Navigating the intersections of our macro and micro-histories

Shefali Saxena Monday 07th November 2022 09:10 EST

Rhiya Pau is a British-born poet of Indian heritage, from a community that has a rich history of migration. Rhiya was the Platinum Poetry winner of the 2021 Creative Future Writers’ Award, holds a BA from the University of Oxford, and earlier this year was named one of seven winners of the Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award for her forthcoming debut collection, Routes. 


She is 29 years old and writes to chronicle the stories of her family and wider community, and to explore her own identity through the lenses of travel, food, ritual and language. 


This November hiya's poetry collection, Routes, which commemorates this year being 50 years since the Ugandan Asian expulsion and since Rhiya Pau's family - and so many others - came to Britain will be published. 


Through this collection, Pau chronicles the migratory histories of her ancestors and simultaneously lays bare the conflicts of identity that arise from being a member of the East African-Indian diaspora. 


Rhiya's poetry wrestles with language, narrative and memory, as she navigates their collective fallibilities to examine and construct her own identity.


Tell us about how you conceived the idea of Routes. 


I had a very close relationship with my grandfather growing up. Bapuji was born in Kenya but moved to India in the 1940s to become a freedom fighter in the Indian Independence movement and was later a well-respected community leader in the UK. He carried these experiences with pride, leaving me with an endless curiosity around our family and community history. Routes began as an effort to chronicle the stories of my community and our migratory journey across three continents, documenting the joys and struggles of upheaval, rerooting and reinvention. 


What are the learnings of a writer like you who has witnessed migration history and stories first-hand? How does that influence your lens towards culture and mobility?


As someone ‘on the inside’ of a migrant community, it is painfully obvious that migrants are not the homogenous group that the media often portrays them to be. People migrate for a variety of reasons and bring different privileges with them – education, wealth, language skills, family/community connections - and therefore face different challenges when they arrive. As a community of relative privilege that is seeing increasing representation in senior political positions, I think it’s important to recognise that our privileges play a role in our successes and that this representation is not reflective of a flat racial playing field. There is a lot of work still to be done to increase social mobility and reduce cultural discrimination in the UK and I would love to see our community doing more to support less-privileged migrant groups. 


Why should the current generation learn about Ugandan Expulsion?


To examine our own history is to change the way we see ourselves, to celebrate our victories and hold ourselves accountable for our failures. Learning about the Ugandan Expulsion is an opportunity to honour the contributions the diaspora has made to British society and a chance for our community to collectively process traumas from the experience. 


In 1972, a decade on from Uganda’s independence from the British, the Asian community owned 90% of Uganda’s businesses. As a community who identify strongly with Gandhian philosophies of decolonising and redistributing wealth and power to indigenous populations, discourse around the Expulsion also presents an opportunity to acknowledge the structural colonialism we were upholding in East Africa. At a macro level, we were agents of Empire. Acknowledging this does not diminish or invalidate our trauma as a community. Navigating the intersections of our macro and micro histories is complex and challenging. As a community we suffered but we also enforced suffering – fifty years on, it’s my hope that we have healed enough from our own pain, to be able to recognise both these statements as truths.


Could you share some personal anecdotes of your family history of migration?


In the poem All We Know, I write ‘for over a century, my ancestors have died some place other / than the places they were born.’ Migration has been a part of my lineage as far back as I can trace. On my maternal side, my great-grandfather was a date trader and would travel between India and Oman. It was in Muscat that he learnt about the Kenya-Uganda railway being built by thousands of indentured labourers who had been brought from India by the British. On arrival in Kenya he was met by a community of Indians settled around the shores of Lake Victoria, including another great-grandfather of mine, who later moved to Jinja, Uganda. Following a wave of nationalism in the 1970s, which included the Ugandan Expulsion, both sides of my family migrated briefly back to India and then onto the UK. 


According to you, where do migrants really belong? How can people of different cultures embrace migrants?


Migration is a natural phenomenon found throughout the animal kingdom. Throughout human history we have called migrants: explorers, invaders, expats, colonisers, missionaries, refugees etc, with the sentiment around each of these terms determined by the power dynamics between the migrating and native communities. For this country to embrace migrants, it must first reckon with its own history of colonisation and resource extraction to dismantle these power dynamics, to understand that land cannot truly be owned, that it is borders and not migration that is unnatural, and that belonging is much less about geography than it is about community.


Routes will be published by Arachne Press on Thursday 24 November, when it should be in all good bookshops. It is available to pre-order from now.


Rhiya Pau will be reading from Routes at a launch event on Thursday 24 November at Keats House, Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR. All are welcome and the event is free, but tickets should be reserved in advance. Find them on Eventbrite or by following Arachne Press on Twitter: @ArachnePress 

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