Warsan Shire’s poetry leaves us breathless and aflame. She is a Kenyan-born Somali poet and writer based in London. Born in 1988, she is an artist and activist who uses her work to document narratives of journey and trauma. Follow her blog, Twitter and tumblr and get her book, Teaching my mother how to give birth, here
“The Letter My Mother Would Have Written Had She Known English” by Warsan Shire
The women in our family are known for their lucid hearts
For the frightening vigour with which they love
And they way they let men eat from their open chests
As if their insides alone could offer redemption
As if their flesh could create portals for men to escape
The ugliness that they themselves created in this world.
If I could do it all again
I would’ve raise u in the sergenti
Where we could face east five times a day together and pray
Where the simple things would leave me enough time to tell you how much I love you
Daughter, I would raise you with my knees and fingertips
Small mercies would make u pious and all my children would love me more
Our faces would be ash covered
Hair laden with the winds of the harmattan
Your father would see the beauty in me that can only exist when he looks at me
And my stretch marks would be worth it all.
But this reality is not in shades of pink
Like the dolls with the fake smiles that you would
Point at, and I would say inch Allah
Knowing that I could never afford them.
In Africa I was so beautiful
On the plane here
My husband stopped seeing me.
Here I would be compared to a woman with blue eyes
And a clitoris
I am not beautiful
Here I’m sorry
Here you can leave a wife and two children
And income support and child benefit
Can take the fathers place at the kitchen table.
I wish I had held you when your father left
But the insides of my ribs were still dented
And to touch you would’ve
Been as painful as love itself.
I want to leave you with more than empty picture frames
And moments that could be classed as Kodak if they had ever taken place
But this countries weather had the ability to sink into the bone of you
You learn that being an asylum seeker will mean u have malaria instead of the flu.
I know the taste of translation
And if my lips own any hesitation
It’s because semantic and lexis has us separated
In Somali syllables are soft
So they can’t solidify all the things
We have left unsaid
Perhaps the fact that you think in English
Is proof enough that we have a gap
Wider than the tongue and tooth
You wanted us to be.
I taught you
To be proud of your religion
And pray for your brothers at Guantanamo bay
Never fight a woman for a man
And make sure that love exists through actions
Wash your under wear every night and watch out for
Demons who dance on your back if you sleep on your chest
To be afraid of the in-betweens and call in children at Maghreb
Make sure windows stay closed after sunset
When a shoe is turned upside down
And what prayers to read before entering the bathroom
And leaving the house
And how u should never answer to a voice you can’t see
Calling your name
Even if it sounds like it belongs to your mother
That déjàvu doesn’t exist in Africa
Neither does surviving aids
And that men will always say they love you
That trusting too much will be the death of you
That children with faces of old people turn out the best
And adults that like to touch small children
Burn in hell
But as a mother who literally could not help her children with their homework,
That right there is already all my pride swallowed.
I am one of the mothers
Who wouldn’t think twice about burning off your fingertips?
And running with you on my back across borders and through tunnels
Shrugging off shrapnel and bullets
To escape sodomy
And entered this country
In the quest for democracy and found out that
My spine was Teflon in wars
But divorce could cripple me.
London’s skies are above me now
And esol could never teach me enough of about past and present tense
For the many times I tasted love
I would sacrifice them all
For a chance to whisper an English
Lullaby into your 6-year-old ear.
How do you say I’m proud of you in English?