Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

by Warsan Shire
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Themes

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Familial and Generational Relationships

Connections among family members form a primary theme of many of the poems. The actual relationships also represent links between groups of different generations. As the reader might infer from the title, relationships between parents and children play a dominant role. It is not established how many different speakers are present among the poems, and in many cases, the gender of the speaker is not evident. However, it often seems that the speaker is female and that mother–daughter relationships are featured in several poems. Other poems refer specifically to relationships between the speaker’s parents, sometimes before the speaker’s birth. Still others present relationships with and the lives of grandparents.

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Mother–child relationships play important roles in “Things We Had Lost in the Summer,” “Beauty,” “Trying to Swim with God,” “Ugly,” “Fire,” and “In Love and in War.” Mothers and their children rarely understand each other, whether because of cultural changes within their country or because of generational differences after moving to a different place. “Fire” presents a vast gap between the mother’s and daughter’s understandings of spousal physical abuse. The speaker in “Ugly” blames the mother for numerous inadequacies in raising her daughter. In “Beauty,” however, the mother and one of her children seem close, while the other child—the speaker’s sister—disappears into her own world.

In several poems, the speaker provides her impressions of the parents of an unknown addressee. These commentaries involve topics like sexual initiation, such as in “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” which also considers parenthood as a possible outcome of rape. Parents’ relationship on their wedding night is a theme in “Snow” and “You Were Conceived.”

The larger family unit is included in the “we” of “Things We Had Lost in the Summer.” This group includes the speaker and her cousins. Her mother’s whispered telephone conversation with her father contrasted with the bond the girls share suggests the generational differences in attitudes toward the female body. Puberty and traditions, possibly including genital cutting, are topics about which they disagree.

Relationships with grandparents and between grandparents are addressed in several poems. The idea of the grandparents as younger, loving, sexually active individuals is delicately addressed in “Grandfather’s Hands.” In contrast, “Old Spice” presents a man at death’s door and the grandchild’s concern and frustration at not being able to help or fully understand him. The generational divide is affectionately treated in “Tea with Our Grandmothers”; the death of one grandmother has prompted the speaker to reminisce about differences among three others and differences from the speaker.

Identity, Transformation, and Challenges to Belonging

Numerous dimensions of identity, including the way it changes for different people, are variations on a theme in many of the poems. Gender and sexuality are among the most prominently featured aspects of identity. Aging, illness, and death are other transformations that the poet considers; these changes are addressed via the significant effect they have on close relatives or survivors. All of these are intertwined with national and ethnic heritage and migrant and refugee status. The challenges of displacement and recreating bonds of community are often sharply contrasted with attachment to—and nostalgic memories of—home.

Sexual activity and initiation are frequently specified or implied in several poems. One complex instance appears in “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” with its ironically romantic title; the teenage girl suffered doubly from her experience being sexually assaulted and her realization that the boy had later raped other women. Sexual desire and puberty are themes in “Things We Had Lost in the Summer.” For the daughter in “Ugly,” the impossibility of being desired or loved is emphasized. The urgency of sexual desire, contrasted with the rapid transition from bride to widow, makes “You Were Conceived” especially poignant.

In contrast, “My Foreign Wife is Dying and Does Not Want to Be Touched” presents the slower devouring of fatal illness as cancer takes the speaker’s wife. The alien state of her own body is evoked through comparison to a drowning home, soon to be claimed by both water and earth. Her distance from her home country seems like that of her body’s current distance from her previous self-conception.

For most of the characters whose origin or nationality is stated, the transition into their new lives and homes is not accomplished smoothly. The obstacles seem insurmountable to the woman who dies in “Trying to Swim with God.” The speaker (or, possibly, group of speakers) in “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)” expresses the contradictions of her simultaneous gratitude at still being alive and pain of remembering her long, torturous flight from home: she explains, “where I have come from is disappearing.” She understands as well that many in the new country do not welcome them. Despite their longing for all they are missing at home, they acknowledge the pains they endured, including sexual abuse. Maymuun, however, in the poem bearing her name, seems to have found contentment, as she sends home smiling photographs of her new life abroad.

War and Violent Conflict

One of the strengths of Shire’s work is that she shows how violence and insecurity can pervade every aspect of people’s lives. Rather than presenting war as an anomalous state, she conveys the way that sustained armed conflicts both emerge from and contribute to violence in daily life. The dangers that an individual teenage girl or, metaphorically, a vulnerable population faces from an indifferent or hostile society are presented in “Ugly”: “relatives wouldn’t hold her. / She reminded them of the war.” Connections between domestic abuse and the violent retribution it can produce are presented in different ways in “Fire” and “In Love and in War”; both address the extreme reaction of setting oneself on fire.

Violence and the larger context of enduring hardship are especially prominent in “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre).” Knowing that home is not safe or stable, the speaker wonders at those who tell immigrants to “go home.” The sea has taken her children, apparently in the crossing from Libya to Italy; bodies also lie dead in the desert. The unwelcoming countries where she stopped are like the uncles who abused her in her sleep. Danger is intrinsic in one’s home, which “spat… out” the speaker, who compares her home to “the mouth of a shark.” In turn, her own mouth became “a sink full of blood.”

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