To Be Vulnerable and Fearless: An Interview with Writer Warsan Shire
by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Warsan Shire is a London-based Kenyan-born Somali writer whose world I first entered with a poem recalling the mouths of boys, the compromise of backseats, and bleeding skirts. In early 2012, the soft-faced and wide-eyed 23-year old poet published her first book of poetry, “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” where raw and unsheltered words meet the warmth and tenderness of her spirit.
She travels between worlds: daughter’s bodies entangled in war are warned, “when the men come, set your bodies on fire” (In Love and In War, 2012) and the moments at detention centers are remembered with discomforting clarity — “I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel once. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.” (Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre), 2012)
In “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth”, she fills the vacant pages with haunting images of women’s bodies occupied by war and displacement. In Ugly, a girl “carries whole cities in her belly” and a mother cautions that “if she is covered in continents,/if her teeth are small colonies,/if her stomach is an island/if her thighs are borders?/What man wants to lie down/and watch the world burn/in his bedroom?/Your daughter’s face is a small riot,/her hands are a civil war,/refugee camp behind each ear”. Her poetry carries the energy of multiple women, the depth of many generations, and the weight of many lives lived.
“To write poetry, like sincere poetry, it is like performing heart surgery on yourself without anesthesia…in public…You are peeling back layers. You are dissecting yourself…You do not know what they [audience] is going to do when you reach into yourself and rip out your organs to be displayed”, poet Amir Sulaiman shares in his interview on his new album “Meccan Openings”. When Warsan Shire writes, she does precisely that; she opens a wound and as an emotional cartographer, maps the terrain of her trauma and sutures the wound through her poetry. Fearless and vulnerable, she pulls back layers to expose not only the pain, but the healing as well.
On “No Shame Day”, Warsan shared about struggling with Bulimia, stating, “That whole part of my life is almost a myth, I was twenty years old, killing myself and not one person noticed.” Healed by the site of an “oiled and steamed” woman with hips as wide as hers at a hammam in Marrakech, Warsan reminds her reader, “if our secrets are secrets because we are told to be ashamed, then we must share them.” In a later tweet (her tweets always read like micro poems), she shares, “i was so terrified to write about that, because i’m so private, because i didn’t want to live like an open wound on the internet. but you have to tell the truth, otherwise you are a liar.” Warsan is not a liar; at times she is frighteningly honest, so much so that it is a soft nudge for her readers to do the same.
Your names are Warsan Shire. What do your names mean? Who gave you these names? Back on February 25, 2011, you wrote “the birth name”. In this piece you wrote, “give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue” and “my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.” Can you discuss these two lines?
Warsan means “good news” and Shire means “to gather in one place”. My parents named me after my father’s mother, my grandmother. Growing up, I absolutely wanted a name that was easier to pronounce, more common, prettier. But then I grew up and understood the power of a name, the beauty that comes in understanding how your name has affected who you are. My name is indigenous to my country, it is not easy to pronounce, it takes effort to say correctly and I am absolutely in love with the sound of it and its meaning. Also, it’s not the kind of name you baby, slip into sweet talk mid sentence, late night phone conversation, whisper into the receiver kind of name, so, of that I am glad.
You often write about “home”–homesick for a home you’ve have never lived in, “com[ing] from two countries/one is thirsty/the other is on fire/both need water”. Where or what do you describe as your home? Is home a tangible place, a feeling, a destination…?
I still feel very homeless. I live in London and have been here nearly my whole life, but it is a difficult city to connect to. I have travelled around and found my body making more sense elsewhere. But I have started to understand what it feels like to belong, so I look forward to exploring different countries and seeing how fully I can feel at home in a place, that at the end of the day, isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.
I interviewed Safia a while back and she discussed how she became a poet noting that “it has been in her family”. How did you become a poet? What was the very first poem you wrote?
I don’t ever remember not writing. My father is a writer; he is a journalist, publisher, activist, poet. I remember showing him my first poem in his small apartment and I don’t think I’ve seen him smile at anything like that, since or before. The poem itself was about Africa. I think I was eleven years old. It was dramatic. I think it even rhymed.
Any writing rituals? What is your writing process like? Do you keep a journal, write before dawn…?
I write when everyone is asleep. I write with music. I never plan it. But it is a very constant. It feels organic. My poems come to me in images, like film. I can see it very clearly and then this overwhelming urge to write out best what I just saw comes over me. I write best with free writes, where I refuse to edit what is leaving me, where I write within a specific time frame. I refuse to obsess over it, and if it doesn’t come out easily, then I leave it. I don’t write for an audience. I don’t write under pressure. I’m thankful to take my time. The poems happen to me. Sometimes I have no actual idea where they have come from.
I cannot remember the first poem of yours that I read; however, I remember suddenly feeling overwhelmed and confused. It felt as if you opened up another sensory valve. You have many fans–I guess I would not even call them fans because most of your tumblr page is full of love notes that seem a bit deeper than a passing fascination. How have you made sense of the praise you’ve received? On the opposite side, but seemingly necessary side, how have you dealt with critique of your work?
The support is beautiful. Overwhelming. I am grateful. I never imagined that people would want to read what I write. I just wanted to write. I haven’t made sense of it, I don’t think it’s important that I do. As long as I can give anyone comfort, I will. And I understand that anonymity can allow people to be vulnerable. Not everyone is okay with living like an open wound. But the thing about open wounds is that, well, you aren’t ignoring it, your healing, the fresh air can get to it. It’s honest. You aren’t hiding who you are. You aren’t rotting. People can give you advice on how to heal without scarring badly. But on the other hand there are some people who’ll feel uncomfortable around you. Some will even point and laugh. But we all have wounds. Anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that, I’m grateful.
Family always seems like a different and more intimate audience. How has your family responded to your poetry?
They are proud and supportive and beautiful and lovely. My father is a writer. My mother fell in love with and married a writer and secretly wrote poems everywhere. I think they kind of knew what they were doing. My father made sure I read everything I could get my hands on.
In rereading a lot of your of your poems speak of loss, trauma, and loneliness. How often does your poetry draw from your direct experiences? How often is your work a collage of women you know and women you’ve imagined?
None have been imagined. 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. I meet someone and pick up on something they have said, or I am taken by the way they laugh and a poem drags itself from that moment. I have seen couples argue in the street and written as if I have followed them home. Imagination is important, but the people are real people. Also, I suppose, anyone you can imagine already exists.
Your tumblr features poems under the umbrella of “Warsan vs. Melancholy”. How did you start this poetry project?
I came out of a relationship and wanted a space to write. I had no plan. Just to write. The title is very literal. Warsan versus Melancholy. A year and some change later, Warsan won.
Your first book “Teaching Mother How To Give Birth” published by Flipped Eye is on its way out. What themes will this collection cover? What encouraged you to publish a book? Will there be an audio component?
It’s about women, love, loneliness and war, in chronologic order. Poems that focus on adolescence and young adult hood, married life, divorce, motherhood, growing old and death. It has strong references to Somali culture. All I’ve ever wanted to do was write books.
Speaking of mothering, in your description of your younger sisters, Samawada and Suban, you speak of how you want to freeze them before the “inevitable humiliation” and the “before self doubt” and “before shame tries to conquer them”. In what ways do you mother your sisters through your poetry? In what ways do they mother you?
I helped raise my sisters, they are my best friends, I have mothered them in the real sense. We have a new addition to the family, little baby girl Selma. In many ways I want my writing to serve them when they grow up, like an almost ‘”how to” book. If I can help them through heartache with my poems or if they at least know that I love them absolutely, then they’ll have more than a lot of kids. Ultimately, I just want to love them. My sisters allow me to revisit the childhood I barely had. Children are consistently bright lights; I’m honored to be loved by them.
You’ve read your poems in South Africa, Italy, and Germany. I lived in South Africa for a while so I am bias in that I am most interested about your experience reading in South Africa. Can you talk a bit about your experience in South Africa both in reading and exploring the country?
South Africa completely changed the way I write about home. While I was there I worked with African refugees. I understood homesickness in a more direct, desperate. My homesickness is privileged. Before South Africa I could not even write about home. Visiting the continent for the first time since birth did allow me to find an actual voice for the feelings.
Take us back to your very first reading. How old were you? Where were you reading…what did you read? How did you feel as you stepped on the stage and began to read…how did you feel as you read…how did you feel as you left that stage?
I was sixteen and it was a poetry slam. I was very nervous. I didn’t really understand what a poetry slam was. Then I won. My friends jumped around. I didn’t want to ever do another poetry slam, but I think it has a lot to do with how I approach readings. I don’t like to call them performances; this means that I’m performing, that there is something false about it, that I’m possibly pretending to be someone else. Also, I’m quite shy and sometimes anxious, so I like small intimate readings and I like to feel like I know everyone in the room.
To a tumblr admirer, you once wrote about your love for Anais Nin: “…anais nin, one of my favourite writers since i was a nine year old reading her erotica by way of corridor light.” What drew you to Anais Nin’s work at such a young age. At 23, why does her work still resonate with you? What other writers do you admire? Why?
I read everything in the library as a kid. Anais Nin just fell into my hands and it felt electric. It still does. We enjoy writers that say what we cannot say the best way; it is almost narcissistic. I love writers who i relate to most. The lovers, the tragic, the lonely, the big hearted, the slightly peculiar. Sylvia Plath. Hafiz. Neruda. Ai. Miranda July. Rumi. Anais Nin. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many of them are dead. Writing that transcends time, culture, age and gender. Incredible. No? Yes!
In addition to your own writing, you have edited an issue of Sable LitMag. How is the process of editing and vetting the work of other writers different from writing? Is editing something you may want to do more of?
Absolutely. My editor, an incredible poet Jacob Sam La Rose has shown me how much mastery is involved in editing. I know its no small feat and takes a patient and well trained eye, but it is definitely something i want to grow in to and learn.
I know you have a BA in Creative Writing. I have often heard that school cannot teach you how to be a great writer, and I would agree with that. If it’s not serving the purpose of teaching you how to be a great writer, to what degree was your program useful?
My degree was incredibly useful in making sure that I would not become frightened and decide to become a hair dresser (I had always wanted to own a beauty salon, or be an archeologist).It allowed to me to study my craft, to embrace critique, to study the English language. I want to continue studying creative writing until PHD level. For me, it’s important.
Clearly, you are not “just a poet”. In your biography, you comment that you curate and teach workshops around the art of healing through narrative. Can you describe the structure of these workshops? Why did you begin these workshops? What is you favorite moment from these workshops?
My workshops are around the idea of using poetry to heal trauma, and I begun these workshops because I wanted to share with people how I had found healing, through creating…the cathartic ritual of letting go and using memory and confession as a form of creation. My favorite moment is when we share the work. And the recognition of safety. The trust that we have built in such a small space of time. The permission to be vulnerable.
Thinking about myself as an artist, I have encountered the labels of “Muslim photographer” or “Black Artist”. What service do these labels serve, if any?
Labels only to make those who are categorizing you feel more comfortable.
While I think all writing can be categorized as “political” in some fashion, you wrote something…”the water”…talk about the motivation behind “the water”.
I don’t like to talk politics. But water was about apathy. Apathy is making the world rot. We need to care more.
I have been dreaming about collaboration between you and Saul Williams. Something feels magical about this. Who are you interested in collaborating with?
Saul Williams is incredible. I agree it feels magical. My favorite book of his is ‘she’. I’m interested in collaborating with people who create beautiful things and their art reflects their heart. Recently i have begun working with different video artists. I like the idea of bringing together different art forms and show the fluidity that can be found in merging people and process.
Warsan at 33?