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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Shailja Patel on African women and why poetry alone is not change

Bibi Slippers - 2011-10-26

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Hi Shailja, and thank you for your time. From your performance in Cape Town I gather that you are as much a social and political activist as you are a poet. There is a popular and widely held belief that poetry and politics do not make great bedfellows. I'm willing to risk guessing that you'd disagree. What is your opinion on the subject?

I share Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s position: “All good art is political! There is none that isn't. And the ones that try hard not to be political become political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ My point is that it has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I'm not interested in art that is not in the world."

You are a celebrated feminist (one of the African Women's Development Fund's 50 Inspirational African Feminists, among other accolades). How are things looking for women on our continent? Are we seeing a change in attitudes and living conditions for women in Africa and across the globe?

Yes, we’re seeing change – and unfortunately, it’s change for the worse. On the African continent and across the world, women bear the brunt of the converging crises – climate change, food scarcity, water wars, military aggression. A tiny minority of urbanised African women enjoy the benefits of modernity: economic power, professional opportunities, education, and social freedoms our mothers and grandmothers didn't have. But that shouldn't blind us to the truth that the majority of African women are struggling harder than ever for survival.

My sister poet, the brilliant Lebo Mashile, shared a horrible fact with me when we were on the Poetry Africa tour – that a female child in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than of learning to read.

Your collection Migritude went to number one on Amazon's bestsellers in Asian Poetry, and was also a Seattle Times Bestseller – a rare feat for a poetry collection. During the Poetry Africa performance in Cape Town you also praised Peter Rorvik [the founder of Poetry Africa] for committing "radical acts of poetry – like actually paying poets". Why is poetry seldom seen as a real job, when it's such hard work?! Will there ever be a time when we poets could make a living from poetry?

Those are unanswerable questions, since conditions vary so widely from one society to another. A more usable question would be: “How does any poet deal with the reality of her circumstances in the most intelligent way, so she can thrive and create?” For one poet that might mean finding commercial applications and markets for her creative work. For another it might mean having another profession that gives her financial security so that she can write without struggling for survival.

Many poets seem to believe that poetry can change the world. I am sympathetic toward this sentiment, but interested in the mechanics of it all. How does it work? How can a poem make a difference? (Maybe this question is particularly pointed when asked in Africa, where we are surrounded by so much suffering and hardship.)

I’m an empiricist, with a background in political economy. I don’t “believe” in poetry’s power to do things – I observe what poetry actually accomplishes. Society is changed for the better by movements, collective action, legislation, technology, new knowledge. Poems can feed our hearts and spirits as we do that work, can articulate visions of a better reality, can share knowledge, can build and renew courage, can give voice to suffering and rage. But poems by themselves are not change. 

Who are the poets you admire and respect, and (difficult question, I know) do you have a favourite poem?

Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Li Young Lee, Patricia Smith come to mind.

Some favourite poems: Audre Lorde’s "Litany For Survival", Adrienne Rich’s “In Those Times”, Li Young Lee’s “One Heart”, Alice Fulton’s “Cascade Experiment”.

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