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.