by Shailja Patel
In my spare time, while sequestered to keep Covid-19 at bay, I am having a great time re-reading books and articles I have previously read, looking for those jewels of language and expression that make me smile, nod in agreement, cry and ponder. Sometimes we read a piece that is a wonder of wonders that will stick to our brains until we bid the world adieu.
Here, a poem by Shailja Patel, a Kenyan poet, playwright, theatre artist, and political activist. She is most known for her book “Migritude” based on her one-woman show of the same name funded by the Ford Foundation. CNN characterizes Patel as an artist “who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange.” – Wikipedia
When I lived in Tanzania, East Africa I was often mistaken for a Wahindi (Indian). I spoke rudimentary Kiswahili so I would sometimes correct folks. Other times I just went with the flow and brushed it off. Idi Amin expelled Indians, many of whom owned small businesses, in 1972. Tanzania was a little better but prejudice came to the fore after independence leading many Indians to migrate out. (One guy most people know was from Zanzibar, Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury!)
Here, a long, but great Patel poem, “Migritude”, (a word she created from the African diaspora movement of the 1920s known as Negritude, joined with ‘migration’ and ‘attitude’.) I know exactly what she means and sometimes think of this poem (especially the section about her father speaking 5 languages) when I am working on my disappearing languages project!
Migritude by S. Patel
“The children in my dreams
speak in Gujarati
turn their trusting faces to the sun
say to me
care for us nurture us
in my dreams I shudder and I run.
I am six
in a playground of white children
Darkie, sing us an Indian song!
in a roomful of elders
all mock my broken Gujarati
Twelve, I tunnel into books
forge an armor of English words.
Eighteen, shaved head
combat boots –
shamed by masis
in white saris
singe my western head.
tongue of the mother
I murder in myself.
Through the years I watch Gujarati
swell the swaggering egos of men
mirror them over and over
at twice their natural size.
Through the years
I watch Gujarati dissolve
bones and teeth of women, break them
on anvils of duty and service, burn them
to skeletal ash.
Words that don’t exist in Gujarati :
English rises in my throat
rapier flashed at yuppie boys
who claim their people “civilized” mine.
at cab drivers yelling
Dirty black bastard!
Force-field against teenage hoods
F****ing Paki bitch!
Their tongue – or mine?
Have I become the enemy?
my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi
suave and melodic
salty rich as saag paneer
laced with Arabic,
he speaks Gujarati
solid ancestral pride.
five different worlds
before white men
who think their flat cold spiky words
make the only reality.
Words that don’t exist in English:
If we cannot name it
does it exist?
When we lose language
does culture die? What happens
to a tongue of milk-heavy
cows, earthen pots
jingling anklets, temple bells,
when its children
grow up in Silicon Valley
Then there’s American:
Kin’uh get some service?
Dontcha have ice?
May I have please?
Ben, mane madhath karso?
Tafadhali nipe rafiki
Donnez-moi, s’il vous plait
Hello, I said can I get some service?!
Like, where’s the line for Ay-mericans
in this goddamn airport?
Words that atomized two hundred thousand Iraqis:
Didja see how we kicked some major ass in the Gulf?
Lit up Bagdad like the fourth a’ July!
Whupped those sand-niggers into a parking lot!
The children in my dreams speak in Gujarati
bright as butter
sounds I can paint on the air with my breath
dance through like a Sufi mystic
words I can weep and howl and devour
words I can kiss and taste and dream
I take back.”