With the clarity of retrospection, when I look back at the 2012 Kwani? Literary Festival which took place in Nairobi, I realize that the two poets who moved me the most were Somali poets Warsan Shire and Hadraawi. Hadraawi is a prominent Somali poet and songwriter. He is considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet, having written many notable protest works. In 1973, Hadraawi wrote the poem Siinley and the play Tawaawac, both of which were critical of the military government that was then in power. For this dissent, he was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Qansax Dheere until April 1978. Following his release from prison in 1978, Hadraawi became the director of the arts division of the Academy of Science, Arts, and Literature in Somalia. In 2012, Hadraawi was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his contributions to peace through his poetry.
Warsan Shire has a certain je ne sais quoi. Her poetry is unapologetically bold and in-your-face, yet intensely personal, the kind of personal poetry that one identifies with because it soars above the ‘me’ to embrace the ‘I’ equals ‘you’. The relevance of her poetry speaks for itself when she addresses issues such as trauma, sexual violence, alienation, assimilation, transformation, recuperation, and above all, loss. In a way, she reminds me of the spoken word artist Akua Naru.
Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London. 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. Warsan’s début book, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Flipped Eye), was published in 2011 and 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 and her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
While Hadraawi’s poems look outwards to the nation and politics, Wasan’s poems rather look inward at the individual and family.
Warsan’s poems are so deep that we are haunted by her persona’s loss as if it were our own, we feel helpless as we are sucked into her visceral realist world where women occupy center stage and her personas are not afraid to share their pain with the world. In “What We Have”, she says:
Our men do not belong to us. Even my own father, left one afternoon, is not mine. My brother is in prison, is not mine. My uncles, they go back home and they are shot in the head, are not mine. My cousins, stabbed in the street for being too —– or not —– enough, are not mine.
It is hard to forget such lingering lines of trauma and loss, and to think that these are quotidian occurrences! Warsan has an eye for detail and the burden of memory weighs on all of her words as she takes us through the lives of ordinary women, giving voice to usually silenced voices, something she has in common with Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta. In her verses, the romantic and traumatic follow each other in such a way that, were Ambrose Bierce still alive, he’d revel in coining a word or figure of speech for his Devil’s Dictionary which would capture the disturbing brilliance of such verses as: The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women/ when the war broke out, from the poem “Your Mother’s First Kiss”. In a way, her poetry is reminiscent of Maya Angelou’s prose in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where the tribulations of women in a phallocentric society are documented. One of her poems which beautifully captures the quotidian activities of women in an explicit way, and by turns exposes their ambitions as well as struggles is “Beauty”:
My older sister soaps between her legs, her hair
a prayer of curls. When she was my age, she stole
the neighbor’s husband, burnt his name into her skin.
For weeks she smelt of cheap perfume and dying flesh.
It’s 4 a.m. and she winks at me, bending over the sink,
her small breasts bruised from sucking.
She smiles, pops her gum before saying
boys are haram, don’t ever forget that.
Some nights I hear her in her room screaming.
We play Surah Al-Baqarah to drown her out.
Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.
Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.
Family is quintessential to Warsan Shire’s poetry, as she constantly mentions relatives and genealogies (sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, brothers, uncles and grandfathers) in poems like “Grandfather’s Hands”, “Tribe of Wood”, “Ugly” and “Beauty”. Another important issue which pervades her poetry is a strong sense of place. She keeps mentioning places where events are occurring— Nairobi, the deportation center and community college among others.
The most prominent theme in her poetry remains trauma. It is found in almost every turn of phrase and appears even where it is not expected. Warsan’s poems explore the predicament of ordinary women who are helpless and victimized when faced with the tyranny of religion, war, family and lovers. Two poems that aptly exemplify trauma are “Tribe of Wood” and “Ugly”. In “Tribe of Wood”, after a mother takes her daughter to be circumcised, (mark you that the trauma is, arguably, not here):
I held down my daughter last night
spread her limbs across the forest
laid her out to rest
crushed berries across her mouth and
gave her my knuckles to chew on
she goes on to give her daughter to a man, and what rather causes the trauma, is when the girl is given to a man and her opinion is not sought. The man goes on to “spread her legs” and she does not moan [I prayed she felt something/ but I heard nothing . . .]:
I gave my daughter to a man
an offering that made my stomach tight
with want, he spread her limbs across the town
I prayed she felt something,
wriggled underneath him like
the women across the border,
I listened out to hear her moan
but I heard nothing . . .
Another poem that documents trauma is “Ugly”. It shows how some girls experience loss and trauma from a very early age, and what makes matters worst is the fact that it is not only society that stigmatizes them, but at times family, too, is involved. This situation is seen in “Ugly”, when the poet says:
Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and seawater.
She reminded them of the war.
What is amazing about Warsan Shire’s poetry is that it transcends the documentation of the lives of women, giving us an insight to what they endure from trauma, sexual violence, alienation, assimilation, transformation, recuperation and loss with such disturbing brilliance that it takes a while for one to absorb the various layers of meaning laden in her poems, which are intensely poetic and at the same time experimental prose poems.