Warsan Shire is the voice of the hurt that many keep silent about


Born in Nairobi to Somali parents, Warsan Shire, is a poet, writer, editor, teacher, lyricist and an FRSL.

But to us, she is the voice of the hurt that Kenya, Africa and the globe keep silent about and the embodiment of the deep care that we owe those hurt, one gifted with the words and insights they cannot express.

She is the author of several collections of poetry: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2013), Her Blue Body (2015), among the Penguin Modern Poets 3 (2017). She was chosen as the Young Poet Laureate for London for 2013-2014. She has won several prizes for her poetry.

Last year, she was appointed one of the 40 Under 40 Fellows of the venerable Royal Society of Literature founded in 1820. (Hence, FRSL). She has lived in Kenya, the UK, and now lives in the US with her family.

Her book ‘Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head’ (New York, Random House) came out in 2022.

Her poems in it remind us that our refugee camps are not only within our borders but remain part of its tenants long after they leave.

Even when refuge is found and ‘Assimilation’ is invited, “We never unpacked,/ dreaming in the wrong language, … unable to excise the refugee from our hearts, unable to sleep through the night.”

Reality leaves from both those who have arrived in new places and those they have left behind in the camps. Illusions then function as hope for both.

Another committed artist, the painter Al Mogen Al Abdul Bagi of Sudan, has also found the same in the present civil war razing the country.

In painting the remains of the people around him, his mind had given the canvas the title, ‘Survivors’. Having finished it, he looked at it.

The painting talked back, “There are no survivors in this war.” So too the poems of his neighbour Warsan Shire say while we survive there are parts of each of us that have not.

The non-Africa media constantly gives us news of those drowning on the boats to Europe. Shire’s poems on a troubled Africa instead call our attention to the failures on the continent itself.

She writes, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Her coruscating lines lament, they also accuse.

She speaks for all at Kakuma, for all refugees everywhere. For her pain is also for all the troubled world: “later that night/ I held an atlas in my lap/ ran my fingers across the whole world/ and whispered/ where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere.”

Over and over again the brilliance and the craftsmanship jolt us. Each poem is the furious fire revealed when the furnace door is opened. Kenya celebrates Shire. She was born here. She has read her poetry here.

I also thought of my recent reading of another Somali writer and her book. Sofia Samatar is a professor of African Literature and of Arabic Literature. Her father was Professor Dr Said Sheikh Samatar, a doyen in the study of oral poetry and Somali nationalism.

She is a prize-winning author of several fantasy and science fiction novels. She too is familiar with East Africa.

Her book is called The White Mosque. It is a non-fiction account of her pilgrimage over her Mennonite roots in Central Asia, (a tangential historical folly), that Samatar embroiders beautifully into a travel book, an inquiry into herself and a rummage among the principles and history of her Christian faith. She draws on her Somali as well as her Mennonite heritage.

Though they come from completely different pasts into the writing in English that they do, Shire and Samatar give off the same dazzle, the same juggler’s command over the non-native language notwithstanding that it was the first one imprinted on them.

Samatar and Shire bring this to the poetry of their writing, and to the un-signposted connections they constantly make to our delight. Thus, much to celebrate.

Note to my Readers: This the last column in the present series as I am taking a break to complete ongoing writing of length. I take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your support over the past one year, and for your patience. Thank you.

The writer is senior counsel