The year 2017 so far has been a year of introductions. One introduction that was made to me this year was the world of poetry influenced by migration. This is not solely written by and about immigrants, but also poetry written by descendants of immigrants, and the continuing effects of migration in their lives. The first poems I read about migration were by Warsan Shire in her collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth and I was blown away (I’ll see if I can gather my emotions about that book enough to form a blog post.) I began to scour the internet for more of the same thing, like an addict searching for his next hit. I found nothing that satisfied me. Then one day, as I scrolled down my Instagram feed, I came across a poem someone had taken a picture of from a book. It was a fragment from Shailja Patel’s poem ‘Dreaming in Gujarati’ from her collection named Migritude. The fragment read:
Part of the appeal of this poem for me was the ‘solid ancestral pride’ Patel wrote of, my mother tongue, Gujarati. It is a language I rarely see mentioned, as South Asian focused literature mainly uses Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. Gujarati is a minority language, with “only” 46 million speakers, and as my uncle once told me, it is a dying language. In the poem, Patel talks about how she struggled to speak the language, being mocked by elders as a result. This was something I could relate to deeply, feeling as if I am missing a part of my voice. She touches on the internal identity crisis caused by not being fluent in one’ mother tongue, but being fluent in the language of the people who colonised her ancestors, the people who attack her for her race.
Their tongue – or mine?
Have I become the enemy?
In her poem ‘Shilling Love’, Patel portrays the grim realities of the migrant experience, explaining how her parents displayed love to their children.
My mother propels us through / tutors, exams, scholarship applications / locks us in rooms to study / keeps an iron grip / on the bank books
Fifty shillings to the pound / we cry over meltdown pressure / of exam after exam / where second place is never good enough
They snap / their faces taut with fear / you can’t be soft / you must be strong / you have to fight / or the world will eat you up
Although their parenting methods may seem harsh, for migrant parents, harshness is a necessity. To ensure their children had a better life in the long run, they had to be tough with their education to ensure they held high qualifications. Education meant opportunity in the West, meant that their children would never have to have hands callused by decades of hard labour. The love of migrant parents is sharp and hard to swallow, because they did not have the security that many of us enjoy.
Love is a luxury / priced in hard currency.
In her poem ‘The Making (Migrant Song)’ Patel fuses the immigrant experience with musings on colonialism and modern imperialist culture. She reveals the bleak moments of cultural integration (We cringe in silent shame for you when you don’t offer food or drink…Insult us without knowing.) Her rage against the exploitation of black and brown bodies is almost tangible, and she does not shy away from recognising injustices that still exist in the world today.
We all love to see bodies from Africa that move. We all love to move our bodies to rhythms from Africa. But we are terrified of African bodies that speak.
Migritude draws from history to form a collection of creative work on race, ethnicity, immigration, and colonialism. It is at once a work that one can relate to as well as learn from, and even if that is not what you are looking for, it is still a shining example of stunning poetry and prose.