A conversation with Warsan Shire
Literary sensation Warsan Shire is an award-winning poet born in Nairobi and raised in Wembley, Northwest London. Now living in Los Angeles; her debut collection Bless The Daughter, Raised By A Voice In Her Head is drawing from her life and lives of loved ones, including pop culture, news headlines and banter. Warsan wrote the poetry for the Peabody Award-winning visual album Lemonade and Disney film Black Is King in collaboration with Beyoncé. Throughout the interview, I felt a warm joy and comfort. Sharing childhood memories about growing up in Northwest London to old wives' tales from our grandparents.
'An extraordinarily gifted poet' - Bernardine Evaristo
Bless The Daughter, Raised By A Voice In Her Head, is your first full-length poetry collection. What would you like young readers to take away from this?
I wrote the book with my child self. I would like any young person to read and feel what I felt growing up, visiting libraries and being introduced to particular books. These books were a really formative time in my life and changed the entire perspective of life and what was possible. The first collection of books I read was by Edwidge Danticat, who is a Haitian-born American novelist. She wrote a collection of short stories called Krik? Krak!, she wrote this at age 22. I remember finding her books in Ealing Road library. One cover was a photo of her face, with bob braids. Her face looked very vibrant. That’s what drew me to it.
Krik? Krak!, had some amazing stories, fantastical and magical realism stories about immigrant women and their experiences in the Haitian community. That really blew my mind, and made me feel that there was a way to share stories of your community of people from similar backgrounds that feel completely invisible, for not only representation but also what society expects. There would be a cap on your dreams, being really young and just feeling that there was no future for me. By reading and finding these different writers gave me a lot of hope.
I hope Bless The Daughter, Raised By A Voice In Her Head, comforts young readers and makes them feel that anything is possible.
I hope Bless The Daughter, Raised By A Voice In Her Head, comforts young readers and makes them feel that anything is possible. I recently did a reading at Bristol St Georges with Raise the Bar. A poet from Bristol did her reading before me, said at 13 she found a copy of my book Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth in her local library, which inspired her to write. Hearing that makes me happy and often during book signings, several young girls will say “I enjoy reading poetry now”, or “I would love to become a writer”. It became a cycle, which I was part of, and it changed my life. I just want young people to feel important and feel like their stories are stories that should be shared. Their voices are important. And I think that's what's amazing. By writing, you can do that for yourself. You do not need anybody else. You just need a pen.
Can you explain the reason behind the artwork for Bless The Daughter, Raised By A Voice In Her Head?
An artist called Natalie Osborne created the cover. She’s a Black artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Natalie paints portraits of women. I have a few pieces at home. The portrait on the cover is called Daydream. I found this piece a couple of years ago, and it reminded me of my mother. During the 90s, my mother would wear short haircuts and several earrings. My mother was really high glam. I’ve always loved that about her.
When did you realise language had power, what was the experience like?
My first experience was in English Class. I would bring a notebook with me that had all my written poems. There was an all girl's school in Northwest London, which I attended. I was 13 at the time and a friend was sitting next to me and she said “Oh, can I see what you're reading?” so I showed her. She was like, “wow, this is amazing, can I pass it along?”
The feedback was lovely. Some girls reading the poems got emotional. One girl said, “Warsan, you’re really going to make it”. I was so thankful and I mentioned that one day I will publish a book. Recently, I received messages from the girls from my school, saying “I remember when you were showing your poems in class” I think that experience gave me confidence. Then, I felt quite validated by writing if I was struggling with self-esteem or struggling with intrusive thoughts. Writing made that better. That’s when at a young age I stumbled upon art therapy. Studies have proven that art therapy works. It’s used in prisons and hospitals. I believe all children should have access to art therapy.
Personally, the power of words constantly reminds me of life. Not saying the things you wanted to say to someone, then it’s too late and you may live with regret. Like saying “I love you” shows how you feel.
Do you have a writing process? What’s that like?
Yes, my writing process normally starts with me finding a song. The song choice can be anything. Sometimes the songs chosen will bring back memories of an event, or the first time listening to a song choice will often give me goosebumps. I have a very visceral reaction to music and just stimuli in that way. That song will be on repeat. My brain has entered this world that is allowing me to write for a while. After I stop, I won’t read it until the next day because I want to be surprised. I'll go back to it and read it like it’s not my work. If I have an emotional reaction to it, then that's great. If it's giving me that feeling of release and comfort again. That would be my ultimate piece.
My other writing process is doing the same thing but with film. So I'll put a film on, and I'll sit down. And while I'm watching it, I'll just write whatever comes to my head. Usually the films and songs I'm listening to don't actually end up having much in common with what I'm writing. I like different references. I would write about my mother but I’ll be watching a Sci-Fi film, it makes me think of my mother in a different world. A whole different semantic field of words that I wouldn't think about. It makes life rich and writing rich. I also watch horror and true crime films. Sometimes my work can be graphic or slightly violent, not just for the sake of it. I’m genuinely drawn to human psychology and the reasons behind cruelty. Something I’ve always thought about. How is it so easy for some people and others to spend their whole life trying to be cruel?
Can you share your first reading experience?
The first book I read was called Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Absent-minded Magician By Jean Bethell and Illustrated by Carol Nicklaus. My dad bought me a copy. I remember reading this book from page to page. I really enjoyed reading RL Stine Goosebumps' collection, which I’ve read every single one. Until today, I cannot find a book that makes me feel as good as when I was a young child, and all the way into my late teens. My first library visit was with my dad and we went to Willesden Library, after that I became completely obsessed. Thereafter, I would go to the library and always select eight books, knowing that these books are going to take me into a different space. A universe that would allow me to escape into.
My first library visit was with my dad and we
went to Willesden Library, after that I became
I really loved going into these different worlds. Home life was a struggle for me, so when I was reading I wouldn't be disturbed. It was some sort of respect towards me and the books. Having that first initial introduction to books really saved my younger self. I’m not sure where I would be if my dad didn’t instil in me the love of books.
Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice InHer Head by Warsan Shire
Available from bookshop.org