Feminist Hero Friday: Warsan Shire
by Abaki Beck
"you can't make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave"
This line, recited by Beyonce in her visual album Lemonade, is by poet Warsan Shire; her poetry was featured throughout the visual album and within hours of it’s release, several of her books were sold out on Amazon. Shire is in many ways the political poet of the moment: in addition to her poetry appearing in Lemonade, one of the most significant albums of last year, her emotional and poignant poems often go viral in times of crisis - her poem “Home” has become rallying cry by those in support of refugees.
Shire was born in Kenya to Somali parents, but grew up in London, having only visited Somalia later in her life. Her father is a journalist and poet, so she grew up with writing in the house. She published her first book of poems at age 23 in 2011, titled Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. She has since published Her Blue Body and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us. Her work has also been featured in various journals, and she is currently finishing up her next book titled Extreme Girlhood. Beyond Beyonce, her poetry has been widely lauded: she was named London’s Young Poet Laureate and the poet-in-residence in Queensland, Australia in 2014, and won Brunel University’s first African Poetry Prize in 2013.
Her urgent, beautifully crafted poetry explores topics like black womanhood, refugees, trauma from war, sexual violence, and the diaspora. Throughout her poetry, it is unclear exactly how autobiographical it is, but her poems focus on stories of immigrants or refugees that remain untold, or inaccurately told. She says of her poetry, “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.” Indeed, her poetry reflects not only herself, but also her mother, grandmother, and aunts. She often records stories told by her family members so she can translate them into stories later. She has also said that she sometimes writes poems about people she sees on the street, making up stories about their lives and what they do after they leave her field of vision.
Each poem is a complex, character driven story. In “Backwards,” for example, she talks about an abusive step-father, carefully describing his abuse and the havoc he has wreaked on the characters family, with a longing to go back in time. Again, it is unclear whether the “I” in the story is her or another. She writes with such potent, intentional emotion that either is entirely plausible.
“I can write the poem and make it disappear. / Step-Dad spits liquor back into glass, / Mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place, / maybe she keeps the baby / Maybe we’re okay kid?”
Her poetry has certainly struck a chord with readers; her vivid and emotional storytelling is often a place of solace after tragedy. Her poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” went viral after the 2015 Paris attack, with people sharing lines like:
"later that night / I held an atlas in my lap / Ran my fingers across the whole world / And whispered / Where does it hurt? / It answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere."
Similarly, when Donald Trump and right-wing politicians in Europe rejected Syrian refugees with fear mongering speech, her poem “Home” similarly went viral as a rallying cry in support of refugees:
“no one would choose to crawl under fences / Be beaten until your shadow leaves you / raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of/ the boat because you are darker, be sold/ starved, shot at the border like a sick animal/...and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side with/ go home blacks, refugees / dirty immigrants, asylum seekers / sucking our country dry of milk”
To close out, we’ll leave you with her reading “Conversations about home (at the deportation center.” The poem has similar themes and shares some lines with “Home.” It emits the emotions of the character talking, filled with pain and exhaustion; feelings that are only intensified through her voice. Beyond the poems in this profile, I highly suggest you read her work, listen to her read, and follow her on social media.