Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Warsan Shire eloquently brings readers into her reality, filled with contradictions and conflict, and inspires others to do the same with their story.
"Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth" by Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire captures the story of every woman. From yearning to self-identity and all those in between, she lays out the path for her reader to expel her demons and find redemption. Though the title might sound audacious, Shire does not mean any disrespect or bear any hatred towards her mother. Shire hopes in telling her mother how to give birth, she will find a greater purpose within herself – she is more than what her religion or ethnicity says she is.
Shire does not spare any details, her voice flies unto the page with raw emotion. In “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” the first line she writes goes “The first boy to ever kiss your mother later raped women when the war broke out.” If she is not writing intriguing first liners, she is wrapping her reader around one of her main themes: feminine virtue or the lack thereof.
In “Beauty," Shire writes about her promiscuous sister, who has an affair with her neighbor’s husband. “It’s 4 a.m and she winks at me, bending over the sink / her small breasts bruised from sucking / she smiles, pops her gun before saying / boys are haram, don’t ever forget that.” Though Shire’s older sister is being loose, she gives her young sister advice on how to keep her innocence (ironically) by telling her that boys are forbidden, but the younger sister pays no mind because everything that leaves her older sister’s mouth “sounds like sex.”
“Birds” finds the reader mulling over the issue of virginity – how sacred men make it seem and how some women hold it in little regard. “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 / that he gathered them under his nose / closed his eyes and dragged his tongue over the stain.” The husband is unaware that he was tricked but he praises her anyway, calling her pure and chaste. Shire shows how important men from her country find chastity to be; even men in the 21st century feel themselves swell with pride when they get to be the first one to deflower their lover.
What Shire does best is understand the identity of the women in her life. The women are bound by the age old order of oppression. In “The Kitchen,” the woman is portrayed as weak, letting her husband have sex with her even when she is knowledgeable about his affair. The wife comes to terms with her husband’s infidelity with “sweet mangoes and sugared lemon / he had forgotten the way you taste / sour dough and cumin / but she cannot make him eat, like you.”
She continues on the next page with “Fire,” which felt like a fitting sequel to “The Kitchen." The woman gets a phone call from her mother that does not seem like something a mother would say. “What do you mean he hit you? / your father hit me all the time / but I never left him / He pays the bills / and he comes home at night / what more do you want?” Shire drives the point home that women in her culture would rather suffer the hand that they are dealt instead of making life better for themselves.
In this collection of poems, men are shameful, deceitful, and downright dirty. “When We Last Saw Your Father” is about a father who is staring at the hospital building, looking at all the lighted windows wondering which one of those rooms bares his mistake. The men hold no significance to Shire, if anything, they are the catalyst of why the women act the way they do. The men make the women disregard themselves and pass onto their daughters that the same must be done if they want to keep a man.
Warsan will do the opposite, as she writes in “In Love and In War." Instead of making sure her daughter fits into societies’ barriers, she says “To my daughter I will say / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’." Much like the woman did in the “Fire” poem, Warsan Shire wants her daughter to kill herself first before she lets a man take advantage of her. For Shire, that is the bigger lesson to be taught, the lesson that her mother could never understand and teach her own daughter.
Shire paints these traumatic and sensual experiences for the reader with finesse and vigor. This is not just her story; this is the story of others who will forever be in silence. Warsan Shire describes herself as a female activist; to her, it is important to nurture a young woman into being strong about her beliefs and herself. She wrote this book for those that do not have that mother, aunt, or sister in their lives telling them to be great without apology.