Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth | Book Review

Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth by Warsan Shire.
Publisher: Flipped Eye
Pamphlet- 34 Pages

“To my daughter I will say,
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.
 – In Love and In War

I first came across Warsan Shire’s poetry through a review of her poem “The Kitchen” by African Soulja, which had the entire poem in it. The rawness between the present events, and the description food, created such a visual image that I knew I was going to love her writing. Her poetry has many similarities to most of my favourite slam poets, and it was only a manner of time before I got my hands on her book and read her poems out loud.

Shire uses this book to speak of matters that worry women, primarily in countries at war or that have experienced war, and with a current history of civil/humans rights violations. This includes the view that women are only worthy if they are virgins, all the way to the systematic rape of women as a weapon of war; while also adding the immigrant and refugee experience. What she does quite well is her contrast between scenes, in one hand giving you a half complete story, of the lives of these women, past and present, and the other half is made up of incoherent phrases that must be thought of in order to make them coherent, but that continue the story in a more obscure manner. Because of this, it was very reminiscent of  Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, another brilliant work. 

A woman’s worth lies between her thighs: Even in a society like today, in a world in which we are suppose to be beyond such antiquated views, women are devalued for their sexuality. They are thought, not only by the opposite sex, but by their own, to be less than another if they are not virgins, or if they have committed anything remotely considered forbidden. What kind of lesson will we teach our children if these opinions won’t change? 

“I open my legs like a well-oiled door,
daring her to look at me and give me
what I had not lost: a name.”
– Things We Had Lost in the Summer

Virginity or chastity does not have the same meaning to everyone, it simply doesn’t. There are people that deem it as the most wonderful attribute, and others that see it as a normal thing that is not a big deal, both are okay. The harm comes when one is deemed more worthy than the other. This is mostly based off of complex societal dynamics, familial relations, cultural backgrounds, politics, and so much more, but not, the “truth”. This is a part of what Shire is trying to show, she always gives two sides, but not really. We are given the view of the people putting the women down for it, or the ones committing crimes, or simply having such a view, via themselves or another side-character, and just afterwards we are shown the opinion of the one the story is being told through. This person is us, or at least I hope so. They place the value on the person, and their actions, rather than their sexual history. Sexual history does not really make a person, there are too many other factors. 

Shire speaks in here not only of girls that lost their virginity and lied about it, or that were forced into female genital mutilation, but that were raped and violated, and deemed unworthy just the same. These are their tales, and they all have value, and there is always something to learn, something to understand. 

What it is like to be an immigrant, a refugee, forever running: During every point in the history of humanity, every race, culture, ethnicity, religion,  has encountered a form of migration, voluntary or not. Back before time was recorded in paper, this necessary flight seemed to not be refuted, after all, there was war after war in every piece of land. Nowadays, not only is it always contended, but often fought against. As if now that some have made it, the others left behind are not deemed worthy of saving. What if you were in their place? Afraid to speak? To think? Worried that every breath could be your last. Warsan Shire dedicated a part of this collection to poetry conceived from her visit to refugees, and the stories they told her. These were my favourite tales.

Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passaport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)

For the past 70 years, people have been fleeing faster than ever, from the Holocaust, from the civil wars in parts of Europe, from revolutions in the Middle East and Africa, from war-torn lands, from totalitarian governments in Asia and Latin America; all with one purpose, survival for them and their families. And every step of the way they have encountered some form of oppression or mistrust. They are called rapists, murderers, inferior, savages; and the hate spreads like plague thanks to news networks and politicians. People forget these are humans that only want to feel safe, to have food for their family, to get educated and do better. People forget that down the line, someone in their family might have been in the same road, or will be in the future.

I know how hard it is to reach a safer heaven, I know the extent parents will go for their children, and when I see people being harassed for simply getting here in pieces, I wonder if it was better to risk their lives for a dream that might only keep them at bay but never will let them reach it.  

I thought the sea was safer than the land… Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate.
                      – Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)
Tell me this does not remind you of all the refugees that have fled and are still fleeing from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Cuba, Mexico, China…

This poetry collection is perfect for those that have experienced these events, but it raises enough questions for those that have not and simply wish to know what others have had the misfortune to experience. For those worried they will feel like aliens when reading about events unknown to them, this will not do such a thing, it will instead draw the reader in, verse by verse.

Please give this book a read, there is much to be experienced through the pages. Her poems are also online, many of which are not in this collection, but which I am hoping will be published in other books by her.


I hear them say go home, I hear them say fucking immigrants, fucking refugees…my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.
                    –Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)


3 thoughts on “Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth | Book Review

  1. Thank you for this beautiful review of Warsan’s work. I am pleased that my blog, African Soulja, was your first introduction to her. Keep writing 🙂


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