SOURCE: THE NEW YORKER
BY: ALEXIS OKEOWO
On a wet day in London, around 2013, the poet Warsan Shire turned on a voice recorder as her uncle talked about his youth in Somalia, his life as a refugee, and his addiction to the bitter-leaf stimulant khat. Shire, who is thirty-three, with dark curls and a high forehead, sat with him in his room at a boarding house in Northwest London, where several immigrant men lived. Her uncle had lost most of his teeth because of his khat addiction. “When you chew khat, you don’t sleep, it keeps you up,” Shire told me recently. “I asked him how it feels to do that.” He told her, “While you’re high, it’s like you build, with your words and with your dreams, these massive towers of what you’re going to do tomorrow, how you’re going to fix up your life. And then the sun comes up, and the towers have been toppled. And you do that every single day and never get anywhere, because you’re constantly lying to yourself.”
When her uncle was a teen-ager, he won a scholarship to study abroad; family members spoke of him as the relative who had great promise. But when a civil war broke out in Somalia, in the early nineties, he lost the scholarship. He immigrated to England, but he never married or had children. Shire’s parents had also gone to England as refugees from Somalia, and through the years she had often talked with her uncle about his past. In the boarding house, sipping qaxwo—Somali coffee, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom—he told her he felt that he had “failed at life” and was “cursed by the war.”
Much of Shire’s poetry has focussed on the experiences of immigrant women. In the past several years, though, she had become more curious about the inner lives of the men in her family. “There’s always been this thing I found particularly sad about some of the men I grew up around,” she told me. “They would wear these suits, and the suits were a bit too big and would hang over the wrists, and they looked like little boys playing dress-up to go to a job interview that they’re never going to get accepted at. Something about that also reminded me of how futile their lives must have felt in this new world. They don’t fit anywhere.” Shire’s first full collection, “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head,” will come out in March. In one poem, “My Loneliness Is Killing Me,” she describes meeting her uncle at the boarding house, as Somali pop plays in the background: “Steam rises from qaxwo bitter with tears, carefully / rolling tobacco the same color as his hands / He sings along. Alone this time, alone every time.” Toward the end of the visit, her uncle told her, “Daughter, be stronger than the loneliness this world is going to present to you.” Shire quotes the sentence in the last stanza of her poem, and it inspired the title. “All these anthems of resilience,” she told me. “I just thought, These are the songs for the refugee.”
Shire is among a generation of young poets who have attracted large audiences by initially publishing their poetry online. She first became prominent through Tumblr, and now has eighty thousand Twitter followers, and another fifty-seven thousand on Instagram, numbers more akin to those of the star of an FX series than to those of a poet. Elisa Ronzheimer, a literary scholar at Bielefeld University, in Germany, told me that Shire’s poetry produces “something of value in this middle ground that is not super-hermetic, but also not what I think of as pop culture.” Shire is best known for collaborating with Beyoncé, in 2016, on “Lemonade,” a visual album in which the singer’s music is intercut with Shire’s poetry. The poet Terrance Hayes told me, “Shire possesses a Plathian kind of ferocious truth telling.” Hayes teaches at New York University, and is struck by how many of his students are devotees of her work. “Her reach is not just people who are watching Beyoncé,” he said. “It’s also people who want to be poets and are studying what she’s doing.”
While writing her book, Shire often drew on interviews with and observations of her relatives. Many had witnessed atrocities during the war, and had struggled to make a life for themselves in England. Her father had hung up photographs of places in Mogadishu, showing their beauty before the war and their destruction after it began. “Everyone is kind of like a before-and-after photo of the war,” Shire said. Some men, she noticed, tried to assimilate into British culture and avoid anything that reminded them of Somalia, but a sense of cultural alienation eventually caught up with them. In a poem called “Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle,” she writes, “Dear Uncle, is everything you love foreign / Or are you foreign to everything you love . . . Love is not haram but after years of fucking / Women who are unable to pronounce your name / You find yourself today alone, in the foreign / Food aisle . . . praying in a language you haven’t used in years.”
The collection melds verse and reportage to create a portrait of the Somali diaspora. “I didn’t get to hear my grandma’s voice or my grandad’s voice; most of my family I didn’t actually get to meet, because a lot of them died in the war,” Shire told me. “And I want my children to be able to hear these people’s voices.” She also wanted to record her relatives’ experiences. “In my community, the only time they’re asked these kinds of questions is at Immigration,” she said. “These are extraordinary stories, and these are people who are still alive—somehow.”
This past November, I visited Shire at her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Andres Reyes-Manzo, and their two young children. Shire’s hair was slicked back into a ponytail, and she wore gold hoops. She dislikes crowds, but at her home she tells stories for hours in her Northwest London accent, often at high speed and volume. Reyes-Manzo, who works for a philanthropic organization called the California Endowment, took calls in his study and attended to their older son, Ilyas, who is two. Ayub, who is eight months old, started squealing, and Shire picked him up from his playpen in the pink-walled living room. “He’s very talkative,” she said. “We Somalis are a big-mouth community.”
Shire’s father grew up in a family of nomadic herders, and became a political journalist in Mogadishu. Her mother, Shire told me, took care of the home. In the late eighties, her father was working on a book about political corruption, eventually published as “The Cost of Carnage,” when the government found out and threatened him with imprisonment. He and her mother left for Kenya, and had Shire there, in 1988; the family then moved to London, where her brother, Said, was born. In 1991, Somalia’s civil war erupted. Militias affiliated with local clans overthrew the military regime of President Mohamed Siad Barré, and then those clans, Islamist groups, and other factions began fighting for power. In the course of four months in Mogadishu, some twenty-five thousand people were killed, more than two million lost their homes, and another million and a half left the country, including much of Shire’s family. Many Somalis call this period burbur, which mimics the sound of buildings collapsing. Naima Nur, a close friend of Shire’s, told me, “There’s a line by a Somali singer that goes something like ‘Smile when you are bleeding.’ That totally encapsulates our culture; people will be hurt and going through so much, but still have to show a strong face.”
Shire’s parents settled in a North London neighborhood that was mostly white, and unfriendly toward newcomers. As a young girl, Shire excitedly asked an aunt to take her to the birthday party of a girl who lived across the street; the girl’s father opened the door and turned them away. After her father dropped her off for her first day of school, a little boy called her “Black girl.” She cried for her father to return and told him what happened. He replied, “You are,” and walked away. “I sobered up so quick,” she told me. “If he’d dealt with it any other way, I’d be such a different human being.” Shire’s teachers complained that she was more interested in making her classmates laugh than she was in doing her schoolwork. But she liked to fill her notebooks with stories, sketches, and poetry. On weekends, her father took her to the library, and she enjoyed reading the books she’d checked out in the bath.
When Shire was seven, her parents divorced, and her father moved out. (The two remain close.) Two years later, Shire told me, after months of eviction notices the police removed her family from their home. They were homeless for more than two years, and drifted between hostels and the homes of family friends. Shire and her brother stopped attending school, and watched soap operas all day or entertained themselves by riding up and down the elevators of old hotels that served as homeless shelters.
Eventually, the family got a spot in public housing. Shire’s mother often took in other Somali refugees, including friends, family members, and strangers, Shire told me. She even brought home a woman she met at a bus stop. Sometimes, Shire said, the experiences were “magical.” With one woman, she drank Italian coffee and painted her nails. But others took discipline too far, screaming at or hitting Shire and her brother. “It was not lost on me that, in the Somali war, there were victims and perpetrators,” Shire told me. “You don’t know who’s coming through your front door. You don’t know if this is somebody who just spent a lot of time revelling in human blood, or somebody who was raped twenty times.”