Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London. Her poetry reads as both artistic and activist practice, documenting stories of journey, trauma and sexual violence, alienation, assimilation, transformation and recuperation.
Warsan’s début book, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (flipped eye), was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in Wasafiri, Magma and Poetry Review and in the anthology The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt, 2011). She is the current poetry editor at SPOOK magazine. In 2012 she represented Somalia at the Poetry Parnassus, the festival of the world poets at the Southbank, London. She is a Complete Works II poet. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
Born in 1988, Warsan has read her work extensively all over Britain and internationally – including recent readings in South Africa, Italy, Germany, Canada, North America and Kenya.
Warsan is also the unanimous winner of the 2013 inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Six of Warsan’s ten winning poems, ‘What We Have’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Your Mother’s First Kiss’, ‘Things We Had Lost in the Summer (on FGM)’, ‘Maymuun’s Mouth’, and ‘Ugly’, can be read on the Prize website here.
Katie Reid for Africa in Words: Your work is often talked about in terms of its braveness and vulnerability…
Warsan Shire: I wouldn’t call what I write vulnerable or brave or raw, or any of those adjectives that are prescribed to it – I’m just writing. Those adjectives depend on whoever is writing about my poetry and what they would feel safe about sharing.
I know who I am. But it’s difficult to see yourself the way other people perceive you. There’s this stereotype of where you’re from and what religion you are and what culture you come from: I’m often perceived as quite outspoken for somebody who comes from my kind of background. But – no, actually – I’m completely normal! Often it’s an unknown measure that is being applied to me.
And most of my work is not about me anyway.
K: There’s probably quite a bit there in terms of another stereotype, that of English Literature as reserved, as the art of the indirect – but that isn’t part of your craft.
WS: No. And it isn’t part of my culture. You see poets like Sharon Olds who, because she writes about her life, is labelled a confessional poet. But she’s just writing about her life. You can write about garden gnomes, or you can write about the divorce you just went through. It depends on what poetry is for you. In my work, I’m always trying to understand something, or remember something, or even celebrate something – in that you can’t hide or be dishonest.
But regardless of what kind of work you do, you will still always be pigeon-holed into something because it makes other people feel comfortable. I mean if it wasn’t “so brave”, it would be “so African” or “so Muslim”. And although these titles are part of who I am, why would I write to that?
K: Congratulations on your unanimous win of the first Brunel African Poetry Prize. Has anything changed for you since you won the award?
WS: If anything there’s been a real focus on the fact that I’m Somali. Because even when I won the award, it was announced as “Somali wins award”. I mean, East African people were really proud of it, Somali people were really proud of it, and neighbouring countries – like Ethiopia – they were really proud of it! It brings people to you.
I am really grateful and honoured to have won and for the judges’ feedback. And especially because the Prize shortlist was so amazing.
K: One of the Prize judges (all their comments are available here), Kwame Dawes, said that it was ‘especially exciting to read a poet who manages to combine a commitment to substance and urgent subject material with the craft to turn it into illuminating and moving poetry.’ Could you talk a bit more about that sense of commitment?
WS: I’m from Somalia where there has been a war going on for my entire life. I grew up with a lot of horror in the backdrop – a lot of terrible things that have happened to people who are really close to me, and to my country, and to my parents; so it’s in the home and it’s even in you, it’s on your skin and it’s in your memories and your childhood. And my relatives and my friends and my mother’s friends have experienced things that you can’t imagine, and they’ve put on this jacket of resiliency and a dark humour. But you don’t know what they’ve been victims of, or what they’ve done to other people. Them being able to tell me, and then me writing it, it’s cathartic, being able to share their stories, even if it is something really terrible, something really tragic. Sometimes I’m telling other people’s stories to remove stigma and taboo, so that they don’t have to feel ashamed; sometimes you use yourself as an example.
K: There is also a sense of new relationships being forged by your work, new ways of working through orality, new cultural frameworks.
I am a build up of lots of things that are really, really different – cultures, countries, languages – and interests as well. When I was younger I wanted to read something somewhere that I could see myself in. I wanted to be a Somali writer, but the Somali writers that were available at the time were much older and male. Just from the perspective that I’m coming from, there aren’t many people from the same background as me doing what I’m doing: I’m writing about Somalia and I’m writing about here, but my favourite film is ‘The Virgin Suicides’ which is about American suburbia. And I really love horror. And I love hip-hop. And I was raised by immigrants and refugees. I grew up in Brent. And all of that, if you mix it up together – what comes out is not the typical, or what you might expect. But all of it is still very rooted in my culture.
K: Your poems speak a range of experiences, and of generations of memory and legacy. There is a sense of a compassionate commonality and community as others come through a voice that is absolutely and clearly yours. How do you work with all those perspectives so generously?
WS: It’s always been evident to me from a very young age that the voices of the community I come from are fragmented, subdued in different ways. I’ve always really had lots of things to say, since I was a child, and because of that I thought, if I become a writer – which is all I’ve ever wanted to do – I want to get across what my uncle has to say, or a man down the street . It’s 50% empathy, 50% creepiness! – or curiosity. But I love the idea of being able to take on another person’s voice and being able to share something. Say you see a Somali woman on the bus, and she has a pushchair, and is in a full hijab – for me to be able to write a poem from her perspective, because I have aunts and cousins who are like that, and then to be able to share her first kiss, and her favourite colour, and her favourite music is Tracy Chapman or Dolly Parton…
Character driven poetry is important for me – it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. Most of the poems I write where the character is named are based on a real person. But I won’t use their real names unless they want me to. And my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.
K: ‘Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)‘ (2012) – did that come about through direct recordings?
WS: Yes – there were incidents that made it directly into the poems – the passport being eaten, for example – I wouldn’t have thought that possible until I heard it. But I only scratched the surface. There were so many things I couldn’t fit in because they were too horrifying. That’s why it was Conversations. And why it does come from real sources – because I don’t know these things, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable watching a documentary about it when I can speak to people in my family that have experienced it. If I am writing poetry about you, or about your experience, then I need it to mean something when I read it. With my method, I think about the people who are in my work who are in my life and who I love.
A lot of research goes into it. I’ve never been to Somalia: these are other people’s memories that I’m paying tribute to, and celebrating, making sure they are archived, a part of history.
Having your own manifesto is very important. Mine involves making sure that my work is authentic and true and honest. Intention is very, very important. And if you don’t think about that, deeply, it will show in your work eventually. Poetry can be such a powerful tool and once it’s in the public domain you can’t call it back in. Who you are will come up in the poem. You need to make sure you can stand by your work in 50 years time. These things can haunt you.
K: But that doesn’t stop you from approaching certain ‘difficult’ subjects?
WS: Not at all – a subject is a subject: that has happened, this exists. Sometimes people say to me that there’s a lot of sex in my work, but if I am discussing sexual violence, you can’t really call that sex –it’s not consensual. It’s the reading that sensationalises it.
K: Recuperative aspects of your work often come through in the connective fabric of your poetry – reaching between points to illustrate connections. In a wonderful introduction to your work Kameelah Janan Rasheed describes you as an “emotional cartographer”.
WS: I remember that; that’s really nice…
K: As a multi-placed, multi-voiced person, does the process of writing map something specific for you, a sense of home?
WS: I was always trying to build towards making home in the in-between, or the otherness, or the elsewhere – the third space that people talk about – trying to feel comfortable in the fact that you are constantly exiled from all the cultures and all the countries that you think you belong to. I’ve been able to lay it to rest, only quite recently. I was in San Francisco at a reading and this really beautiful, warm little lady came to me, and spoke to me about the beauty of being between, of being able to take from all the parts of you that exist and to create something new, that because I am able to live in the in-between, I can love in the in-between. That gets rid of the rabid fascination with belonging to something that can bring out so much insecurity and fear, all the patriarchy and nationalism.
I’m going to Somalia for the first time in September. I think it might cement the fact that even though I am from there, and I speak the language, I’m not really from there. When I went to Kenya, even though I can’t speak the language, I felt like that was my country; and I walk around here (the UK) and I feel like this is my country; and I go to America and I think ‘this is my country’. Displacement – it hurts but it also creates so much possibility. I really love that idea of the in-between space as rich with that potential and something you can carry with you wherever you go.
K: Is there something that is specifically poetic in that relationship?
WS: Yes – because it brings about this longing in you – and everything is nostalgic.
Everything is coloured by longing but also hopefulness, everything is full of potential. So it really is a journey, in the very sense of what the word means. It enhances everything, because you know you are looking for something greater than yourself.
K: The title of your collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a translation of a Somali proverb. Are there particular inspirations in Somali language for you?
WS: Somali language is very rich. I could hear my mother say something and it’s violent and dark and funny at the same time: that quality definitely doesn’t exist in the English language. There’s a natural humour and visceral way of describing love or beauty or terror, which is all in the same semantic field. That, again, doesn’t exist in English.
I do a lot of things where I translate verbatim, and it just naturally sounds lyrical. I hear the violence in Somali language but I only recognise it’s violent because I am doing an automatic translation in my head. In Somali it is actually quite comforting. You don’t know if this is beautiful or if it’s really terrible, or if it’s both at the same time.
I think in both of the languages and I reference both languages. And there are some things I can’t articulate in Somali so that’s where the English comes in. But it’s probably the more simple things that I use English for.
K: You teach writing. What do you carry through from your own practice into the writing workshop space?
WS: A lot. But whatever quality it is I have that enables people to feel safe to tell me stories comes from sitting around my kitchen table and listening – being able to pull stories out of people but really honour the person they are coming from – that moves into the writing workshop space. It’s Alice Walker that says that writing saved her from the sin and inconvenience of violence: it’s saved my life. Without it, I don’t know what I’d be doing or where I’d be. So I’m always trying to give it to other people.
K: Is there any advice you would give about readings?
WS: I would say be as honest as you can be, and then it won’t be difficult for you to get up there. Take your real personality there, because that’s the only thing that’s going to work. If you’re a bit shy, take that to the stage, it’s OK. If you’re really loud, go and be loud. Don’t be a fraud. That’s my advice. And don’t get drunk beforehand. And choose! Don’t feel like you have to do every single thing that people ask you to do.
K: You won your first poetry slam at 16…
WS: That was terrible! – I had no idea what it was. I went up there with my piece of paper with my poem on it and I just read it – honestly, like I was reading a newspaper. And I thought, this isn’t going to work because everyone else is so dramatic and so theatrical and they look like actors. And I was this shy 16 year-old. And it won. And I think it won because people want to connect to the story in what they’re listening to – so you don’t need all the other stuff. Suheiur Hamad, a Palestinian poet, is a great inspiration to me, and whenever I second-guess myself about performance, or think, maybe I should be doing more, and maybe I should have a dancer here, or a light show behind me, or people lighting incense and the audience doing some kind of collective dance, I go back to her and how strong and visceral her work is; how she just stands there and it’s totally incredible. Less is more sometimes.
K: You are the Poetry Editor for Spook Magazine, an independent progressive magazine based out of New York, and you Guest Edited Young Sable LitMag in 2010. Do you enjoy that side of things?
WS: With Spook, I choose the submissions I want and the editing is very minimal. The poems are so beautiful that it’s almost like curating. But if you really want my advice as an editor you just need to ask. I can give it to you.
K: Is it your experience as a writer that enables you to edit other’s work?
WS: Yes. There’s a real emphasis on working out who this person is, what they sound like, so they can stay true to who they are. It’s not about you and you need to be able to remove your ego. You don’t want to choose things that sound like yourself.
Also it’s important to give other people that platform and that opportunity. If I hadn’t been given it, I don’t know what I would be doing right now.
K: What’s your writing process?
WS: A lot of the poems come to me in that I’ll think of a line and then I’ll write that down. And then I might think of another line – and then the whole poem is in my head, or it’s in my body somewhere, and I’ll have to sit down and get it out. And that’s like giving birth. You’ve been carrying it around for so long.
I bring collected images from the day and what’s around me together – that man on the bus, the leaf falling, my mother’s laugh – it’s quite photographic. And I’m so inspired by suburban America. It’s the everyday, the mundane, but the potential that something really terrible is happening at the same time. So that kind of horror is just beneath some of my poems.
I think it’s 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. The mundane is made strange, and vice versa: watching my mum listening to old Somali songs on an iPad; having conversations where she tells me “I don’t want to be buried here, I’d rather you take my body home”, and then me googling the link ‘taking a dead body abroad’; having phone cards in bulk in the house – why would you have that?; going to exorcisms. Culturally, there are things we don’t feel the need to mention because they’re normal. But they’re also not.
K: You said earlier that you’ve always wanted to be a writer…
WS: Always. Before I started writing poems I was writing everything else you could think of.
K: Have you always felt like a poet?
WS: After I was published I was more able to refer to myself as a poet. I feel like people should be able to define themselves any way that they want, so now I tend to leave it up to my friends to introduce me as a poet. I definitely have a very British self-deprecating thing – of all the things, that’s one that came into my culture!
K: Literary inspirations?
WS: Uncountable amounts. Mary Oliver and Margaret Atwood and Sharon Olds are doing it for me right now. But next week it will be a whole different set. I read a lot of short stories – poetry is my first love – but short stories are very inspiring for me.
K: Any quirks when you are writing?
WS: I only write to music.
K: In particular?
WS: It’s so varied – it goes from dubstep to really depressing music.
I don’t mind about loudness.
I usually write really well at night.
I don’t write longhand. At all anymore.
I write in the cinema a lot.
K: In the cinema?
WS: A lot! My writing is always inspired by film. If I don’t watch a film, I won’t write. I watch about ten films a week.
K: Best bits about writing?
WS: I’ve always wanted to see my book in a library or a bookshop, because I’m so in love with books. I went to Foyles recently and my friend said ‘you know her book is here’, because I would never say it, and they asked me to sign copies: that’s a dream come true. I used to cross other people’s names out of their books and write my own. So now I have a more legal way of realising it.
And doing what I do opens my life to so many people in the world, and to incredible friendships.
K: And are you working on a collection now?
WS: Yes, and I like it a lot. It should be finished sometime soon.
Warsan spread a lot of love (and we think she may have done this before, and likely since) through her reading as part of the fantastic ‘Diaspora Writes Back‘ on Friday 5th July 2013 – an evening of poetry and performance to launch Africa Writes, with Nii Parkes, Nick Makoha, and Leeto Thale. The event was chaired by British-Nigerian writer and founder of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, Bernadine Evaristo, a prize that Warsan won in this, its inaugural, year (2013).