailja Patel:  The publication of “Migritude” was driven by others who really wanted to see it on the page, and pushed the project forward to make it a book. And now that it’s published, it’s wonderful because it’s being translated more and more and it just crosses borders without me, which is fabulous.

Jo Reed: Now, let’s talk about the structure of the book because I found it fascinating. It’s in four parts. Take us through what those parts are.

Shailja Patel:  The first part is the text of  Migritude, itself, the show. The second part is called “The Shadow Book” and it’s almost like the backstage conversation of each of the pieces in the first part, the theater script. It’s background story. Part three is called “The Making and Other Poems,” which are poems which didn’t make it into the script of Migritude, but are also part of the wider tapestry that Migritude grew out of, and part four is called “The Journey” and that includes the time line, which is the historical time line of migrations between the Asian and African Continents and two interviews with different scholars, one in Italy and one in the U.S., about Migritude, the making of it and the politics and the art that surround Migritude.

Jo Reed: I thought it was fascinating. I felt like you took me through the process. Here’s the play and here’s the thinking; here’s how we got there, but then also, here’s a bit of the reception.

Shailja Patel:  I’m really glad you said that because to me, the making of art, and one of the important conversations we need to have about art, especially in this culture, is that art is not a finished product. I think increasingly, especially in a culture where artists are pressured to commodify themselves and where there is this tremendous pressure for art to make money, for art to be profitable, we have this idea that art is this finished product that is manipulated, engineered, and available for sale, and we don’t think of art making as a collective process, as a communal process, as something that continues to evolve even after a piece of work has been put out into the public realm. And so, art becomes this specialized function rather than something that we are all engaged in every day of our lives. And we’re all impoverished by that. And we also lose sight of art as something that makes us more fully human, something that we should all be a part of every day. It’s not a commodity that is outside us and that we just pay money for, buy, consume and dispose of.

Jo Reed: A heartfelt “Amen.” Are you more comfortable writing or performing or are the two just very linked for you?

Shailja Patel:  To me, they’re part of a cycle. I think so much better collectively. When I am in conversation, I find myself articulating things I haven’t really realized in my own brain and then I find I want to take that idea further and develop it and create a piece out of it and then I want to share that piece. And so, for me, the cycle or art making, of making poetry and making work is creating, sharing, receiving feedback, revising, editing, resharing, receiving feedback. It’s this ongoing cycle.

Jo Reed: That was poet, playwright, performer and activist Shailja Patel. We were discussing her work, Migritude. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. 

 The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

With a trunk full of her mother’s saris, Kenyan author and performer Shaija Patel reclaims a lost history.