Warsan Shire: A poet giving voice to refugees

(An edited version of this article was published in the February 2020 edition of Praxis Englisch.)

“No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark,” writes Warsan Shire, a British poet who was born to Somali parents in Kenya. Her family migrated to the United Kingdom when she was just a one year old baby. Though she was raised in London, Shire always felt like an outsider in that city. She moved to the United States of America, and has been living in Los Angeles since 2015. Her personal life trajectory, involving numerous journeys, has fed into her creative work in an incredibly powerful way.

Shire writes in English but her poetry has been translated into several other languages including Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Estonian and Italian. The publications she is known for are titled Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Her Blue Body, Our Men Do Not Belong to Us, and Extreme Girlhood. Her poems are widely circulated in digital spaces such as Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, especially as part of awareness campaigns about the hardships faced by immigrants and asylum seekers from Africa and Asia. They are fashioned out of autobiographical material, and from interviews with her immediate and extended family.

I like Shire’s poetry because it is simple, direct and hard-hitting. It speaks of refugees as human beings fighting for survival, not as economic liabilities threatening the future of developed countries. As she works with memories, both nostalgia as well as sadness are recurring themes in the poems she has written. They are filled with the yearning for a lost homeland. In Shire’s case, this place is Somalia. She did not grow up there but she feels strongly connected to it because of her heritage.

Shire urges her readers to walk in the shoes of people who are deemed as security threats or potential terrorists simply because of cultural differences. Through her poems, she sensitizes readers about the state surveillance and sexual violence that refugees encounter when they cross borders. She brings a voice of dignity and empathy into highly charged public conversations about race, identity, displacement and exile. She writes, “No one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land.”

Writer, educator and researcher

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