“It began as a teardrop in Babylon”
How Ambi Became Paisley, Migritude, Shailja Patel.
Dagoretti corner was the great corner. Tenwek is so named because it took ten weeks to walk there. We know these stories. We have told them to each other many times. What is apparent from them is the way in which names carry histories is often very apparent – all that is needed is a little digging. But we never ask ourselves what to do with the truths that come out of that digging. What happens when the story told by a word becomes one we would rather ignore?
One that we have buried deep?
“Until Kashmiri became cashmere. Mosuleen became muslin. Ambi became paisley.
And a hundred and fifty years later, chai became a bewerage invented in California.”
- How Ambi Became Paisley
Migritude is a truth gathering, history correcting text. Following words and sentences through their history Shailja uses her story and the contexts around her to create a path from the past to the present. And not just the present of the book, but presents that make themselves aware to us even now. Take this paragraph for example:
“We read daily news stories about journalists, activists, even students, who were jailed for sedition. Every so often our literature teacher would tell us that such and such a poet had been banned – and we’d dutifully cross out their name and poems in our school textbooks.”
It’s difficult to read this paragraph without thinking of the Kenya Film Classification Board’s push for the Film, Stage Plays and Publications Act. Or to read her write about the deportation of East African Asians from Uganda and not hear echoes in Boniface Mwangi’s voicing of an underlying sentiment. Migritude paints a picture of the places the world has been and, in showing us how it has been, allows us to see how it is.
Migritude was a word coined by the author herself as a play on Negritude and Migrant attitude. “It,” she states, “asserts the dignity of outsider status. Migritude celebrates and revalorizes immigrant/diasporic culture. It captures the unique political and cultural space occupied by migrants who refuse to choose between identities of origin and identities of assimilation, who channel difference as a source of power rather than conceal or erase it.”
The book is in four parts. The first part, titled Migritude, weaves through her personal story and the history of colonialism and appropriation. She unravels ties parts of her memory to memory of official record and gives context to life while unraveling Idi Amin, love in shillings and everything in between. The Shadow, the second part, is behind the scenes of the performance of the book. It adds details about the work in Migritude so that the reader can understand further. The thirst part of the book is the poetry that laid the groundwork for Migritude. The fourth part, The Journey, which is best described by its prelude:
“Migritude is political history told through personal story. It is also the tale of a creative journey. The timeline in this section seeks to capture both. The choice of what to include and leave out was somewhat idiosyncratic. I wanted to show that Empires reproduce themselves; that history buried becomes history repeated; that art is as much process as product. That we cannot know ourselves or our nations – or meet the truth of our present moment – until we look at how we got here.”
The timeline begins in the 6th century BCE when the earliest depictions of boteh/ambi/paisley motif were found in Central Asia and ends in 2010 with the book’s publication.
In many ways this seems particularly relevant now. When we are actively thinking about decolonization and turning our eyes back into ourselves. Given the fact that official histories have been sanitized to exclude a lot of the injustice – and with the French ex Prime Minister describing colonialism as cultural exchange – it is important to track and notice the ways the small erasures happen. This particularly comes to light in The Sky has not Changed Colour. This poem addresses the rape of Maasai and Samburu women and children by British troops post -independence; from 1965 to 2001. The final paragraph of the poem reads:
“Adrian Bloomfield in Nanyuki reports:
Human rights activists have encourages prostitutes to submit fake rape claims against British soldiers.”
And it is little reversals like this that make reading Migritude the journey that it is. In juxtaposing truths she makes apparent that which we already know. Because we know (because we know) that colonialism came with violence, rape included. There was no real reason of official record to know this. We know it because it was a fact of war. And because it is in the nature of soldiers to rape and pillage. So to say that something happened – something that we know happened – is to do the work of insisting that we do not forget. That we do not let words like colonialism lose their story. That we don’t forget the violent history that changed Kashmiri to cashmere, Mosuleen to muslin, and ambi to paisley.
Update Nov 29th 2016: Earlier version showed that the sky has not changed colour addressed colonial govt injustice. Post has been changed to reflect that it actually documents rape and sexual assault in post colonial Kenya.