Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

by Warsan Shire
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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196

The epigraph of Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, which refers to the speaker’s facial features as connected to her parents’ appearances and relationship, suggests the importance of family and identity. The thirty-eight-page volume contains twenty-one titled works. Along with nineteen poems, there are two prose pieces: “Maymuun’s Mouth,” which follows the poem “Things We Had Lost in the Summer,” and “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre),” which follows the poem “Questions for Miriam.” The volume concludes with a page containing endnotes and a biographical sketch of the author.

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The first poem, “What Your Mother Told You after Your Father Left,” is three lines long. As with many of the other poems, the identity of the speaker is not established; in this case, the addressee’s relationship to the speaker also remains unstated. The addressee’s mother seems to be the poem’s speaker; she states that she begged God to not let her husband leave, which was the reason she did not beg the man—the addressee’s father—to stay.

In “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” the speaker seems to be the mother’s child, who is reflecting on what her mother told her. The mother’s memories of her first kiss include information about the future activities of the boy who kissed and sexually assaulted her. The boy later raped women during a war. That memory and knowledge are connected to a recent occurrence when the mother, accompanied by the child, saw the man on a bus.

In “Things We Had Lost in the Summer,” the speaker, who seems to be female, recalls being twelve years old and visiting with her female cousins after they returned from a trip to Nairobi. In focusing on the changes—such as puberty—that they experienced, the speaker mentions her mother’s attitude and her differences from her cousins.

“Maymuun’s Mouth” is a profile of one woman, assembled from her phone calls and photographs sent home. Her new life in another country includes smiling and dancing. The speaker conjectures that speaking a “new tongue” may include romance with her Spanish-speaking Dominican neighbor.

“Grandfather’s Hands” presents the intimate, imaginative physical relationship of a man and woman, who later became the addressee’s grandparents.

In “Bone,” the speaker, apparently female, addresses another person, perhaps her husband, about the presence of a fifteen-year-old girl staying in their home. He has claimed that he wants to save her, as she has been abused by her father. The speaker is concerned, however; she states, “I can hear you in our spare room with her.”

“Snow” is about the speaker’s parents at the time of their marriage. She states that her father was a drunk, and she imagines their wedding night. He speaks to his bride about snow, which he had seen in Russia; it becomes a metaphor for female sexuality.

“Birds” is also about a wedding night. It relates the way that Sofia, a friend of the speaker, fooled her husband and mother-in-law into thinking she was a virgin.

“Beauty” presents the speaker’s older sister, whose haunting memories make her scream at night. The poem is concerned with teenage sexual activity; the sister (who, as a teenager, had slept with a married man) warns the speaker against sexual activity, because boys are “haram”—forbidden by Islamic law (according to the endnotes).

“The Kitchen” uses spices, fruits, and flavors to evoke the relationship between sex and food as the speaker wonders about her husband’s affair.

“Fire” consists of three sections, each of which are between six and nineteen lines long. In all three, a male speaker seems to be reflecting on recent and past events. In section 1, he considers his former partner’s actions after he “was made to leave” his home because he hit his partner; section 2, also concerned with that day, describes a random encounter in an elevator. Section 3 relates a remembered story from his childhood, which concerns a murder-suicide related to domestic abuse.

“When We Last Saw Your Father” is a four-line poem that describes a man seated in a car, looking up at a hospital and trying to determine which room contains “his mistake.”

“You Were Conceived” offers the memory of a “secret wedding,” after which the husband left and never returned. The speaker relates the dismayed reaction of his mother and their isolation at his funeral.

In “Trying to Swim with God,” the speaker juxtaposes her mother’s swimming practice in a pool to her body hitting the hard earth below their block of flats. The poem connects the mother’s attitude to the city, which “is slowly killing all our women,” to her apparent decision to end her life.

“Questions for Miriam” is addressed to Miriam Makeba, a prominent South African activist and singer-songwriter of the 1960s. The speaker reflects on Makeba’s rise from obscurity to fame and her influence on aspiring female musicians. Inquiring into differences between creativity and the physical person, the speaker repeats a question about “songs” not being the same as “a warm body or a soft mouth.”

The five-page prose piece, “Conversations about Home—(at the Deportation Centre),” may present the testimonies of up to five people, or perhaps only one person is speaking. It eloquently depicts the dilemmas of people facing deportation who have left countries devastated by war, faced great challenges to reach their current destination, and were confronted with discrimination against immigrants when they arrived.

“Old Spice” presents the speaker’s frail, elderly grandfather who, nearing death, sometimes remembers the past vividly. He pleads with his grandchild to take him home one last time.

In “My Foreign Wife is Dying and Does Not Want to Be Touched,” the speaker laments the suffering that his cancer-stricken wife is enduring and recounts his frustrated and helpless state.

“Ugly” appears to be about a teenage girl whose mother ignored and failed to educate her. It is unclear if she was abused within her home or endured hardships of war. Her body and soul bear the scars of violence. The poem may be a metaphorical description of the state’s failure to protect its people.

In “Tea with Our Grandmothers,” the speaker identifies herself as the poet, the namesake of her grandmother Warsan Baraka. She remembers both her “ayeeyo,” or paternal grandmother, and Noura, her maternal grandmother. They are contrasted to the addressee’s deceased grandmother, known by the term “habooba,” and her English-descendent grandmother, Doris. Reflecting on their different heritages and appearances, the poet remarks on the dead woman’s skills at pouring tea and surviving.

The last poem, “In Love and in War,” is only two lines long. The speaker gives her daughter advice for a future situation: “When the men come, set yourself on fire.” Although both men and fire are dangerous, she implies that self-destruction is the preferable option.

The endnotes section explains Arabic and Somali terms, expressions, and quotations that are used in the works.

The brief biography, “About Warsan Shire,” notes that the author is a Somali writer, born in Kenya and based in London. Through art and activism, she “document[s] narratives of journey and trauma.”

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