A burning taste of exile

Recommendation: Warsan Shire: Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. Poems. flipped eye publishing 2011

By Lise Olivarius

The first words of Warsan Shire’s collection of poems read: “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together.” Thus the key notes of origin, loss, and identity are struck, along with the characteristic bodily sensibility.
Warsan Shire is a poet of Somali origin, born in Kenya in 1988, raised in London and now mainly based in Los Angeles. She has won several awards, and rose to prominence when her poetry was featured in Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016). Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth from 2011 is her first book. Only 34 pages long, it is thin as a pamphlet.
The poems centre around roots, the severing of them, and the rootlessness that follows; as well as around war, escape, exile, and xenophobia; love and adolescence. The gallery of characters is dominated by mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers. Fathers and husbands are mainly associated with absence and abandonment. Patriarchal control, on the other hand, is omnipresent: From sexual violence and female genital mutilation to beauty standards and body negativity. But we also find the joyful bonding between girls deceiving patriarchal norms: “Sofia used pigeon blood on her wedding night/(…) We giggled over the static.”

exile becomes a distinctly oral experience

With simple, straightforward words, sharp sensations are conjured up for the reader: “We hugged at the departure gate,/ waifs with bird chests clinking like wood, boyish,/ long skirted figurines waiting to grow/ into our hunger.” The language possesses a considerable sensuous beauty. The sense of taste, especially, plays a prominent role. The poems are full of taste impressions, and generally of oral elements such as mouths, tongues, spit, hunger, and consumption, sucking, kissing, feeding, and biting. It is alternately loving and violent, and perhaps most powerful when it slips from one to the other. The deceptively innocently titled “Your Mother’s First Kiss” turns out to recount a rape of a teenage girl who wakes up from a blackout with “half moons bitten into her thighs.”

Typical for the poems is that everything is presented as bodily experiences

In “Maymuun’s Mouth”, exile becomes a distinctly oral experience : Maymuun got a “new tongue” as she “lost her accent”. Loss is also a central motif – the loss of oneself, of innocence, of identity, of home. The four prose poems called “Conversations About Home” are monologues from a deportation centre. The refugee narrator describes home as a “shark’s mouth” that has “spat me out”, while the migration itself becomes a digestion process devouring the narrator and ending with excretion: “I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck; I did not come out the same.”
Typical for the poems is that everything is presented as bodily experiences. A central metaphor is the body as a landscape or a map. Simultaneously, the geography is endowed with corporal features: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket.”
Another image that recurs throughout the book is the burning body, particularly the burning female body. It refers to a torture method used in war (“burning torsos erected on poles like flags”), but the body fleeing the war carries the fire with it as a metaphor: “My body is burning with the shame of not belonging.” The body on fire also becomes an expression of self-destructive love. A sister burns the name of a married lover into her own skin. A jealous wife sets herself and her husband on fire.
When it comes to literature by migrant writers, critics and other readers tend to focus disproportionately on the autobiographical and testimonial elements – as if the migrant artist is assumed to possess an exceptional authenticity. But the poems of Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth are not autobiographical. The perspective shifts between different first and second person narrators. The voices vary, but the tone remains the same: Plain, imploring, urgent, but composed.
Warsan Shire is expected to publish a longer collection of poems in 2017. In 2015, she released Her Blue Body with excerpts from her work in progress.