"Performance in Shailja Patel's 'Migritude'"

For whatever reason, I was digging through some old papers (actually, the depths of my inbox) and I came across the notes for a paper I gave at a panel on "The Politics and Aesthetics of Shailja Patel's Migritude," way back in 2012, what seems like a very long time ago. For what it's worth, I post it here, a textual trace of that absent presentation.

For me, what’s first interesting about Shailja Patel’s Migritude is the space it creates between form and its relationship to performance

This is something the work foregrounds, in the split between show and book:

  • experientially, these are two significantly different things:
  • Shailja Patel on a stage != “Shailja Patel” on a shelf (or on amazon.com)

I want to tease out and play with that distinction. There’s a tension, a felt tension between:

  • “Migritude” the “one-woman show,” traveled around the world
  • this book, which contains the text of those performance (pages 1-63) but

(a) is less than that performance (b) is also more than that performance

After all, those 60 pages aren’t even a majority of the entire book; the para-textual apparatus isn’t just the majority of the book, it’s the good stuff. Without it, it would be incomplete; the supplement is the book’s realization.

(Parenthetically: of course, I’m more interested in the latter than in the former because I haven’t seen the performance, because this is a book that, for me, exists because I ordered it from Amazon)

BUT: I'm interested in the way the book (as form) stages its relationship to the performance that it’s built out of, “the show that gave birth to it” as Shailja puts it in the introduction

For one thing, these reproductive metaphors are a way of staging that relationship between originary meeting and resulting form, using variations the word “birth” twice, and even refers to the “9 months” between a conversation with Kim Cook and finally calling her, to cement the point:

  • There’s an exchange – a performance, a receptive audience, a conversation (but also an event that only happens once)
  • Followed by the form it brings into being, the resulting issue of that social intercourse, you might even say, which is this book

Now: so often what narratives of “reproduction” do is close down interpretive possibility, the way a word like “pro-life” is meant to end a discussion, rather than start it

“Think of the Children!”; how KONY2012 uses the figure of the child to forestall any kind of thoughtfullness, any kind of nuance or ambiguity. A child is suffering à we must not only do something, but the way has been prepared for us to do whatever it is we are being ideologically prepared to do:

  • The question of empowering Africom and the Ugandan army to extend its range, doesn’t get asked, can’t get asked
  • It's obvious, its self-evident, it’s as clear as the nose on your face.
  • Look at the Child! Presence of the child is enough, is everything

Whereas: reading this book – as someone who hasn’t seen the performance – is something like the reverse. I know two things:

  • this performance happened (I have the evidence in my hand)
  • I didn’t see it; it is lost to me

The thing in my hand reminds me that I wasn’t there, that I didn’t see it

I could give more examples, but suffice it to say that an important part of reading the book (as opposed to the performance) is to be constantly made to feel and experience the absence of the performance that it’s about, to be constantly made aware of that performance’s absence

Now, I hope it’s clear that the reason I find all this so interesting is the way this all mirrors the book’s subject matter:

  • The presence of absence, the tangibility of distance, the kind of mourning one does for the far-away origin: these are all ways of talking about exile, about migration, about emigration
  • And the way we find in “form” a nostalgic/memorial/recuperative journey towards the lost object is the book’s approach to its own performance: always circling around it, orbiting it, finding new ways to both approach it and – by remembering it – to reinforce that sense of its absence

Coda: I can’t help but think about the relationship between “migritude” and “negritude”

  • There is no essential negritude: what Senghor and Cesaire meant by the term was never very stable, never very unified, never sure
  • But there is a kind of essentialized negritude, which essentially reduces to “blackness” (maybe the negritude of an author who left his exile in Paris and returned home to be president of Senegal)
  • That essentialized negritude has hardened into a form – a goes without saying – a thing which is as self-evident as one’s skin Just like “every earnest young poet wants to talk about colonization and identity” à the experience has hardened into a kind of cliched form, the way “negritude” could harden into an unwieldy synonym for blackness, African-ness
  • The way “form” indicates a certain kind of interpretive expectation, that form be all, that a poem be no more than the words on the page, no more than sounds and signification
  • It seems to me to be desperately important that “The Making” was written at 3 AM
  • Subjectively: I like it much more as an expression of the labor/socialization/expectations/anxiety of the poet, writing at 3AM, than I do as a set of words and typography that is expected to stand on its own
  • She is expected to bring back commodities, money, success (p96) – fetishized product of labor
  • Instead, she brings back a commodity that is radically defetishized, a commodity that is nothing but the thing that disappears when you fetishize a commodity: the labor of its making, the labor of birthing oneself into existence