Poet, playwright, theatre artist and activist, Shailja Patel has spent her life examining – and defying – borders. Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, she grew up in Nairobi, went to college in England, and for a time lived in the United States. She studied political economy and worked in finance before shifting to a career based on her first love, words. Her best known book is called Migritude, a word she created, which combines “migrant,” “attitude” and “negritude”; her poetry has been translated into 16 languages. Shailja is also intensely active politically, and was a founding member of Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice, a civil society coalition of more than 40 organizations. In 2011, The African Women’s Development Fund named Shailja one of “Fifty Inspirational African Feminists.”
Moving from finance to poetry seems like a big jump!
I’ve always used words to arrive at my understanding of the world. To me, it’s using different tools to do the same thing – seeing the truth, feeling the truth, embodying the truth and speaking the truth.
Migritude is a work of poetry, memoir and history, but it's also political isn’t it?
It’s history told from the boot print of empire – history written by the victims and survivors of empire, those at the bottom, not the top. It’s stories that haven’t been told. As we know, the majority of stories that have been made accessible to us, on screen, in broadcast or publication, tend to be men’s stories told by men. We are hearing more women’s voices and histories and we’re beginning to uncover them and put them out into the world. I tell the stories of Kenyan women living in the British gulags built in the 1950s during the uprising that preceded independence. The atrocities that women and children underwent in the camps are still not widely known. I tell the stories of Indian women under empire, and the ways in which empire was enacted on their bodies.
I’m a big fan of empirical analysis, but today all of us are bombarded by more facts and information than we can possibly absorb. The great gift and power of art is that it enters and stays with people. It gives them a different way to hold the truth in their bodies. A book can be translated, carried, passed hand to hand, so my work travels in many ways I can’t even track. I love getting an email out of the blue from a reader in Sweden saying, “this is what spoke to me.”
How did you come to be involved in Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice?
KPTJ began in December 2007, the day after we saw a civil coup in Kenya. The opposition movement against dictatorship, corruption and inequality was winning the presidential election, when the tallying process was shut down. The military marched in, and there was a power and media blackout, then the incumbent was sworn in in the dark.
Kenya’s current President Uhuru Kenyatta was later indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the terrible violence that followed that election, but in 2014, prosecutors withdrew charges. How does the struggle continue?
Although I can’t speak officially for KPTJ, the critical issues we’re addressing are those that people struggle with across the globe: the struggle of people against power. How do we deal with tremendous police and state violence against dissenting voices? How do we push back against the grab of public resources? How do we deal with the climate crisis that we’re in under neoliberalism?
We’re also struggling for an activism that includes women. What we’ve seen historically in political movements everywhere is a rhetoric of freedom and justice, but which we later learn is only for men. In liberation movements all over the African continent, women fought side by side with men, were critical in the freedom movement – but after independence, governments were male dominated and women were erased from the history of the fight. We are expected to continue to be subservient, and violence against women continues.
Right now, we’re seeing epic levels of violence against women in Kenya – political, personal, in the home, the workplace, on the streets, with the reenactment of that violence through media misogyny and messages that murdered women invited it or had it coming.
You’ve said you don’t believe in messages of either hope or despair.
Hope is an attempt to spin reality to pump us up. Despair paralyzes us. The work of being awake and engaged in our time is to look at the truth. To say, “This is where we are. This is what’s different from what happened in the past, and this is what’s similar, now where do we go from here?”
My focus is on our particularly Kenyan moment. In our public space, how can women be free? What does it mean to be a free woman in Kenya? And then to expand the possibilities of freedom for other women.
At the moment, I do not feel hopeful about electoral democracy in Kenya. But when I think about grassroots organizing, I see the most exciting and powerful mobilization.