Samatar Elmi reviews ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ by Warsan Shire

Lessons in Geography and Anatomy

Dorothy Smith and others have contributed to our understanding of the standpoint, a theory which goes some distance in explaining why contemporary writers seem better at adopting a multiplicity of perspective in their work. Diaspora writers are especially interesting in part due to their unique access to various ‘outsider-within’ perspectives. Warsan Shire was born in the Somali Diaspora community in Kenya, moved to London as a young child, is comfortable in Italy, and has read her poetry around the world. Her writing is an open invitation into a multidimensional reality generous with its insights and observations. Her first collection is a clear statement of intent for a young writer who has assumed the burden of responsibility for communicating the traumatic aftermath of the Somali civil war and subsequent Diaspora with a particular focus on the impacts felt by women.  Teaching my mother how to give birth is a modern treatment of the contradictions and conflicts of the Diaspora experience. The title, like much of Shire’s work, turns conventional wisdom on its head and forces us to reconsider received roles and notions.

Shire is a cartographer of the physical as body and place become metaphorical devices imbued with sense and meaning. In Conversations About Home, Shire’s powerful description of an obsolete passport being destroyed deploys extended metaphor to suggest the internalising of the process of identity crisis: “I tore up and ate my own / passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to / forget”. In the same poem: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t they see it on my body? The / Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the / city of Rome with no jacket”. The body, complete with scars and wounds, becomes the immigrants chronicle, a living and mobile Bayeux Tapestry, which carries the answers to the riddle of identity and on another level provides the history and justification for struggle.

In Grandfather’s Hands, Shire explores anatomy and geography as sexual and romantic metaphor with impressive effect:

Your grandfather’s hands were brown.
Your grandmother kissed each knuckle,
Circled an island into his palm
and told him which parts they would share
and which parts they would leave alone.
She wet a finger to draw where the ocean would be
on his wrist, kissed him there,
named oceans after herself.

… Your grandparents often found themselves
in dark rooms, mapping out
each other’s bodies,
claiming whole countries
with their mouths.

The notions of ownership and sensuality in the above poem offer an insight into the psychology of the stateless individual, where physical geography has become inaccessible, almost taboo, and therefore a fitting metaphor for desire.  This idea is developed further in Things We Had Lost In The Summer, where desire, the sacrilegious and the physical collide to produce some wonderful imagery: “Amel’s hardened nipples push through / the paisley of her blouse, minarets calling men to worship.” Also, in Questions for Miriam: “You were a city / exiled from skin, your mouth a burning church”.

The central enquiry in this text is one of identity and occurs almost entirely at the level of subtext as Shire adopts a detached and impersonal voice and form. Often, we are confronted with characters who struggle to reconcile their religious, cultural, and sexual identity in an unstable and violent world. Shire aims to confront the conventional, epitomised in the final poem where the poet writes: “To my daughter I will say, / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’”. The traditional family unit is further scrutinised, with Shire writing: “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together”. This is a powerful expression of the failure of the old atomic structures to survive in the sexually and physically violent environment of civil war and the subsequent challenge of Western modernity in the Diaspora. In this instance, the body is formalised as a fortress against suffering.

Your Mother’s First Kiss, imagines a mother getting a bus in London and finding the driver is the man who raped her and fathered her daughter. The daughter clutches a bag of dates to her chest, which is symbolically interesting as dates are the traditional food for breaking fast and represents the end of solemnity and silence; the end of reverence and obligation. The poem’s climax, with the mother’s upsetting realisation of the resemblance between father and daughter, is particularly haunting with its echo effectively ringing throughout the collection. The caricatures of mother/daughter relationships throughout he collection expose the frictions and tensions magnified by the width of the cultural-generational gap. In Beauty where a mother bans her daughter from saying God’s name because: “Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex”, and in Things We Had Lost In The Summer (exert below), when an adolescent girl explores her sexuality, we are shown how the search for identity produces as effect an adversarial relationship between mother and daughter:

I open my legs like a well-oiled door,
daring her to look at me and give me
what I had not lost: a name.

The identity of mothers, and more generally women of the pre-Civil War generation, represents the old order of characterised by female oppression and weakness throughout the collection. They are nearly always the victims of sexual and violent abuse at the hands of men.  Even when, in Fire, a wife exacts her revenge by incinerating her husband for his infidelities, she also kills herself in the process, giving us an all-or-nothing position which is hardly the picture of strength. The contrast could not be clearer with the younger women, such as Maymuun and Sofia, who are renegotiating (on their own terms) the cultural and sexual balance of power.

In Maymuun’s Mouth, we are told the story of a Somali refugee and her adjustments to life in the West, taking photos of her newly shaped hair by a bridge. The bridge token works on two levels, the incidental and the symbolic, which extends the metaphorical reach of the poem in understanding transformation, journey and identity in Diaspora experience. Birds offers an ironic treatment of the conflict between modern and traditional sexual norms in Somali society and also between the expected moral standards for women and the double-standards of men:

Sofia used pigeon blood on her wedding night.
next day, over the phone, she told me
how her husband smiled when he saw the sheets,

On first readings, the book is comprised of a series of traumatic episodes with sensational and shocking images. But it is wrong to regard this collection as a work of tragedy.  It is not exclusively a book about hope either. What it does exceedingly well is provide a series of concentrated vignettes about change. It does not answer all the existential questions raised by Diaspora identity but it demands that we revise our preconceived notions about a part of the world that to most of us is all pirates, warlords and famine. My only addendum would be to encourage more of the same, only extended in scope to give us more. Our picture of Somali women has gained new dimensions through Shire’s honesty, but I fear that a simplistic reading of this collection does little to challenge the unfair stereotype of Somali men as exclusively brute and savage. Needless to say, this is a work of depth, vision and beauty that deserves to be read, enjoyed and discussed. I have no doubt that it will.



Order your copy of Warsan Shire’s  teaching my mother how to give birth, published by Flipped Eye here


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