I first heard of Kenyan-born Somali writer Warsan Shire when words from her poem “The Birth Name” appeared across my Twitter feed some years ago. The lines “Give your daughters difficult names / Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue / My name makes you want to tell me the truth / My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right” resonated with me—a southern black woman with an unusual name I often abbreviated to avoid questions about its origins (“my mother made it up” never seemed satisfying). To avoid the colorful mispronunciations that often followed.
Days after stumbling across Warsan’s words I purchased Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, her debut poetry pamphlet filled with poems on war, love, grief, trauma, and womanhood. I wasn’t surprised to learn that US singer Beyoncé chose lines from Teaching to weave together the narrative of LEMONADE, her latest visual album which deals with similar themes.
Lines like “I don’t know when love became elusive / All I know is no one I know has seen it / My father’s arms around my mother’s neck / Fruit too ripe to eat” and “I tried to change / Closed my mouth more / Tried to be soft / Prettier / Less awake” were pulled from poems by Warsan, who is listed under “Film Adaptation and Poetry” in the project’s credits.
This isn’t the first time Beyoncé has featured the words of a literary figure in her music–in 2013 she introduced many to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer whose inspiring TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” is sampled in her track “Flawless”.
With LEMONADE she calls attention to Warsan who, at 24, was chosen as London’s first Young Poet Laureate and was once described by The New Yorker as “a first-generation woman always looking backward and forward at the same time, acknowledging that to move through life without being haunted by the past lives of your forebears is impossible.”
Below are 19 quotes and lines of poetry penned by Warsan for anyone looking to begin familiarizing themselves with her work.
1. “You can’t make homes out of human beings, someone should have already told you that. And if he wants to leave then let him leave. You are terrifying and strange and beautiful, something not everyone knows how to love.”
2. “It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.”
3. “Perhaps, the problem is not the intensity of your love, but the quality of the people you are loving.”
4. “Document the moments you feel most in love with yourself – what you’re wearing, who you’re around, what you’re doing. Recreate and repeat.”
5. “How far have you walked for men who’ve never held your feet in their laps?
How often have you bartered with bone, only to sell yourself short?
Why do you find the unavailable so alluring?
Where did it begin? What went wrong? And who made you feel so worthless?
If they wanted you, wouldn’t they have chosen you?
6. “But sometimes your light attracts moths and your warmth attracts parasites. Protect your space and energy.”
7. “I am a lover without a lover. I am lovely and lonely and I belong deeply to myself.”
8. “I won’t glorify or romanticise heartbreak, for me it was a kind of death and I was forced to keep living.”
9. “I’m not sad, but the boys who are looking for sad girls always find me. I’m not a girl anymore and I’m not sad anymore. You want me to be a tragic backdrop so that you can appear to be illuminated, so that people can say ‘Wow, isn’t he so terribly brave to love a girl who is so obviously sad?’ You think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star? I’ll swallow you whole.”
10. “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are
11. “Loving you was like going to war; I never came back the same.”
12. “Not everyone is okay with living like an open wound. But the thing about open wounds is that, well, you aren’t ignoring it. You’re healing; the fresh air can get to it. It’s honest. You aren’t hiding who you are. You aren’t rotting. People can give you advice on how to heal without scarring badly. But on the other hand there are some people who’ll feel uncomfortable around you. Some will even point and laugh. But we all have wounds.”
13. “The ego hurts you like this: you become obsessed with the one person who does not love you. Blind to the rest who do.”
14. “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.”
15. “Every mouth you’ve ever kissed was just practice. All the bodies you’ve ever undressed and ploughed in to were preparing you for me. I don’t mind tasting them in the memory of your mouth. Was it a long journey? Did it take you long to find me? You’re here now, welcome home.”
16.“To my daughter I will say, when men come, set yourself on fire.”
17. “With you, intimacy colours my voice.
Even ‘hello’ sounds like ‘come here’.”
18. “My heart is a flower blossoming out of my mouth.”
19. “Don’t assume, ask. Be kind. Tell the truth. Don’t say anything you can’t stand behind fully. Have integrity. Tell people how you feel.”
Hear Warsan recite her poems – you won’t regret it.
What did you think of Beyoncé’s use of Warsan’s poetry in LEMONADE? Comment and let us know!