Shailja Patel is an internationally acclaimed Kenyan poet, playwright, theatre artist, and political activist. She is most known for her spoken-word theatre show Migritude. CNN characterizes Patel as an artist "who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange." She divides her time between Kenya and the USA. Her book, Migritude, was published by Kaya Press in 2010.
Patel was born and raised in Kenya as a third-generation East African of Indian Gujarati heritage. Her grandparents migrated to East Africa from the Indian sub-continent. Her father was raised on Pemba Island and her mother was from Mombasa. She grew up in Nairobi and attended college in England before migrating to the United States. She now lives in Nairobi and California.
Patel is best known for her book Migritude, based on the 90-minute spoken-word theatre show of the same name. The name of the play is a term Patel coined herself. Derived from the words "migrant," "attitude" and "negritude," it refers to, in Patel's words, "a generation of migrants who don't feel the need to be silent to protect themselves." The show is described on her website as using "her trousseau of saris, passed down by her mother, to unfold hidden histories of women's lives in the bootprint of Empire, from India to East Africa." The work derives heavily from her own experiences.
The show opened to an overwhelmingly positive response in the San Francisco Bay Area before embarking on a tour of Kenya, funded by the Ford Foundation. It was also presented in Vienna, Italy, Zanzibar, and on the closing night of the World Social Forum in Nairobi, in 2007, where it received a prolonged standing ovation.
On publication, the book Migritude went to number 1 on Amazon's Bestsellers in Asian Poetry. In December 2010, it was a Seattle Times Bestseller. In 2011, Migritude won the award for Best Book Design in the American Design Awards.
Patel has appeared on the BBC World Service, NPR and Al-Jazeera. Her work has been translated into 16 languages. Her political articles have appeared in The Africa Report, Pambazuka News, Mercury (South Africa), and a range of other publications. She guest-edited a special edition of Pambazuka News: "Kenya: One Year On", in February 2009.
Honours include a Sundance Theatre Fellowship, a Creation Fund Award from the National Performance Network, the Fanny-Ann Eddy Poetry Award from IRN-Africa, the Voices of Our Nations Poetry Award, a Lambda Slam Championship, and the Outwrite Poetry Prize. Patel is a founding member of Kenyans For Peace, Truth and Justice, a civil society coalition which works for an equitable democracy in Kenya.
In 2011, the African Women's Development Fund named Patel one of Fifty Inspirational African Feminists for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. In the same year, the Poetry Africa Festival named her the "Letters To Dennis" poet, a role created to honor the legacy of the late activist-poet Dennis Brutus, and awarded to "a poet of high excellence who reflects Dennis's passion for human rights and integrity". Following her tour of India, where she appeared at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Kolkata Literature Festival, and the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, ELLE India Magazine named her as one of its New Guard Power List: "25 achievers across many fields who have excelled in their respective careers and will, in the future, continue to contribute significantly."
Awards and grants include:
- Fifty Inspirational African Feminists (African Women's Development Fund)
- Letters To Dennis, Poet of Poetry Africa (honoring legacy of late poet-activist, Dennis Brutus)
- Poet-in-Residence, Tällberg Forum
- Nomination for Premio Lettarario Camaiore (Italy)
- African Guest Writer Fellowship, Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden
- Indian American Women Empowered – National Award for Arts and Creativity
- Ford Foundation Award
- East Bay Community Foundation Grant
- National Performance Network Creation Fund Award
- City of Oakland Individual Artist Grant
- Zellerbach Foundation Grant
- Lambda Literary Festival National Slam Champion
- Serpent Source Foundation For Women Artists Grant
- Voices Of Our Nations Arts Foundation Poetry Award
- Outwrite Poetry Award, New York Lesbian and Gay Center
- Migritude, Kaya Press, 2010, ISBN 9781885030054
- Shilling Love, Fyrefly Press, 2002
- Dreaming in Gujurati, Fyrefly Press, 2000
- Neelanjana Banerjee; Summi Kaipa; Pireeni Sundaralingam (2010). Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. University of Arkansas Press. pp. 120–128. ISBN 978-1-55728-931-5.
- David Byrd (April 2, 2014). "Shailja Patel: Unfiltered Truth". Voice of America.