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Saturday, March 11, 2006

my two year old nephew

sees the world in ways a poet can only envy. Yesterday, as we walked along the street, he pointed to a man smoking a cigarette: Dat man got candle in his mouf!


falls rapidly in Bristol this morning, where I've been visiting my sister for the last couple of days. In 3 hours, I'll be on a flight to Amsterdam, and then Vienna.

The night before last, a woman was raped in the shadow of the church right next to my sister's home. Yesterday, the whole area was cordoned off; police stood guard at each end. I don't know why the snow is connected to the rape in my mind. A kind of grief descending from the sky.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Imagining Ourselves, the global party to bring you the stories and voices of the next generation of women leaders. From the International Museum of Women.

Migritude in Vienna
is one of the International Featured Events for Imagining Ourselves in March.

Monday, March 06, 2006


No, I didn't really think they'd have the guts to give Best Foreign Film to the movie that deserved it, Paradise Now. But I hoped.......

And how about Rachel Weisz not even mentioning Kenya in her acceptance speech for The Constant Gardener? As my friend Laura said, It's right up there with Julia Roberts not mentioning Erin Brockovitch.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Profile in Kenya's Sunday Nation today

Sheilja Patel on stage at the Carnivore Restraurant, Nairobi


Seeking Justice Through Poetry

Publication Date: 3/5/2006

She walks briskly towards the stage at the Carnivore Restaurant, Nairobi. Hers is a fast, upright and determined walk, before leaping onto the stage with a bust of energy that breaks the silence in the hall. She then voices out a spectacular theatrical performance about colonial injustice and present-day slavery. The performance is so strongly delivered that the echo of her voice still reverberates in the hall minutes after she is done. Meet poet Shailja Patel doing what she knows how to do best; a woman after her own heart.

The clapping of hands and whistling that follow are a clear indication of the appreciation by the audience of her sterling performance.

Shailja takes a bow, and a graceful one at that, loaded with almost tangible emotions. Her long dream of performing at home had finally been realised. "Thank you," she says softly, almost in a whisper, a radiant smile cutting across and illuminating the beauty of her face.

One clearly senses that this is special and, indeed, it is. "I couldn't believe that I would ever perform back home and get this kind of reception," she says, in a Western accent collected in the 14 years she has lived abroad.

Shailja, 35, is not just your regular poet and master of the spoken word. She is an award-winning Kenyan poet of Asian origin whose works evoke so much passion – both negative and positive – because they revolve around injustices in society.

Defiant? certainly, Yes! She defied her parents' expectations and went into poetry, following her heart and passion. In the process, she strained her relationship with her parents, who expected her to take up a "noble" profession. "Probably be a doctor or an accountant," she says, shrugging her fairly lean shoulders.

Never an artist to shy away from controversy, Shailja throws herself into some emotive issues of the day with a passion that sometimes surprises even people in America, where she lives.

"Eater of death", a poem about the suffering of Afghan women following heavy bombing by American troops clearly comes to mind, and helps one understand the boldness of this affable Kenyan poet.

America had just witnessed one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, and the country was clearly seething with anger.

Revenge was on everybody's lips and shortly afterwards, bombs were falling in Afghanistan in torrents as American troops targeted Al-Quaida terrorists and their sympathisers.

But as much as she supported action to punish the perpetrators of the terror attacks, Shailja was clearly disturbed by the indiscriminate bombing. "Innocent Afghan women and children were dying from the bombings, yet they had nothing to do with the terrorists."

This action ignited the artist in her and in no time, "Eater of death", a poem about the suffering of Afghanistan women, was ready.

"I was frightened to read the poem in public because the public opinion in America was clearly for revenge at whatever cost," she says. "I just didn't know how people would react." Furthermore, hostility was building up towards foreigners in the United States.

But again, the suffering of innocent women was weighing so heavily on her conscience and as an artist, Shailja believed that somebody had to provide voice to the voiceless people.

She gathered courage and presented the poem in several forums in America. "The response was overwhelming," she says. "Some people came crying and hugged me in appreciation, while others were outrightly hostile."

She got plenty of hate mail, with the writers telling her to leave America if she so hated the country. But Afghan women living in the US embraced her for her courage with one telling her: "We would never have said what you said."

Shailja gives her typical radiant smile while reflecting on the controversial poem, before struggling to explain what was clearly a trying moment.

The poet, however, fully understands the dangers of attacking America's foreign policy, especially as an outsider, but its a role she would never shy away from.

She has picked other controversial issues before, like the murder of a Korean waitress by an American soldier, and turned them into powerful theatrical performances that expose injustices in the society.

"I have a clear sense of justice," she asserts, her firm and clear voice illustrating her commitment to her pet subject of social, economic and political justice.

But describing Shailja as defiant is an understatement. Embracing poetry itself was an act of both courage and defiance that to-date bothers and disturbs her parents.

"Have they finally accepted you as a poet?," I prod, carefully venturing into an area that I sense is emotionally distressful to the poet, though the passing of time appears to have watered down the pain.

Fully understand

"I don't know whether they will ever fully understand my decision," she says in her powerful and slightly high pitched voice that obscures any emotions that may be lurking inside her.

Shailja is amused that her mother still tells people that her daughter has just taken a break from her accounting profession to pursue poetry.

The poet understands that her parents meant well when they wanted her to pursue one of those "noble careers" like medicine, engineering, accounting and others.

She also understands that her father (mechanic) and mother (teacher) wanted to give her the best of education so that she could join a profession that gives her financial security.

Shailja studied economics and politics in Britain and took accounting courses but ended up a poet, to the disappointment of her parents.

And when her parents failed to attend her recent maiden show in Kenya, she knew this is a subject that won't easily go away. "I expected to see them but again this is an issue we have a difficult conservation about," she explains, the smile clearly gone from her face as she stares on empty space. "I kept on looking at the crowd hoping they would be there."

Shaija has, however, never stopped talking about her parents and the great role they played in shaping her into the poet she is today. "They gave me good education and I followed my heart."

Indeed, one senses conflict of emotions when Shailja talks about poetry and her family; an hesitation, a sense of loss and yet a sense of pride about the sacrifice her parents made to educate her and two other sisters – one a doctor and the other in business management.

And it's not only her parents who are baffled by her unusual career choice. She presented one of her works to an uncle, but he had difficulty understanding how one could earn a living from words.

"How come it took you so long to perform at home," I ask the poet who won the 1999 outwrite poetry prize, was the 2000 national slam champion in America and the 2001 Santa Cruz slam champion, among other awards.

Again the issue of her parents and her passion for poetry comes up. "There was no point in causing my parents more grief by performing in the country," she explains. "I had caused them enough disappointment already."

Unnecessary trouble

She was also apprehensive about the repressive political system in Kenya and feared that performing at home might subject her and her parents to unnecessary trouble with the administration.

"What has changed for you to perform at home then?"

"There has been a strong change in the country's cultural environment and the space is now wider for artists to perform," says Shailja, whose Kenyan tour was organised by Kwani? Trust.

Her first performance in Kenya was one of her high points as a poet and Shailja believes that Nairobi has the potential to rival cities like London, Vienna, New York and others in poetry and other performing arts.

The California-based poet's love for poetry started in Nairobi at Hospital Hill Primary School and Loreto Convent, Msongari, where the power of the written word strongly mesmerised her.

But growing up in Kenya as a minority strongly shaped her social and political consciousness. "As a child, I was in the position of an outsider and had to explain to my fellow black Kenyan students about my community and also explain to members of my community about the other Kenyan communities."

Shailja does not believe that the Asian community has in any way been a passive observer in the struggle for justice and political freedom in Kenya.

She even thinks that the role of members of the community has deliberately been distorted or ignored, to play down their contribution to the country's social and political development.

Again, she explains, prominent and outspoken Kenyan-Asians had to leave the country during the first and second governments for fear of repression.

"Digging a little into history will also tell you that East Africa was built with the blood of Asian railway workers, many of whom died building the railway network," she says.

She regrets that the rich history of the Kenyan-Asians' participation in the struggle against colonial rule has never been extensively told in schools, and is often mis-represented in other forums.

She became fully conscious of the role the community has played in the country's development after leaving Kenya for studies and to work abroad. Back to her poetry work, one of her best known and acclaimed works, "Migritude", is a powerful oral commentary about social, economic and political injustices and dissects the historical exploitation of poor countries by the developed countries.

The "Migritude", that Shailja intends to develop into a full theatrical performance with music and lighting, also indicts an exploitative colonial past that thrived on manipulation, lies and force.

It is also a story of the migratory population and their experiences in their new countries, informed by her own experience from Kenya to London and then to America.

"A lot of my work comes from wanting to see that every life has equal value," says Shailja, who has written two poetry books, Shilling Love and Dreaming in Gujarati.

She is also an internationally certified Yoga teacher. Yoga, she says, provides her with a strong physical foundation to engage in stage performances. But she also finds Yoga's philosophy of "doing everything as an act of service" immensely appealing and a reflection of her own philosophy as an artist. Shailja believes that any kind of physical exercise is incredibly important for an artist. Besides Yoga, she also loves dancing.

Interview over, Shailja looks at her watch, springs up from her seat, flashes a smile, and rushes out. She is, indeed, a poet with a mission, and time is of essence if she is to realise her many dreams.

Write to the author

soundtrack for a stormy sunday

Bring on the bhangra! Bittu Dhol Attack by Kuljit Bhamra. With faint backup from the windchimes going crazy on our porch, and the rain whipping the windows. This CD gets extra points for keeping me warm, because it's impossible not to move to it, even when I'm at the keyboard.

We don't need another Nero

Kibaki declares the famine in North-Eastern Kenya a "national disaster". And then sends out a squadron to raid the offices of the Standard Newspaper, and shut down its presses. Touchingly evocative of Bush at the ranch, dodging Cindy Sheehan while the phone taps hummed across the land, and the levees broke in New Orleans.

What IS it about power that turns people into despots?

you know it's a kickass rehearsal when....

* Your director says: Lord have mercy, girl, you are wrenching my gut!

* The saris start telling you what to do. Become an extension of your physicality.

* You're so completely inside each character, you forget the scripted words.

* You're shaking with exhaustion at the end of it.

* But you could still hit the stage right now, and do a full performance.

* You can't wait to bust it out in Vienna.
Shailja Patel. patterned sari border
©Shailja Patel