Migration and Performance

Reading Shailja Patel’s Migritude was a powerful experience for me, despite our very different backgrounds. I believe the power of art, and of this amazing piece of work, is in such moments when a glimpse into another’s world resonates across what would seem to divide us. The fact that, as Patel notes at the end of the book, her work would speak powerfully to someone as seemingly different from her as a male Italian scientist, I think is testament to the depth of the themes she tackles and the clarity and eloquence of her vision in expressing them. This work does remind me of Arundhati Roy, who Patel says writes everything like a love song, but I think this piece is also a love song- to her parents, her history and the oppressed whatever time or place they might reside in. The thing that moved me most about this work is its obvious genuine humanity. Patel’s outrage and her pain and her tenderness are deep and sincere. She is unflinching in her interrogation of injustice, whether it be perpetrated by others in past atrocities, by a current society against her racialized, gendered body, or even by herself in her conflicted relationship with her parents. Her combination of historical context, current events and personal narrative weave into one another seamlessly.

Some of the passages I related most strongly to dealt with the complexities of existing in a female body in the world, and her evolving relationship to her mother:

You must never act as if you owned your body. It’s draped and displayed for the edification of others…As a child, I swore I would never wear clothes I couldn’t run or fight in. My legs would never be hobbled” (p.22)

I can remember thinking something very similar to these lines as a teenager when my mother would admonish me to ‘sit up straight’ or ‘cross your legs, sitting like that isn’t ladylike!’ and attempted to school me in the arts of pantyhose, lacy dresses and women’s work. Throughout the work, Patel’s relationship to her mother evolves from one of bitterness (I never wanted daughters and Shilling love) to appreciation and understanding. Her mother’s gift of the mangal sutra necklace, which Patel writes in the shadow book, “showed me up as the traditionalist” was really powerful for me- as is her response at the end of the work where she invokes the gift again- a final coming to terms with and honouring of their relationship: “This work that filigrees and inlays/all your legacies,/that snakes across borders,/dodges visa controls,/this/is my intention./Declaration./Lifelong execution.” (p.62).

Finally, I feel like The Making (p.122-124) is a mantra for all artists who work to shed light on the world. This is a text I know I will come back to again and I would love the opportunity to see it performed live one day.

(Aside: “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 laboured on construction sites in their saris?”)


2 thoughts on “Migration and Performance

  1. I would make a slightly different connection between the two sections you mention. In “I Never Wanted Daughters,” I hear Patel already appreciating her mother. It’s not the old thing that daughters aren’t valued but that her mother is angry that her love for her daughters make her so vulnerable. But this anger (and love) becomes Patel’s trousseau in “Born to a Law.” Not the physical trousseau of saris and jewelry, but the trousseau of strength and anger that allows her to set sail (her metaphor, 62) on dangerous(?) seas with what her mother has given her.

    • I agree with what you’re saying…I guess what I was trying to point out was that Patel only has this appreciation retrospectively. At the time these restrictions were being placed on her, she didn’t understand her mother’s actions and I read her as being angry and resentful: “I swore…my legs would never be hobbled.” It is only now as she writes this as an adult, (and after the gift of the necklace) that she could look back to understand how her mother had expressed her love and vulnerability- and transform that strength to forge her own journey. Also interesting that she writes that “I never wanted daughters” is the one section of the book that her mother still disagrees with. 🙂

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