Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth: At Home in Displacement

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire’s debut poetry collection, deals mightily in contradictions. The poems range in topic from womanhood and the generational disparities within families to tradition, religion, and the refugee experience. Displacement is a recurring theme, and rather than make the reader feel displaced, Warsan’s adept writing puts us at home in experiences we might not recognize as our own.

For me, the experience in this collection that rings most true is the female experience. In placing joy and wonder alongside danger and caution, Warsan’s poems evoke how after a certain age, a girl becomes a woman and enters a new world with new rules and ever more things to concern herself with. Mothers and female relatives turn from looking at the daughter not only with pride and affection, but with a hostile sense of worry. In Things We Had Lost in the Summer:

“One of them pushes my open knees closed.
Sit like a girl. I finger the hole in my shorts,
shame warming my skin.”

Warsan shifts back and forth between the female and refugee experiences, not making them interchangeable exactly, but drawing parallels in the uncertainty, the anger, and the fear that both call forth. In Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center), the narrator has been forced to leave her home and country and reflects:

“I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing.”

Like the subtlety of her verses, Warsan’s narration invites you in slowly, letting the power of the words wash over you. The poems in this collection offer a greater understanding of unfamiliar experiences, but only if you’re open to it: Warsan’s words, and her voice, don’t demand it but encourage it.