The Writing Life of Warsan Shire, a Young, Prolific Poet
It’s a rare poet who can write movingly about African migration to Europe and also tweet humorously about the VH1 reality show “Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta.” Every generation of writers and readers has mourned the shrinking place of poetry in our lives, and they may not be wrong. They also may not be looking in the right places. Young poets are on Tumblr and Twitter, composing affecting and funny verse as short as a hundred and forty characters and also stretching much longer. Verse that is then reblogged and retweeted by thousands of followers who see themselves reflected in the posts. Of this new genre of poets, Warsan Shire, a twenty-six-year-old Somali-British woman, is a laureate.
Shire was the actual Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014, the city’s first. Born in Kenya to parents from Somalia, Shire grew up in London, where she has always felt like an outsider, and embodies the kind of shape-shifting, culture-juggling spirit lurking in most people who can’t trace their ancestors to their country’s founding fathers, or whose ancestors look nothing like those fathers. In that limbo, Shire conjures up a new language for belonging and displacement. What she has described, in an interview, as the “surrealism of everyday immigrant life—one day you are in your country, having fun, drinking mango juice, and the next day you are in the Underground in London and your children are speaking to you in a language you don’t understand.”
Her poetry evokes longing for home, a place to call home, and is often nostalgic for memories not her own, but for those of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, people who forged her idea of her ancestral homeland through their own stories. With fifty thousand Twitter followers and a similar number of Tumblr readers, Shire, more than most today, demonstrates the writing life of a young, prolific poet whose poetry or poem-like offhand thoughts will surface in one of your social media feeds and often be exactly what you needed to read, or what you didn’t know that you needed to read, at that moment.
In 2011, Shire published “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth,” a spare collection of poems that was outsize in its sensuality, wit, and grief. She opens the book, her first, with “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes / On my face they are still together.” In “Beauty,” she tells us of someone’s older sister: “Some nights I hear in her room screaming / We play Surah Al-Baqarah to drown her out / Anything that comes from her mouth sounds like sex / Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.” In “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” she writes, “The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women / when the war broke out. She remembers hearing this / from your uncle, then going to your bedroom and lying down on the floor. You were at school.” At the end of the poem: “Last week, she saw him driving the number 18 bus / his week a swollen drumlin, a vine scar dragging itself / across his mouth. You were with her, holding a bag of dates to your chest, heard her let out a deep moan / when she saw how much you looked like him.”
How much of the book is autobiographical is never really made clear, but beside the point. (Though Shire has said, “I either know, or I am every person I have written about, for or as. But I do imagine them in their most intimate settings.”) It’s East African storytelling and coming-of-age memoir fused into one. It’s a first-generation woman always looking backward and forward at the same time, acknowledging that to move through life without being haunted by the past lives of your forebears is impossible.
Shire has said that she is most interested in writing about people whose stories are either not told or told inaccurately, especially immigrants and refugees, and so she brings out her Dictaphone when relatives come to her with tales from their experiences so that she can record them faithfully before turning them into poetry. Her tone lightens in “Maymuun’s Mouth” and “Birds.” In those poems, Shire writes tenderly and hilariously of a Somali woman removing her body hair and “dancing in front of strangers” as she adjusts to her new life abroad, and of a girl who, with pigeon’s blood, fooled her new husband and his mother into thinking she was a virgin. Later, evoking the memories of mothers caught in the worst turmoil of Somalia’s conflicts, “In Love and in War” reads, “To my daughter I will say / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’ ” The collection feels confiding, occasionally brutal, but somehow still playful.
Since “Teaching My Mother,” Warshan’s profile has only grown. In addition to the Young Poet Laureate position, she received Brunel University’s inaugural African Poetry Prize, in 2013, was chosen as Queensland, Australia’s poet in residence in 2014, and has had her work published in various literary journals and anthologies. In June, the New York Times editorial board quoted from her poem “Home” in a piece urging Western countries to give more aid and safe passage to refugees: “You have to understand / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than land.” The editorial ran the same month that Shire tweeted about her adoration of a “Love & Hip-Hop” star known for her wild antics (“a bit in love with joseline”), which was a month before she tweeted “fat and perfect, perfect and black, black and fat and perfect” (retweeted three hundred and eighty-two times; she has struggled with bulimia), and a few months after she cryptically tweeted “mama i made it (out of your home alive),” retweeted two hundred and seventy-four times. Periodically, I will see tweets discovering a video of her reciting her most famous and viral poem, “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love,” which has become a self-affirmation mantra for lovelorn women online.
Shire’s work, she has said, is a project of “documentation, genealogy, preserving the names of the women came before me. To connect, honor, to confront.” But it’s her documenting of the present, always coming back to the subject of love and its many tender and punishing forms, that is enthralling. The simultaneous specificity and breadth of her appeal, across gender, race, and nationality based on her self-professed fans, is remarkable, and it took me by surprise the first time I started following her online. She tweeted “my dj name is dj eldest immigrant daughter” not long ago. I favorited it immediately.
Alexis Okeowo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of “A Moonless, Starless Sky.” In 2020, Okeowo was named journalist of the year by the Newswomen’s Club of New York.
THE NEW YORKER
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