Warsan Shire is a writer, poet, editor and teacher. Born in Kenya in 1988 and raised in London to Somali parents, she has read her work extensively as an internationally touring poet. In 2014 she was appointed the first Young Poet Laureate for London. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and her book ‘Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth’ was published by flipped eye in 2012.
Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, Wasafiri, Magma, and in anthologies ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011) and 'Ten: The New Wave' (Bloodaxe, 2014). In 2013 she won the Inaugural African Poetry Prize and in 2014 she was selected as Queensland, Australia's poet in residence where she spent six weeks collaborating with the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts.
Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian and Swedish. She is the current poetry editor at SPOOK magazine and teaches workshops internationally and online: using poetry to explore memory, voice and heal trauma.
Warsan lives between London and California where she is working on her first full collection of poetry.
IA: Warsan, mahadsanid for taking time out of your hectic schedule! We are really thrilled to have one of our favorite baati babes of all time with us. Let’s jump to it, shall we?
How do you practice self-care?
Warsan: I try to write down everything that provides comfort, relief, clarity or escape. I separate it into lists; music, films, places, scents, names of loved ones. A gratitude list to ground me. A list of near death experiences. A list of ways to escape, distract, shift focus from obsessive/dark thoughts. I have playlists for blue times, I don't know what the general consensus was but Drake's latest mixtape had healing properties in it. When I am depressed, I find it really difficult to remember what joy feels like and where it lives, this helps me guide myself back to feeling better.
IA: I know that it was only within the last year or two that you were able to go back to Somalia for the first time in your life. In what ways did your trip fulfill or not fulfill you expectations? Did your perception of where your ‘home’ is change?
Warsan: I remember getting off the plane and my mate standing in the distance on the asphalt with her arms extended out towards me. Anyone I was introduced to would point to the ground and say 'dhulkaan waa dhulkaaga' this land is your land. I remember thinking well if I died now, I would be buried here, in a place where everyone looks like me, so not too shabby. I miss sitting on the veranda with the stray cats after maghreb, drinking guava juice with Sagal, reapplying henna until my fingertips were black and shiny. Jazeera Beach was gorgeous, I swam with a group of older Somali women, our colourful baatis ballooning around us in the water. One woman had long hair that rose to the surface around her like black seaweed, the water was sweet in my mouth. The women told me that they went to the beach everyday after work to swim together, I thought that was amazing, it felt like a short film.
IA: Somalis are famed for their poetry. Buraanbur is a huge part of our dhaqan, and is always done by women. Do you have any thoughts on why the poetry of Somali women has largely stayed in the arena of buraanbur, or has not received the same level of canonization that many male poets have received?
IA: In the past, you have mentioned sitting down with your father and learning about his life story. What benefits have you gained from knowing the biographies of your loved ones?
Warsan: Documentation, genealogy, preserving the names of the women came before me. To connect, honour, to confront. It differs with each family member, with my grandmother I would record our conversations, to serve as witness to her life, to sit at her feet in reverence. The first time I sat with my father it was for reconciliation, for a deeper understanding and to cultivate more love between us.
IA: You once mentioned mothering your sisters and wanting to spare them from self-doubt and shame. As an elder sister/maternal figure, what has been essential to you to pass on to your biological sisters or chosen sisters? How has sisterhood informed your own development?
Warsan: I have three sisters aged 13, 12 and 3, they're my best friends, I'm the eldest in my family, for what ever reason I ended up raising my sisters from birth. It meant that my childhood and adolescence was accelerated, I understood responsibility from a very young age and it made me more maternal, protective, empathetic, but it also made me quite anxious. I tell my sisters everything I wish I had been told growing up, so they don't find themselves searching for validation in places or people that'll make them feel shit about themselves.
IA: Seeing that Somalis have lived through the atrocities of civil war, the danger and waiting game of refugee camps, and the task of survival in a new place there is much to unpack mentally and emotionally as a society and as individuals. What are your beliefs around the concept of inherited trauma?
Warsan: Growing up I remember reading about the cellular memory through organ transplants and found it fascinating, but in the morbid way I find most things interesting, serial killers, feral. 'Milk of Sorrow' (2009) is a stunning Peruvian film around the concept of inherited trauma, specifically around the trauma that can be passed to children through the breast milk of mothers who experienced sexual violence and war whilst pregnant/breastfeeding.
IA: You often write on the topic of love. What are some lessons (both good and bad) that you’ve learned when it comes to love?
Warsan: That love is a natural state but returning to it can be very painful if you feel undeserving of love, if you identify too deeply with the role of the survivor. I found it hard to accept love, or to even recognize myself as someone worthy of being loved and loved well. For awhile there was a lot of self sabotage involved, I had to learn how to relax into love, felt guilty sometimes for experiencing tenderness or euphoria in a way that my mother, or other women in my family had not, and in some way feeling like a traitor for being able to break the spell, then feeling arrogant or even naive for thinking I could escape that fate. But then I tell myself to fix up, look sharp, say alhamdulilah and watch videos of Naomi Campbell on YouTube.
IA: As a poet, you must travel quite often. Additionally, Somalis are famed for being nomadic. How have both voluntary travel and forced/necessary migration impacted your work and outlook?
Warsan: It's bitter sweet, as Drake once put so delicately “gone all the time, even the important times”. It's allowed me to experience solitude and to not be so afraid of it turning into loneliness or isolation. Each trip feels important, life altering in some way, there's growth distinctive to those experiences, especially travelling as a black, african, muslim woman. But yeah, everything informs my writing, even if I am not conscious about it, everything I’ve seen, loved, lost, everywhere I’ve been, it all shows up in the writing, in some way or another.
IA: What are you currently reading or working on?
Warsan: I read several books at the same time so I can feel better about - An Aviary of Small Birds - Karen McCarthy Woolf, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere - ZZ Packer, How To Escape A Leper Colony - Tiphanie Yanique and Widow Basquiat - Jennifer Clement.
I'm almost finished working on my full collection of poems, to be released later this year.
IA: What is the strangest thing that you believe in?
Warsan: The unseen, extra terrestrial life, prophecy, demonic possession, parallel universe, mermaids, telepathy, time travel, magic, hug therapy, cellular memory, intuition, wet cupping, teleportation, the man under the bed/under the stairs/ in the woods, the transformative and healing power of true love, black head removal, mutants, alien abduction, La Toya Jackson and Jeffré Phillips.
Photo Credit: Amaal Said
Ifrah Ahmed is an Editor of Araweelo Abroad.