Migritude by Shailja Patel

Migritude

Paperback, 153 pages
Published November 30th 2010 by Kaya Press
Source: Purchased

From “The Making (Migrant Song):”

We overdress, we migrants. We care too much how we
look to you. We get it wrong. We ought to look like we
don’t give a fuck. We show up ridiculously groomed,
bearing elaborate gifts. We are too formally grateful.

We cringe in silent shame for you when you don’t offer
food or drink. Eat before us without sharing. Serve
yourselves first. Insult us without knowing.

Two white Americans said to me, when I shared my
doughnut with them:

We’ve never seen anyone cut a doughnut into three pieces.

We calibrate hunger precisely. Define enough differently
from you. Enough is what’s available, shared between
everyone present. We are incapable of saying, as you can
so easily:

Sorry, there’s not enough for you.

And:

How much we can do without is our strength. But you
find it comic. Pitiable. Miserly. You just can’t imagine
how a family of eight lives in a one-room apartment.
You don’t want to think how someone survives on $7 an
hour. It makes you uncomfortable when we eat stems
and peels. Dry our clothes in the sun. Repair instead
of replace. You mistake austerity, living without waste,
for deprivation.

Intense, eh? Shailja Patel’s Migritude is a collection of vignettes, prose, and letters that detail not just her movement across countries, cultures, and continents, but is also a hurricane full of rage at the injustice committed to the Others by the hedgemony, in post-colonial speak.

In the first poem of the collection “How Ambi Became Paisley,” Patel talks about how culture was mined and stolen from Indians specifically. The poem details a different kind of migration–the enforced kind. In bare and beautiful words, she asks:

In 1846, Britain annexed the vale of Kashmir, fabled
paradise of beauty, and sold it to Maharaj Gulab Singh of
Jammu for one million pounds.

How do you price a country? How do you value its
mountains and lakes, the scent of its trees, the colors of
its sunset? What’s the markup on the shapes of fruit in
the dreams of its people?

The poem talks about how Kashmiri clothes became cashmere, Ambi became paisley, Mosuleen became muslin, and “chai became a beverage invented in California.” She details how British officials cut off the fingers of Indian weavers who made Mosuleen because British fabric couldn’t compete in the market with Indian Mosuleen.

But perhaps the most astringent of all the questions:

How many ways can you splice a history? Price a
country? Dice a people? Slice a heart? Entice what’s been
erased back into story? My-gritude.

Migritude‘s story begins with a suitcase of saris that Patel’s mother gave to her as a trousseau. Patel uses these saris to ground herself into her culture and uses these same saris in theater performances of Migritude. Originally a spoken word performance, the collection found another medium from which to inspire in the form of this book.

We have tried to find books that deal with immigrant experiences all throughout this month but perhaps we haven’t yet spoken about some experiences that are no less real for their unspoken-ness. Being an immigrant myself, the experiences Shailja Patel talks about in Migritude are familiar to me.

People who immigrate to different countries are expected to assimilate completely into the new culture as if their culture of origin is somehow inferior to the one in the country they are migrating to. Instead of integration, assimilation is taught. These immigrants, who have moved for all sorts of reasons, are recreated as objects of pity and inferiority and often judged as somehow Other even though you occupy the same space and breathe same air and belong to the same species.

This reduction of a person, of a people, is also something Patel addresses beautifully:

Listen:
my father speaks Urdu,
language of dancing peacocks,
rosewater fountains –
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi,
suave and melodic,
earthy Punjabi
salty-rich as saag paneer,
coastal Swahili laced with Arabic.
He speaks Gujarati,
solid ancestral pride.

Five different languages,
five different worlds.
Yet English
shrinks
him
down
before white men
who think their flat, cold, spiky words
make the only reality.

The book discusses Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians from Uganda and isn’t afraid of naming the names of those responsible found in documents declassified in 2001. In a poignant piece, she talks about the indignities her parents face when they are taken aside in the airport on a trip to the US and held for no reason for 4 hours.

I haven’t seen my brother in more than three years but his application to visit Canada was rejected on the grounds that he is hale and hearty and may leave his family in Fiji where he has a job and a house to stay in Canada where he has, apart from family members, nothing.

Migritude.

Patel’s poems will make you cry as “Eater of Death” did me. The poem is about Bibi Sardar, an Afghani woman whose husband and seven children were killed in a US airstrike is sharp and thorny. Or maybe the poem that will break you is the one about how British soldiers raped women and  children without worry for consequences of their actions–the authorities turn a blind eye to their doings.

Her poetry will make you angry and leave you unsettled and wondering about the spaces you occupy both physically and mentally. They will leave you aware of yourself in a way you may not have been before.

Read Migritude. It just may be the best book you read ever.