Reading Shailja Patel

I’m reading Migritude alongside other work on temporality—utopia in José Muñoz, temporal drag in Elizabeth Freeman, primitivism and Afro-modernities in a range of articles, history in a friend’s work on Gertrude Stein, the loss of time in trauma. I have not yet settled back into US time—I am waking up too early, want to sleep in the late afternoon, experience hunger at odd times—and will be returning to Kenya when my body is finally synced. Since I returned, I have been “off,” tired when my friends are alert, quiet when conversation is happening, as though I’ve heard of syncopation, but I am too late to recover into its capacious generosity. Not simply off beat, but lagging too far behind to inhabit musicality. And it might simply be that I am in the extended timelessness of the layover—waiting, delayed, interminable.

Attuned to time, or, more precisely, out of tune with time, I am struck by a curious gap in Migritude/Shailja’s timeline:

1982 Abortive military coup in Kenya. In the aftermath, my family is sponsored for immigration to the US by aunt who lives there.

1996 I receive my papers to immigrate to the US. Backpack around the country for six months. Get my first check for a poem.

In a work so saturated with trauma—colonial destruction of indigenous laboring bodies, Amin’s expulsion of Indians from Uganda, sexual violence against Africans by the British in the colonial and post-independence periods—this “missing” time is important. What might it mean to think of the worst moments of the Moi era as “missing time,” as “lost time,” just as activists went missing through illegal detention, forced exile, or death? How might one understand those absent 14 years as densely saturated with anxiety, one spilling over from Ugandan Indian experiences to direct Kenyan Indians away from Kenya: one grows up to leave, Migritude suggests.

Trauma is a “famously indefinable thing – an overwhelming event, a scene of impact beyond the eloquence of history, the literal, unsymbolizable mark of pure violence, or its opposite, violence congealed in an intensified representation” (Berlant, “Trauma and Ineloquence”).

In its most general definition, trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena (Caruth, Unclaimed Experience).

Trauma was originally the term for a surgical wound, conceived on the model of a rupture of the skin or protective envelope of the body resulting in a catastrophic global reaction in the entire organism. (Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy)

I find myself wondering about the “missing” 14 years from coup to immigration, and in the kind of narrative they allow for a certain Kenyan-ness as a trajectory of escape. The missing time that becomes the subject of Migritude:

Have you ever set out to search for a missing half?
The piece that isn’t shapely, elegant, simple. The half
that’s ugly, heavy, abrasive. Awkward to the hand. Gritty
on the tongue.

Migritude. (7)

Migritude is obsessed with missing time, from the incomplete knowledge garnered in “History Lessons” to the survivor narratives in “The Sky Has Not Changed Colour.” The missing recurs as a symptom in, for instance, the British “u” in “Colour.” (I wonder if my own embrace of US spelling speaks not only to “laziness,” as I sometimes claim, but to a decolonizing politics, no matter how attenuated.)

Time is subject to delay, as in the very powerful “Shilling Love Part II,” in which the persona’s parents encounter US immigration:

My sister Sneha and I wait for our parents / at San
Francisco’s international airport

Four hours / after their plane landed / they have not
emerged / and we know / with the hopeless rage of third-
world citizens / of African passport holders / that the
sum of their lives and labour / dreams and sacrifice / is
being measured / sifted /weighed / found wanting / by
immigration. (56-7)

Delay is further enacted by the slash (/), a marking that replaces comma and caesura, often in awkward places, as though to provide reading directions. In citational practice, one places the slash between lines of poetry that do not exceed a certain number (4 lines, I believe). One sees staging directions and citational practices in these slashes, but also hears accents that “lilt,” that have not yet mastered proper intonation, that give themselves away, unable or reluctant to master the rhythms of colloquial US speech. And in that inability-reluctance, inhabiting the delay of unassimilability: you do not “sound” like us. Something is named and (r)ejected in such evaluations. (Those who have heard Shailja speak will understand my attention to accent—I find hers notoriously difficult to pin down layered as it is with multiple geographies.) And the delay of the lilt—having spent the last few months in Kenya, I find it more difficult now to hear US accents.

Missing time and trauma dominate this engagement with Migritude, in part because I’m not quite willing to enter into the space of the “migrant with attitude,” that is, a space where defiance is celebrated as always possible. My own border crossings are far too ambivalent to accommodate “attitude.” And, indeed, Migritude’s registers are far richer and more complex than my comments might suggest.

Let me attempt a conclusion through a prose section of the book:

The question asked of those who return, voiced or implicit, is always: What have you brought? What do you have to show for your years abroad? You’re expected to display wealth. Achievement, accomplishment, accumulation. And to come laden with gifts: German cars, iPods, and designer handbags are all good.

I brought Migritude. A tapestry of poetry, history, politics, packed into a suitcase, embedded in my body, rolled out into theatre. An accounting of Empire enacted on the bodies of women.

I grew up a brown minority citizen of a post-independence black African nation. Everything citizens of the global North take for granted as rights, down to expressions of love from parents to children, have been for me painfully won privileges to be cherished and defended.

I am with Shailja right until the last section, compelled by her advocacy for the arts and the imagination as what the diasporic returnee can bring to enliven the space from which one departed—this a powerful and necessary re-imagining of the remittance economy. But then, somehow, the yoking of color and minority position and comparison to a “global North” that has somehow figured it out—this, oddly, against much of the tenor of Migritude—feels flat, or, if not flat, gimmicky. It is a kind of ritual speechifying that I associate with NGO documents. It attenuates the richness I find in “Shilling Love I” and “Shilling Love II.”

What is one to do with artist statements? Revelations of process? Reflections on aesthetic production? What weight should we give them? How should one read “The Shadow Book,” a powerful reflection on the labor of cultural production? In a work that is already so naked, how does one read what feels like pumice stone on tender skin?

And perhaps I’m really just saying that Migritude is a perfect book to teach—it is! Buy it! Use it! Assign it!

Gertrude Stein opens “Composition as Explanation” thus:

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

In writing about Binyavanga, Rasna, and Shailja I wanted to try to think through their looking and hearing strategies, how they come to create diverse memory objects that mark a certain nowness and hereness of Kenyan cultural production. Their works are important markers, pebbles in Bata shoes, moments of historical confluence and, just as importantly, dissonance.

3 thoughts on “Reading Shailja Patel

  1. I have tried hard to remember my first few months here in the USA. I don’t remember much. There was too much to learn, too much info (because they US is mostly info) to absorb. I was busy taking it all in. And when you’re doing that you have very little time to leave markers around that you can come back to to freshen your memory. In fact, my first two to three years in this country as a blur in my mind.

    Which, of course, brings me to that sexist (and would you say “somewhat” homophobic?) Lacan. Remember his redefinition of Freud’s unconscious? For Freud, the unconscious was that rotary of drives, that water under the bridge that is the ego — if it rains plenty enough, you see river water rising above the bridge, don’t you? But for Lacan, the unconscious was more complicated. It was a founding decision that made the ego from the raw material of the rotary of drives in the id. And that this decision (that moment when we decided what parts of our id were going to become part of the ego) was then repressed i.e. there is a moment in which we decided who we were going to become and that this moment was then repressed so that it cannot be endlessly brought back for reworking.

    But I am lying. I didn’t read that directly from Lacan. I read it from Zizek (ah, my alter ego!). Still, it is amazing to think along those lines: that those first two years here that I can’t for the life of me recall much of were a period when I was deciding who I was going to become here in this new space/country and that I somehow repressed the decision I made to save me from constantly reevaluating and changing it.

    Now that awkward moment when you (meaning I) have typed something a little long and idiotic (meaning you don’t really believe it), but you post it anyway because you…because you…ah, for the sake of it.

    I read some of Shailja’s poems sometime ago. Somewhere longer than I can remember. I will have to freshen up my eyes and read her again.

  2. What a fascinating metaphor for the unconscious! Since it’s raining right now, the water/river/flood imagery is especially apt. My favorite description of the unconscious comes from Lacan’s meditation on Freud’s Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious and Psychopathology of Everyday Life: the slip, the fracture, the peeking out; I think of the quick glimpse of ill-positioned underwear. It’s been forever since I read Zizek, and I’m not a very good reader of his work. Does he make the coming into being of the unconscious so intentional? (We decide?)

    Since time is on my mind, I’m wondering about the sense of lost or missing time in “settling in” or “moving.” I remember the anxiety of always having to remember and always forgetting the exact number of hours between me and Kenya, feeling as though I would never catch up, as though time moved differently and some of it got lost through translation as it worked its way across space. Kenya was “ahead.” I still feel this way. As for repression, I remember telling a friend about to leave Kenya a year after I had: “do not ever regret anything.” I wonder, based on your comments, what forms of repression that statement emerged from, registered, and tried to negotiate.

    I wish Shailja’s two earlier collections, Shilling Love and Speaking in Gujarati were readily available online. They are lovely and important. And while some of their content appears in Migritude, it would be nice to see what stays in those different collections and what is transformed as it enters into new(er) proximities with other poems. Had I time, I might write more formally about her work.

  3. “Does he make the coming into being of the unconscious so intentional? (We decide?)”

    I believe he does. But as you know, Zizek will say one thing in this book/article and quite another in the other — his defense, which I love, is that because he is critiquing our ideologies, his critique is as inconsistent as our ideologies. Gotta love the guy! (This one time I heard him dismiss an argument made by another academic simply because it sounded too good, too watertight).

    Yes, that rain/water metaphor is especially apt here in Portland where it rains all the time. I think I put everything into rain metaphors because of the weather here.

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