Warsan Shire: Beyond Lemonade

Warsan Shire for The New Yorker
Photo credit: Amaal Said for The New Yorker

I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together.
Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

Beyoncé’s Lemonade release has left a wealth of conversation in its wake: conversations about black womanhood, spousal infidelity, Beyoncé’s involvement in Black Lives Matter.  The music was great, as was the Daughters of the Dusk- esque imagery, punctuated by some of the most significant black women of the moment. Everything, down to the costuming and makeup, seemed to have meaning. 

Beyonce Oshun ImageryHere’s the transcript of Beyoncé’s Lemonade for those who haven’t seen it. Even for those who have, it’s beneficial to read the words without music and images distracting from their strength. Pulled from poet Warsan Shire, the words add a depth to music and images that may have been fine without them, had we never known how perfect they would be when presented together.

You go to the bathroom to apply your mother’s lipstick. Somewhere no one can find you. You must wear it like she wears disappointment on her face.

The words, written by 28-year-old Warsan Shire but spoken by Beyoncé, had people on Twitter saying her name with pride (“Chimamanda on the last album, Warsan Shire on this album….Bey be reading her Black female literature!” said one person). I felt like a failure, because I should have known her name all along. So I picked up Teaching my mother how to give birth— and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

In 2013, Warsan won the first Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and in 2014, she became the first Young Poet Laureate of London. The following year, The New Yorker published this feature on her, in which they call her art “a new language for belonging and displacement.”They’re not wrong- Shire writes predominantly in English, interspersing words in Somali and Swahili to emphasize the audience she’s writing both for and about.

She speaks for women:

Your mother was sixteen when he first kissed her / She held her breath for so long that she blacked out / On waking she found her dress was wet and sticking / to her stomach, half moons bitten into her thighs.

She speaks for refugees:

All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.

Warsan Shire speaks for those whose neglected stories must be told by people who deeply understand them. Somali by heritage and Kenyan by birth, she’s heard no shortage of stores featuring the carnage and pain reflected in her poetry. When told stories, she records them, so she can accurately write poetry from that person’s perspective. The result is powerful, and has been featured widely prior to Lemonade– particularly her commentary on refugees and displacement issues.

While perhaps not first written with Beyoncé in mind, many of Shire’s poems seem to ingratiate themselves with little effort. It seems certain dynamics ring true for many women of color, and not just those in literal wartime. Her poems repeatedly evoke universal imagery of feminine strength, loss, and sacrifice, and are quotable, making them ripe for the age of social media.

Warsan Shire is incredibly accessible for those interested in her work. She’s a poet in an age when Nayyirah Waheed gains a following through short reflections in black on a white Instagram photo. When Yrsa Daley-Ward tweets like her keyboard is a Moleskin notebook. It’s new and risky, but it allows them to connect with an audience, to spread short poetry and prose to those who wouldn’t otherwise relate to poetry at all. It allows them to meet the audience halfway, while also allowing them to have a finger on the pulse of a generation that seems to feel everything so viscerally. There’s a discussion to be haTeaching my mother how to give birth coverd about whether this type of accessibility is the next step for literature.

Even if you’re not particularly “into” poetry, Warsan Shire is worth reading. Much of it is upfront, easy to identify with or analyze. She doesn’t write to confuse– she writes to educate and enlighten. She writes to give voice to ordinary people experiencing extraordinary things.

There are small books of poetry that are easily found on Amazon (Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is phenomenal), however they’re mostly sold out. Try Kindle, even though I have a particular dislike for reading poetry on e-reader. For an instant fix, try Bandcamp, which has a set of poems read by Shire herself. Like many other 20somethings, she’s also on Twitter, and nearly other social media outlet. I’ll leave you with another of her readings, this time in a video:

For Women from MovingOn on Vimeo.

Have you read any of Warsan Shire’s work? Were you familiar with her prior to Lemonade? Have any other poets whose genius you’d like to pass on to me? Let me know in the comments!

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11 Comments

  1. […] oftentimes short and powerful– some lines reading more like one brief self affirmations. Like Warsan Shire, she manages to talk about a long list of societal and internal struggles. Her 2013 latest book, […]

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  2. I have heard about her due to her Kenyan links.Her name reminds me of Waris Dirie who wrote Desert Flower.I will make a point of reading Shire’s works.Great post.

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    1. Definitely give her a read! It’s poetry, so some of her stuff is a pretty quick read. It’s definitely the type of stuff that makes you think, though.

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  3. […] Warsan Shire: Beyond Lemonade […]

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  4. She sounds amazing! Funny that you and Carolyn wrote about her on the same day. 🙂 The poem about refugees gutted me. I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carolyn actually asked if I was going to write about her a couple days ago. I knew I would, but I didn’t quite know what I was going to say until last night. The way I see it, the more Warsan press, the better! She’s great– especially that deportation centre poem. I love her and can’t wait to see more. She’s so young, that there’s so much potential!

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  5. Thanks so much for writing about her! I didn’t know her work prior to Lemonade and now I can enjoy some of her work on Bandcamp since everyone else is buying up hardcopies! I do love poetry but usually can only read one poem every other week so I don’t read as much as fiction. I get overwhelmed otherwise, like taking in an entire show in an art gallery. Some of my faves writing in English are of course Audre Lorde, Suheir Hammad, May Ayim, Amalia Ortíz and Staceyann Chin. I adore spoken word most of all, but most of these do/did live performance too.

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  6. I saw your status updates on Goodreads, but had no idea how amazing this is. I will definitely have to add it to my TBR list

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    1. SO good! You’ll finish on your lunch break, but still want to read it again when you get home.

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  7. She’s so talented; I remember reading her work for the first time a few years ago and wondering periodically since then when her first full-length collection would come out. So excited for the publication later this year!

    Also, have you noticed that her Tumblr has kind of been erased? Wonder what that’s about.

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    1. I did notice! I’m thinking she’s finally getting someone to manage her image and streamline everything like Chimamanda probably did.

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