Photo: Sandra Chatterjee
Two weeks ago, my director, Kim Cook, looked at me from the blue chair in my living room and said: "It's time for the script to be done." It stung an instinctive protest from my tongue, but also chimed with the agreement in my belly. It is time. Time to accept that I can't tell every story under the sun, pack every period of history, into 90 minutes of a show. That there will be room in another show, book, poem, for what doesn't make it into Migritude I
But over the last 3 days I've agonized over the pieces I still want to write. Asked myself repeatedly: What is really clamoring to come through, and how?
Tried to be present, receptive, while my brain buzzes with:
- partition of Africa
- Ben Hur chariot race outside Fallujah
- Uganda Plan
- ceasareans in Baghdad before Shock and Awe
- Mau Mau
- history of white illegal immigrants in Africa.
Empire, saris, violence, resistance, jewellery, symbols, archetypes, neocon ideology. How do I funnel it all into edible, lyrical, compelling pieces for stage? If I
can't get my head around it, how do I expect an audience to?
At times in my life, certain books of poetry become my "wordtrack" - the lines that lull me to sleep and sing me through my days. Right now, it's Book of My Nights
, by Li-Young Lee. I can hear in your voice
you were born in one country
and will die in another...
and that's why you can't sleep except by forgetting
you can't love except by remembering.
"and you put one word in your left shoe
one in your right, and you go walking.
, Li-Young Lee)
July, six weeks ago. I'm at Artwallah in LA
. There's a mehndi booth, with an artist doing small 2-minute samples of mehndi on request. I ask her to do a pattern down my left inner forearm; the skin is lighter there, less exposed to contact, so the mehndi will last longer. As she draws stylized curlicues from elbow to wrist, I suddenly have a vision of the image I want for my website: a large mehndi ambi shape, with MIGRITUDE scrolled inside its curve. (Read How Ambi Became Paisley
- the prelude to Migritude
I have a backless top on, so my back is a perfect canvas of bare skin. I beg the artist, Neetu Suri, to do it, and she generously agrees.
I expect a quick simple job, but she makes it a work of art. Come back in 30 minutes, 20 minutes
, she tells people who want mehndi, while her steady hand dots and traces intricate curves, patterns, rich borders between my shoulderblades. People gather to watch and marvel. I'm so relaxed under my sunhat, the coolness of mehndi flowing over my back, that I almost fall asleep.
For the rest of the weekend, I explain Migritude
to everyone who reads my back. I love the fact that they can't just admire the mehndi; the word forces them to think. It's a metaphor for what I want the show to do. As a friend flippantly puts it: Come for the saris, stay for the politics.
Stop for the mehndi, stay for the Migritude.
On the 6-hour drive back to Oakland from LA, I keep a careful inch between my back and the car seat to preserve the mehndi. I listen to the Himalayan Project's Wince At The Sun
. The track Postcards from Paradise
is an anthem for all of us who grew up in tourist destinations, as extras to the scenery.something like love
something like hope
something like beautiful
something i wrote
but postcards from paradise
rarely sent to me
postcards from paradise
weren't meant for me...
The day after I return, I do an interview with the Oakland Tribune. The photographer (D. Ross Cameron - check out his terrific photos on the rest of this site!)
takes photos of the mehndi on my wrist. I make sure my fist is clenched. I don't want the images to slot into convenient fetishized steereotypes of Indian women.
I have dreams about mehndi that week. I dream that all mehndi exists already, under the skin. The artist just draws it up to the surface. In my dream, a small flotilla of mehndi platypi (the platypus is the totem animal for Migritude
) float up through my dermis, between my shoulderblades, glow down my spine, curve round my waist and frolic across my belly.
Kim and I have script meetings where I'm torn between tears and helpless laughter; it just keeps getting huger. More unmanageable. 36 pieces, ranging from 3 - 10 minutes each; that's anywhere from 3 to 5 hours of material. And the pieces I want to write won't take shape. Won't tell me how to enter them. Keep rolling away like beach balls. Kim tells me she's not worried, because: It's already written.
Little things make me catch my breath these days. A line from a poem by Daniel Roop: Handing out silence is the worst form of murder.
The twist of honey off the end of a fork. The warmth of another hand in mine.
I call my parents in Kenya to see if they've made it to an internet cafe yet, to see my website. I want them to see the photos of saris, of mehndi, to understand that everything I do is drawn from the heritage they gave me. It's only 10am in Nairobi, but my father sounds exhausted.
I say: Didn't you sleep well, Daddy?
He says: I had to get up at 2am to fill up the bottles with drinking water. The pressure is so low these days you can't get water by 4am.
The churning of the dishwasher in my kitchen is suddenly obscene. The website - irrelevant.
And it's time for the script to be finished. Tomorrow, we draw a line around what we have. Let go of what hasn't yet come into being. I forget who it was who said that poems are never finished, only abandoned. I chant the precepts of the procrastinator-perfectionist recovery program: Better done than perfect. Better good than bad. It is good enough.
The wonder of my life makes me catch my breath. The gift of being here, putting words out into the world. The heartbreaking privilege of unrolling my curiosity, my anger, my joy, out into art, back into history. The power of waking each day to the question: What do I want to make?
The extraordinary wealth of hours and days in which to strive towards it.
To make something beautiful and true.
Something that loves by remembering.
Something like mehndi that flows into a fist.
Something like a platypus that frolics through your dreams.
Something like skin that tells its own story.