Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head: Warsan Shire, Chatto & Windus
Warsan Shire’s first full collection captivates the reader with the precision and pressing rhythm of her lines that reflect the urgency of her message. Shire is a Somali-British poet who was born in Nairobi, but her family fled in 1988 when she was only a year old and moved to London, where she was raised. Her father, a journalist, had to leave Somalia because his life was in danger. Since the civil war started in 1991, three million people have left the country and become refugees.
Shire gives voice to these unheard people in her poetry, often as a collective spoken word rather than a personal reflection on what she has experienced. Moving to different countries and living in multiple temporary forms of accommodation profoundly mark the refugees’ lives. The displacement causes mental and physical suffering that is only partly relieved when they settle in a host country. Her poems are strong and compelling; they address oppression fiercely and relentlessly. Like a warrior, Shire exposes the harrowing experiences of the most vulnerable, that is, children and women, who are repeatedly exploited and abused.
Moving to a different country not only means impoverishment and displacement, but it might also imply discrimination and isolation. The refugee is often seen as an intruder who steals money from the host country and should go back to where they are from. But “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”, Shine remarks in one of her most famous poems, ‘Home’, that rightly gave her international attention:
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well. The boy you went to school with, who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory, is holding a gun bigger than his body. You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land. No one would choose days and nights in the stomach of a truck, unless the miles travelled meant something more than journey.
I don’t know where I am going. Where I came from is disappearing. I am unwelcome. My beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory.
Shire won the Brunel University African poetry prize in 2013 and was the first Young Poet Laureate for London in 2013. She contributed to Beyoncé’s 2016 film Lemonade, which narrates the singer’s relationship with her husband, Jay-Z, and in 2020 gave poetical responses to Beyoncé’s musical film Black is King. Shire first published her poetry online on Tumblr and now she has 8,000 Twitter followers and 57,000 followers on Instagram. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. Her first publications are two chapbooks: Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth and The Blue Body.
Her relationship with her mother, who divorced her father, remarried and had three more daughters, is one of the central themes in her poetry. She felt abandoned during her childhood, an existential condition that mirrored and profoundly marked her refugee status. Eventually she mothers herself:
Mama, I made it
out of your home
alive, raised by
in my head.
She manages to survive despite adversities that almost killed her. Poetry, family rituals and traditions and Islamic spirituality guide her through indifference, racism and sexism. She depicts a world of unhinged women whose lives are a continuous battle to affirm their identity and survive men’s oppression. The woman’s body, its fluids and response to man’s touching, is at the fore. Blood, menstrual blood, the blood caused by violence and killings and the bleeding caused by losing one’s virginity are vital symbols but also represent a loss which is always lurking and which ostracises women.
Her deeply distressing experiences shape her identity and her vision, which is merciless but implies the possibility of renewal as well as a strenuous fight for survival. In this process, witnessing oppression is essential and is expressed with anger, but she is also aware of human vulnerability and its empowering strength. Besides addressing rape and marginalisation, Shire also examines social issues such as female genital mutilation and the Victoria Climbié case, a tragic example of inexplicable torture being inflicted on an innocent child.
Her stories are troubled and disturbing, revealing a humanity on the brink of insanity. Her poetry is a continuous search for home which is explored through the figure of her mother and her own experience of walking out and having her own life and her own family. This is a significant collection that voices truthfully and openly the tragedy of conflicts as well as the marginalisation of women and the consequences that these devastating issues have on humanity. It was shortlisted for the 2022 Forward prize for best first collection.
Warsan Shire, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, Chatto & Windus, £8.99
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