Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and sea water.
She reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lie down
and watch the world burn
in his bedroom?
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things.
doesn’t she wear
the world well?
— Warsan Shire
I spent this previous summer working at a social justice newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa. While on assignment, I caught a glimpse into some of the city’s more unsavory corners. The poverty I saw juxtaposed sharply with the country’s natural splendor. I was told that that was the case for much of the continent of Africa. Cape Town’s beauty (and poverty) however, often paled in comparison to its people. Warm, diverse, and vibrant, yet struggling to reconcile with inherited legacies of horrible violence, oppression, and conflict.
While there, I tried to read as much African literature as I could get my hands on in order to understand a little of this struggle. I grew especially fond of young Somali-British writer Warsan Shire. A 26-year-old working through some serious themes in her poetry, she was named Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014. The above poem is an excerpt from her 2011 collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. What I love about Shire is that she’s undeniably a part of a new, exciting generation of poets: those born on MySpace, nurtured on Tumblr, and currently coming of age on Twitter. They have social consciousness and political motivations. They live and write in our world of hyper-connectedness online.
As for Shire’s own background, she was born in Kenya to Somali parents. She migrated from Africa to Europe at a young age and much of her poetry deals with her subsequent struggles to cope with her identity post-migration. Detached from her cultural homeland and ancestors, through her poetry Shire has often embodied the displacement many immigrants feel in an unfamiliar country. In her spare time, she collaborated on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016), a mark of her quickly growing influence within the artistic sphere.
“Ugly” is a powerful and heavy piece that taps into the rich tradition of storytelling present in many African cultures. The way I read it, “Ugly” uses a girl-child – an immigrant – as an allegory for Africa: its history of ugly civil war, ugly colonization, and ugly oppression. This child’s body, like the continent, is “littered” with “ugly things” – refugee camps, riots, boarders: souvenirs of brutal conflict and hard journeys. Because of her “problems,” she is found difficult to love by the more fortunate corners of the world, who do not wish to feel the intimate loss she feels, who do not wish to “watch the world burn / in [their] bedroom.” To me, Shire is trying to square what she knows is beautiful – Africa’s peoples and cultures – with its traumatic inheritance.
The form of the poem is authoritative. It’s declarative – there are many end stops, almost every line closes with a comma or period. Shire isn’t asking for input or opening a conversation: it is as if she is simply stating reality, what is. “You are her mother.” “She reminded them of the war.” “Your daughter is ugly.” End of discussion. It feels like a chastisement to the rest of the world: Take care of your human family.
However, the final stanza does not end on a despairing, or even negative, note. It takes a turn for the hopeful: “But God, / doesn’t she wear/the world well.” Another statement: Shire knows the daughter is beautiful both due to, and in spite of, her colonies, islands, boarders, riots, wars, and camps. And I think she’s daring the rest of the world to know likewise.
— Lilly Wimberly ’18
“Ugly.” Poetry International. Poetryinternationalweb.net. 2013. Web.
[For more by Warsan Shire, her book Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Mother-Give-Birth-Mouthmark/dp/1905233299]