She’s a Wembley-born literary sensation now living in Los Angeles; the voice of a generation, who has collaborated with Beyoncé and writes the most heartbreakingly relevant poetry about what it means to be a refugee. Now, on publication of her debut collection, Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice In Her Head, Warsan Shire sits down with Stylist.
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. A songbird for refugees, nobody could have predicted that Warsan Shire’s first collection of poems would be published amid another unfolding humanitarian disaster. Those opening words from her poem have been shared far and wide on social media in recent weeks, once again confirming Shire’s place as one of the UK’s most relevant voices.
But we can’t claim her as all our own. Shire now lives in Los Angeles with her American husband, Andres, and two young kids; she’s back in London for the first time in seven years to launch Bless The Daughter and her homecoming has been surprisingly emotional.
“It’s such a stark difference,” she says. “I miss everything here… the crisp air, even having a Co-op and a corner shop. Like lots of people from London, I can’t drive and I instantly felt less independent when I moved to LA.”
Whatever she lost in independence, trading Wembley for Los Angeles was worth it. Soon after she moved there in 2015, Shire got an email from Beyoncé’s team asking if she’d be interested in collaborating. At first she assumed it was a prank, but then the meeting materialised and led to Lemonade, Beyoncé’s seminal visual album in which she explored race, infidelity and forgiveness, speaking Shire’s words in between tracks. When it dropped, Shire’s profile soared. “Having that experience was so surreal, but it also made me realise that anything can happen,” says Shire, who’s since worked on Beyoncé’s Black Is King and wrote the poem to announce the singer’s pregnancy with twins.
Born in Nairobi to Somali parents, Shire and her family came to London when she was two. School was “a struggle”, her home life marred by a two-year period of homelessness that was swiftly followed by the birth of three sisters, whom Shire helped to raise. But at 15, a poetry workshop at her youth club changed everything, and soon, Shire was pouring her experiences and the stories she’d grown up hearing into verse.
Bulimia, loneliness, FGM, maternal alienation, violence – all of it finds its way into Bless The Daughter. “I guess I’m trying to therapise myself with poetry and have accidentally done that for other people as well,” says Shire. “When I speak about myself, I like to be really honest, so that people feel they’re not the only one.”
Firstly, huge congratulations on the collection. It covers so many aspects of girlhood and womanhood – the stuff that doesn’t often get talked about. Is writing poetry your way of processing and dealing with anxiety and trauma?
Yes, it’s why I’m still alive – 100%. Without it, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Writing is the only way I process everything. If I go a day without it, I feel constipated! I’ve got to get it down and get it out. The day I gave birth, I was lying there half-dead and I was like, give me my phone, I need to write this down. If I don’t get it out when I’m feeling it, then I’ll forget. It comes to me like a film – beginning, middle and end. Then, in the editing process, I’ll think about what I’m trying to say, where the poem is going, what the structure is going to be.
You capture all sorts of voices and experiences in your poems – have you always been someone that people tell their stories to?
Yeah, I’ll sit down next to a stranger on the bus and they’ll start telling me their deepest secrets. A lot of my teenage boyfriends seemed to think they should tell me their darkest secrets – “trauma bonding” – before I knew what that was.
I always wanted to be a child therapist growing up. I think I really notice people’s emotions and feel them too. It’s made me a socially awkward person. I can see every little facial expression going on in a room – it’s annoying [laughs]. Especially when I got married, I could feel the shifts in every moment, so I’d constantly be like, ‘Are you OK?’ In the end, I thought, you have to stop because human beings are going to have feelings, and it’s actually not my business.
It sounds like a superpower and also a problem?
It is a problem! Because sometimes you’re not right, and sometimes it’s not about you. And then you feel paranoid…
My husband finds it really annoying. He’ll leave me with someone he’s known for 10 years and then come back and say, ‘They told you everything, right?’
How does it feel seeing your poems about what it’s like to be a refugee fly all over social media again, this time in the context of another war?
Ultimately it’s wonderful that people feel they can reach for these words when there’s such horrible things going on in the world and that it provides a way for people to feel empathy. Empathy seems very obvious to me because of how I grew up, but a lot of people don’t think about the things I constantly think about.
But it’s also a double-edged sword. It’s interesting to see the words co-opted by people who are usually right-leaning and might have very anti-immigrant views but are willing to suddenly understand what this poem is saying purely because they feel that the people who are suffering are somehow more valuable – because they’re like them.
It’s sad to see how it works, and obviously, the anti-Blackness and racism that’s been going on shows that no matter what is happening, there’s always time to step on someone… to make sure you’re not at the bottom. I think it’s the saddest part of humanity. When you’re suffering, you should be able to empathise with others who are suffering, but because you’re desperate, you don’t.
We’ve always known the facts about refugees and the desperate situations they’re fleeing from, and yet in recent years that hasn’t been enough to spark compassion in some people or our government. But I guess that’s where your poetry comes in – it goes straight to people’s hearts and makes them feel it.
It shows that maybe more of us need poetry in our lives if that’s the only way some people can access what I would expect to be a normal human reaction to seeing another human being suffering.
I would love for more and more young people to read more poetry because I feel that it opens up your heart and opens up your mind.
You’ve collaborated a couple of times with Beyoncé. How have those experiences shaped you?
It was very empowering. She made me feel really special; she was so respectful and really treated me like I was important, which was something I hadn’t really ever felt before – never mind it coming from someone I’d always looked up to. For a Black woman to do that for another Black woman when she didn’t need to, that’s amazing. She knew, obviously, what it would do for my life.
After that first meeting, you went away and wrote. How did it feel to hit send to Beyoncé with your words?
It was obviously nerve-wracking but it taught me to trust my intuition. It was the best working experience you could ever imagine. I’m sure there are all sorts of massive artists taking advantage of smaller artists, but the way she honoured me and invited me to so much and celebrated so many of my milestones – she’s just so present and lovely, and that’s amazing because she’s very busy, basically [laughs].
At the time I was trying to develop stronger intuition and boundaries, and become a stronger person within myself. Then that came along and gave me self-esteem. It made me see that I needed to step away from social media for my mental health and made me feel like I could take my time. It stopped me from feeling any rush.
You could have really milked that moment but you chose not to, right?
I didn’t sign up to new people or take new representation. The opportunities were there but I didn’t see the point. I wasn’t interested in being famous so why would I change anything? I didn’t want to be swayed by what other people would do: start a fashion line, start a make-up line – that’s not what I’m interested in.
You wrote Home after meeting Somali refugees in Italy. Tell me about that poem.
Yes, I first did it as a freewrite [where you write what comes to mind without stopping] about a decade ago when I was in Italy. I had met some Somali refugees there, and they showed me how they were living in the old Somali embassy – a grand building that was all dilapidated with no water and no electricity. It was very cold and 100 of them were sleeping in one room, all packed in. There was no future, no hope, nothing. The night before a young man had jumped from the top of the building to kill himself. I come from a refugee background but it was the first time I’d seen it up close. It felt like there was nothing to catch those people; they were just left like zombies.
I got back to my hotel and I had weird survivor’s remorse and so much rage. So I did that freewrite and read it an hour later to an audience. I got really emotional reading it; I was crying. Someone put the video on YouTube, then someone transcribed it and posted it on the internet. That’s how it began. I kept seeing it copied and pasted all over and I wanted a clean version somewhere.
Home, belonging, feeling dislocated – all of those themes come up in your work. I know you experienced homelessness as a child. How did that affect you?
Have you watched Inception? It felt like that: homelessness within homelessness within homelessness. I felt unmoored in such a big way, completely ungrounded. I always knew that Somalia wasn’t going to be an option because it’s been in turmoil my whole existence. So we made home here, but then suddenly we’re being evacuated out with police assistance and the neighbours are watching and I’m a child trying to figure out what the fuck is going on and where we’re going to live now. Being homeless really does make you feel, as a child, definitely worthless. It was something I wanted to hide; I didn’t want people to know. You feel like the dregs of humanity – even though that’s not how it really is, that’s how you feel.
My mum felt a big sense of failure and shame around it. It was right after she had gotten a divorce so she felt like it was very much on her that this had happened, when in fact, she was doing her best and she was so young – she had me when she was 18.
It sounds like you have a lot of compassion for your mum – has that grown over time?
I’ve always had it but it’s the strongest it’s ever been now. Whenever I write about it, I come back to the fact that her childhood was like a horror film. I always have that in the back of my head.
Mother-daughter relationships are usually so unrealistic – people aren’t honest about it. It’s all ‘I love you, Mum. Thank you for giving birth to me,’ but we pick up a lot of our weird bullshit from our parents. I’m obsessed with my mum but it’s one of the most complex relationships I have in my life – it’s also my earliest feeling of almost unrequited love. I know I have my mother’s love, but if it feels like you don’t, it can set you up for a lot of bullshit.
Your poems are full of references from TV, music and film – from Crimewatch to Grace Jones and Dawson’s Creek. It feels like they’re written in the throes of real life.
Yeah, I write while life is happening. People will be talking, and I’m like, hold on, I’ve got to write that down. Then I’ll go back and flesh it out.
I write every day – on my laptop or on my phone, or just notes. I do a lot of writing to film and music and that’s why Lemonade was so great – I felt like I’d been training for that my whole life. Today I’ve been writing to a song called Both Sides Of The Moon by Celeste. And when I go up to my hotel room later, I’ll put on that song and it’ll take me back to where I was…
Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice In Her Head is published by Chatto & Windus in collaboration with Flipped Eye, £12.99
Photo of Warsan Shire by Leyla Jeyte; photo of Beyonce via Getty