Warsan Shire / The Somali-British poet quoted by Beyoncé in Lemonade
The migrant talking back … Warsan Shire. Photograph: Amaal Said
Warsan Shire: the Somali-British poet quoted by Beyoncé in Lemonade
She was London’s Young Poet Laureate, becoming a voice for its marginalised people – now her work has been recited by the queen of pop
Rafia Zakaria Wed 27 Apr 2016 15.00 BST
he writes of places where many Beyoncé fans rarely go, the portions of London where the faces are black and brown, where men huddle outside shop-front mosques and veiled women are trailed by long chains of children. Warsan Shire, the Somali-British poet whose words are featured in Beyoncé’s new globe-shaking Lemonade album, is a bard of these marginalised areas – she was even named the first Young Poet Laureate for London at 25.
Beyoncé reads parts of Shire’s poems, including For Women Who Are Difficult To Love, The Unbearable Weight of Staying (the End of the Relationship) and Nail Technician as Palm Reader in interludes between songs in her 12-track, hour-long video album that premiered this week. Truly, Shire was a brilliant choice for Beyoncé’s unapologetically black and female album: like the people and places from which they are woven, Shire’s poems – published in a volume titled Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth – are laden with longing for other lands and complicated by the contradictions of belonging in new ones. In Conversations about Home, she writes: “I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget”, and: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket.”
Finally, here is the migrant talking back, trolling the absurdities of documentation that have such unquestioned legitimacy in the Western architecture of border and boundary, admission and exclusion. Nationality rests in the passport: the Somali government, long embattled, no longer issues them. Via Shire’s poetic rendition, the two are paired and a question posed: Is reducing a person’s right to refuge to a piece of paper more or less bizarre than the act of eating one? Isn’t the body a better bearer of the story of a journey than a pamphlet made of paper? In verse, Shire recalibrates the distance between the documentary details of belonging and the human experience of it, revealing them to be two vastly different things, fragile and futile foundations for justice.
In Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre), Shire’s retort to being told “go home” and “fucking immigrants” is similarly prescient if ominous: “All I can say is: I was once like you, the apathy, the pity...” She ends on her now much-quoted line: “My home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.”
If the otherness of migrant communities is one iteration of a no-go area, the sexuality of Muslim women is another. Shire’s verse explores this realm with equal ardour and originality, taking on faith, men and culture in a wild war of verse. Sometimes the dominance of men is countered via treachery. Birds is the story of Sofia, who “used pigeon blood on her wedding night” to fool her virginity-obsessed husband, who, easily fooled, “smiled when he saw the sheets”. At other times, the erotic and the transgressive intersect, as in Beauty, in which her older sister, returning from a tryst with her lover, “smiles, pops her gum before saying boys are haram (forbidden) don’t ever forget that.” Together the poems reveal the distance between rules and reality, what is believed and what is lived. In The Kitchen, food and sex become weapons, as a woman narrates the sensuous seduction of a cheating husband: “sweet mangoes and sugared lemon, he had forgotten the way you taste / Sour dough and cumin: but she cannot make him eat like you.” In Grandfather’s Hands, Shire imagines the lovemaking of her grandparents, their passion “claiming whole countries with their mouths”, a genealogy of passion, a foretelling of the literal journeys of the future. Sexual pleasure, like sexual violence, Shire seems to be saying, belongs to everyone; it is not learned or located in the west.
The migrant and the Muslim woman may be the most marginal figures of our divided and suspicious present, their realities dulled into the monochrome of submission and desperation, to elicit pity or polemic. In Warsan Shire’s poetry they speak for themselves, its vivid literary exploration of their inner lives adding the depth and complexity that grants them a full and realised humanity. Here is rebellion in verse, an act of literary guerrilla warfare against “the lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer”, against a stodgy western literary sphere that too often relegates poetry like hers to the peripheries of acclaim. It is also a revolt against the constrictions of faith and femininity, a refusal to “sit like a girl”, to permit her own mutilation at the behest of tradition, to pretend at being “pure chaste and untouched”.
The last poem in Shire’s collection, titled In Love and War, is a bare two lines: “To my daughter I will say: when the men come set yourself on fire.” It is an apt conclusion; the poetic equivalent of self-immolation is self-exposition. Shire has done it, giving all of herself to us, so that we may read, feel and rebel. She’s one to watch, even after the social media frenzy around Beyoncé’s latest dies down.