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Book Review: Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth

Friday, December 07, 2012

For such an audaciously titled work, this book promises a lot more vivid imagery in its content. Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire based in London, will be part of the fourth edition of the Kwani Litfest.

This is a gathering of writers, poets, literary academics and theorists from the continent kicks off between December 9-16.

Titled Conversations With The Horn: Writers, Artists In Exchange, this year’s festival will host Somali poet Hadraawi, Sudanese-English novelist Jamal Mahjoub and Eritrean writer and historian Alemsegad Tefsayi to share their work with writers from other parts of the continent.

These include Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Sadaawi and Nigerian and Ghanaian novelists, Helon Habila and Kojo Laing.

They will also be joined by writers from Mozambique, Namibia, and Cameroon. Warsan Shire has previously read her poetry in Italy, Germany and South Africa and her work translated in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

The Litfest is thus perhaps a double-treat for those poetically inclined as another soulful artist Erykah Badu is also set to perform in Kenya next week.

Many of Shire's poems have astounding opening lines as in “Your Mother's First Kiss” where she writes, “The first boy to ever kiss your mother later raped women”.

Her writing is renowned for revealing profound stories of trauma and exile especially in “Conversation About Home” (also knowns “At the Deportation Center”) where a vivid picture is painted of an immigrant's tribulations and the trials endured in the homeland.

“I hear them say go home, I hear them say f*cking immigrants, f*cking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return.”

The feelings evoked by the imagery in her poems are those of desperation and anxiety and finally a relief that is quite evident especially when the persona narrates how they tore up and ate their own passport while at an airport hotel.

“I'm bloated with language I can't afford to forget... I want to make love, but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you're young and asleep..”

Then persona then adds: ““But Alhamdullilah all of this is better than the scent of woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.”

“Maymmun's Mouth” yet another poem, is also quite rife with potent imagery – of presumably a young Somali woman changing perceptively in a foreign land where she loses her Somali accent and learns to dance in front of strangers – is she a stripper perhaps?

A male neighbour speaks to her in Spanish and she smiles at him with her fluoride stained teeth which act as the reminder to the reader of where she is from, of the water back home in Somalia.

“Bone” and “Beauty” are the two poems that explore the subjects of feminine virtue, violence and possible prostitution. In “Beauty” the narrator speaks of a seemingly lascivious older sister having and affair with the neighbour's husband.

The older sister cautions the persona while ironically and perhaps cynically proclaiming how “boys are haram”. The persona in turn writes of how anything that leaves her older sister's mouth “sounds like sex” and thus ,“our mother has banned her from saying God's name”.

On the other hand, “Bone”, (no) pun intended, is a heady combination of sex and violence. Sample the following excerpt: “We have the same lips she and I/the kind men think about when they are with their wives/ She is starving/You look straight at me when she tell us how her father likes to punch girls in the face/ I can hear you in our spare room with her/What is she hungry for?/What can you fill her up with?/What can you do that you would not do for me?/I count my ribs before I go to sleep.”

In “Birds”, Shire lives up to her reputation as a great storyteller in assessing the value of virginity – is overrated or underrated?

This question is perhaps answered by the narrative in the poem in which a hint of cheekiness is implied. “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.

She mimicked his baritone her name – Sofia, pure, chaste, untouched/ We giggled over the static/ After he had praised her, she smiled, rubbed his head, imagined his mother back home, parading these siren sheets through town, waving at balconies, torso swollen with pride,...”

More potent are a parent's chilling words of caution in the last poem of the book titled “In Love and War” - a poem that is brief as in haiku in the following words, “To my Daughter, I will say, “When the men come, set yourself on fire.”

Born in 1988, Shire's poems seem wise beyond her years – echoes of the many 'immigrants' before her time to have suffered under the ravages of war and exile. Check press http://litfest.kwani.org for more information on the festival.


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