Warsan Shire


Poesie per ascoltare la "voce" delle vittime


Un approfondimento e uno spaccato sul tema dei diritti civili, nelle parole di una giovane poetessa somalo-britannica.

di Silvia Mazzau

Poet, activist, editor and teacher, Warsan Shire is a spoken-word artist whose poetry, usually performed publicly, connects gender, war, sex and cultural assumptions, giving a voice to the displaced and acting as a healing agent for the trauma of exile and suffering. Her best known poem, Home, has touched a nerve among people and helped understanding of the refugee crisis.

Shire was born in Kenya in 1988 to Somali parents who migrated to the UK and settled in London the following year after fleeing from the civil war in Somalia. Her upbringing and schooling took place in Britain.

In 2010 she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and one year later she released Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, a poetry pamphlet. For her publication she chose flipped eye publishing, which publishes original poetry and prose on a not-for-profit model. This approach has allowed flipped eye to focus on developing new writers with potential, thus facilitating the emergence of truly unique literary talent.

In 2013 Shire received the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, an award set aside specifically for poets who have not yet published a full-length poetry collection. In 2014 she was selected as the first Young Poet Laureate for London, part of a programme focused on promoting arts and culture, and chosen as a poet-in-residence for Queensland, Australia.

In 2015 two new collections of poems were published one after the other, Her Blue Body and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us. In 2016 her verse formed the backbone of Beyoncé’s album Lemonade and in 2018, she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. As a special initiative for that year the Society’s governing Council decided to elect 40 writers aged under 40 to celebrate the talent and diversity of Britain’s younger generations.

Women are undoubtedly at the centre of her writings, women whose rights are systematically trampled on, whose dignity is constantly abused, whose body is repeatedly violated. In Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, she wrote “about women, love, loneliness and war, in chronological order” focusing on “adolescence and young adulthood, married life, divorce, motherhood, growing old and death” while in Her Blue Body she concentrated on the female body, associating it with forms of literal and figurative death, mutilation, dismemberment, as well as cancer and cliterodoctomy. The poems of Our Men Do Not Belong to Us are about how women deal with the violence of all kinds of exploitation while the lines she wrote for Beyonce’s album Lemonade explore the role of the woman inside her family, man’s infidelity and the black female body.

Closely linked to these issues is the harsh reality of refugee life which, in the case of women, takes on even bleaker aspects, as we realise when we read Shire’s best-known work, Home. The poem is based on Conversations about home (at a deportation centre), a piece Shire had written in 2009, inspired by a visit she made to the abandoned Somali Embassy in Rome which some young refugees had turned into their home. On her arrival, she was told that the night before her visit a young Somali had jumped to his death off the roof. The shocking news together with the encounter with the young refugees living there opened her eyes to the brutal living conditions of undocumented refugees in Europe.

Home is an eight-stanza poem which provides an unmediated look into the lives and struggles of those seeking asylum as they flee from the war-stricken countries that they call “home”. The overall message is that no one leaves their home unless they are forced out of it. The poem gives voice to the people whose voices have been silenced as they deal with the constant struggles of life as a refugee.

After stating that “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” from which you run only “when you see the whole city running as well” (st. 1) the speaker describes how dramatically home has changed: it has become unrecognisable (the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body), so dangerous that it “won’t let you stay” (st. 2).

Nevertheless no one leaves home unless they have no other choice because “it’s not something you ever thought of doing” unless your life has been threatened (the blade burnt threats into your neck). Even then your sense of attachment to your homeland is so strong that you carry “the anthem under your breath” and sob while you’re “tearing up your passport in an airport toilet” knowing that “you wouldn’t be going back” (st. 3).

In st. 4 the speaker addresses us directly, telling us that we “have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land” or “burns their palms under trains beneath carriages” and spend “days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey”. No human being “wants to be beaten” but no one wants to be pitied either. The theme of human dignity is thus introduced in the last line of this stanza, immediately to be resumed in the first lines of the one which follows: the indignity of “strip searches” in refugee camps or in prisons “where your body is left aching” can be borne only if “prison is safer than a city of fire” and for women it’s ten times worse. They find themselves forced to stomach the humiliation of “one prison guard in the night” because it “is better than a truckload of men who look like your father” (st. 5).

In st. 6 the speaker obliges us to face (and hear) some of the many racist comments we so often hear (and face… or, perhaps, even make): the refugees have become “dirty immigrants”, “niggers with their hands out” who “smell strange”, “savage” and they are accused of “sucking our country dry”. After having “messed up their country” “now they want to mess ours up” too. How can such comments and “dirty looks” roll off their backs? “maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off”.

Women and their even more tragic plight are at the centre of the first lines of st. 7: racist comments and dirty looks are, in any case, “more tender than fourteen men between your legs or the insults are easier to swallow than rubble than bone than your child body in pieces”. The cry “I want to go home” strikes at the heart of the reader: this is what refugees want! They want to go home… but they can’t, because “home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun” and they have no choice but to “crawl through the desert wade through the oceans drown save be hungry beg forget pride” in order to survive.

Home itself becomes the speaking voice in st. 8, telling its people to “leave, run away from me now” because it is no longer the place they grew up in, the land they belong to. The conclusion is a bitter one: “I dont know what I've become but i know that anywhere is safer than here”.

Although the poem seems to break every traditional rule, ignoring rhyme scheme, set metre and even punctuation, it actually makes use of a number of literary devices such as personification (home as a living being, transformed into a persecutor), metaphor (home as the mouth of a shark), anaphora (no one, than, unless…), metonymy (city for citizens), enjambement (the anthem under/your breath, fourteen men between/your legs…), repetition (no one leaves home unless…, home is the mouth of a shark…). The language is effective, at times crude and the images are chillingly realistic.

Shire’s poem is a powerful call to action. She reveals the emotional side of the refugee crisis and creates empathy and compassion by exposing us, her readers, to the inhumane atrocities the refugees face, willing us to understand why people will seek refuge or asylum and urging us not only to sympathise with them but to act now! We need to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies” founded on “respect towards people of different ethnic origins and religions” in order to “guarantee a life of dignity for all” (see Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda).


Create a presentation about Warsan Shire and Home

Work in small groups.
Read the poem Home by Warsan Shire.
Create a slide presentation (5-6 slides) to present to your class.
Include the following:

  • What inspired Warsan Shire to write Home
  • The main themes in the poem Home
  • Images, quotes, examples to represent the themes in the poem
  • Themes from the poem connected to an action of the UN Sustainable Development Goals N.10 Reduced inequalities, Goal N. 5 Gender Equality and Goal N. 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions with examples
  • An example of how you can contribute to achieve one of these goals as an individual and/or what can you do for this goal as a class.


Silvia Mazzau: currently teaches English at a high school in Verona. She lived in Cambridge (UK) during her youth, worked as an interpreter and copywriter, and has 30 years of experience as a teacher in Italy. Together with her musical family, Missing Link, she created show-lessons which turned into a project, English or… Nothing!, born to involve students as musicians, actors, scenographers and dancers, using English as a means to learn while having fun.
For further information visit www.silviamazzau.com

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