ELLE Book Club

Book of the week: Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Beyoncé is a fan of this poet's age-defying work

CliffsNotes: Released in 2011, when she was 23, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth is Warsan Shire’s first full-length work, a poetry pamphlet. She writes as a black woman in the UK, ripped out of a homeland she barely knows ravaged by war and genocide. She deals with themes of violence, identity, infidelity, love and loss from an intensely confessional, raw and real place; her line breaks ache with suffering and wisdom. She does not mince her words, yet they fall forth with a gentle, feminine grace and delicate craftsmanship. Her poetry is ardent and oceanic, demonstrating a soulfulness that far exceeds her age. The shy, reserved writer was catapulted to fame after she was credited in Beyonce’s visual album release last April; you can read the full transcript of her words for Lemonade here

Get a taste: In 'Ugly', she twists war into a poignant metaphor for psychosomatic aches. The protagonist has travelled the world to be where she is but finds herself amidst tribulation; unable to be loved. An excerpt:

You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
 
What man wants to lay down 
and watch the world burn 
in his bedroom? 
 
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
 
but God, 
doesn’t she wear
the world well.

Author 101: Born into the Somali diaspora in Kenya; Warsan Shire immigrated with her family to the UK at the age of one. Her career began with a poetry workshop she attended at 16, organized by Jacob Sam-La Rose, who has remained her primary editor. She rose to fame through Tumblr, where her blog read like an open notebook. In 2014, she was appointed the first Young Poet Laureate of London. Her first full poetry collection, Extreme Girlhood is expected this fall, with a possible release in the United States. 

If you’ve heard or watched Lemonade, you’ve already had a swirl of Shire’s words in Beyonce’s honeyed, sultry voice. Her poetry is crafted for ink on a page or for whispered reading in a quiet room. Sample her poetry in her voice here:  

 

Similar reads: Miss Militancy by Meena Kandasamy; Ariel by Sylvia Plath