On Reading ‘Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth’ by Warsan Shire

It is a cool crisp Saturday morning in bed. I have a backlog of reading to get through, which is always confusing and daunting to navigate.

Which book is worth my time? Which one will make the effort worth it at the end of the last chapter?

As I do my routine rounds on Facebook, I notice two friends’ posts about Warsan Shire. One is from the poem, ‘For Women Who Are Difficult To Love’, an affirmation that I feel resonates strongly among women who refuse to settle for stifling conventionalism, myself included. In it Shire writes, “you are terrifying/ and strange and beautiful / something not everyone knows how to/ love.” The other is again a poignant couple of stanzas which read, “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.” The excerpt is from a piece titled ‘ What They Did Yesterday Afternoon’.

I decide it must be the universe’s way of speaking to me to read Shire’s collection, ‘Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth’, which I bought a few months ago.

Shire’s is a collection of 21 poems which begins with a short tribute (or statement) after the title page that immediately draws me in.

“I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together.”

And this is her strongest ability. To draw you in to the places that hurt and that are healing, the private places and emotions that are rarely discussed, but that coexist in tension with many things.

While her work touches on many intimate themes, her celebration of the power and mystery of the feminine is one of the most striking for me. Through her verse, we are introduced to a girl who ferments wine illegally in her room, to Sofia who uses pigeon blood to stain the sheets on her wedding night; much to her new husband’s satisfaction, and the laughter of her friends as she recounts the story. To an older sister of whom the following is said:

“Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.
Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.”

Shire is a Kenya-born British-Somali. And it is clear that her work is a study in challenging notions of what a woman can be or do against the predominance of patriarchal traditionalism. Her women show agency, but often this agency is still frustratingly contained within patriarchy; for example, the wife who sets herself and her husband on fire after a visit by his mistress in the poem, ‘Fire’. Shire’s work forms a body of rebellion and resistance I feel any woman (and man) fighting the strictures of conventionalism can identify with. But it also reminds how even this resistance can function to be re-conformist in a world of immensely overpowering forces.

Shire’s anthology is also about change and transition. From the loss of bodily ‘inoffensiveness’ through puberty, to Maymuun’s acquisition of a ‘new tongue’ upon attending community college, to the dying grandfather who longs to return to a home which will be nothing like his memories recall it to be. There is a palpable sense of loss; of the innocent, of what is no more and can never be again.

For me, however, it is Shire’s mastery of language that is the most powerful aspect of her work. She is able to convince words to do as she pleases with them; not under any sort of duress, but from a place of genuine respect and deliberateness. And this command produces language that is both sensual and provocative. She describes nipples as “minarets calling men to worship” and grandparents, in their love “…mapping out/ each other’s bodies,/ claiming whole countries/ with their mouths.”

My favourite poem in the anthology is titled ‘The Kitchen’ and is written to a delicate but startling mix of fragrant flavours of papaya, honeyed dates, cinnamon and a cheating husband. An excerpt reads;

“Coconut and ghee butter;
he kisses the back of your neck at the stove.

Cayenne and roasted pine nuts;
you offer him the hollow of your throat.

Saffron and rosemary;
you don’t ask him her name.”

Progressing chronologically through Shire’s work, one notes the increasing themes of violence and brutality, against an equally increasing interrogation of identity and otherness. ‘Conversations About Home’ is an intense reflection about immigration in which she writes, “…I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My/ body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing… But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire… or fourteen men/ between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or/ his name, or his manhood in my mouth.”

In another piece, apathy is described as the same as war because “it all kills you”. The theme of war and violence is repeated again in the description of a daughter’s face as “… a small riot/ her hands are a civil war,/ a refugee camp behind each ear” in ‘Ugly’.

Shire’s work is about telling stories, giving the reader an insight into different lives and realities. It is political and deeply personal. It leaves you feeling enlightened but angry with its incisive social commentary and honesty. It shows women as more complex than we are often depicted to be; defiant, obedient, defiant in our obedience. It reminds us of the injustices so many still endure everyday, the loss of human dignity that befalls the ‘other’ in society. And to highlight this, the collection ends with a pithy piece, ‘In Love and In War’, which is constituted of these two lines;

“To my daughter I will say,
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.”

These men could be any men; militia, immigration officers, lovers. And the setting of oneself alight could mean one of many things; to choose a ‘less brutal’ and ‘dignified’ death of one’s making, to refuse co-optation, or perhaps to blaze so brightly that the flames of one’s womanhood – with their wonderment and heat – simply cannot not be resisted.

Warsan Shire is the first-ever Young Poet Laureate. The accompanying photo is taken from thatwornbooksmell.wordpress.com

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