‘Teaching my mother how to give birth’: a thought-provoking, essential collection of beautiful poems

I came across the name Warsan Shire through Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. As I’m sure many others have been, I was intrigued to find out more about the strong voice behind the poetic interludes in Beyoncé’s album. I soon ordered Teaching my mother how to give birth and her poetry pamphlet did not disappoint.

From reading the quote on the first page of the collection I was already hooked. The quote is by one of my favourite poet’s, Audre Lorde. The quote, “Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden” comes from Lorde’s poem, “Call” and it is a perfect opening to Shire’s collection. Teaching my mother how to give birth explores the relationship between a daughter and her mother as well as touching on themes of identity, race, religion and migration.

Lorde is more than an apt figure for Shire to gesture too, as Lorde is something of an expert on writing about identity, race and feminism. She was a radical feminist and civil rights activist whose poetry and essays I cannot recommend enough.

The Lorde influence is clear, as many of the poems delve deeply into the experiences one has with their mother and the cultural tensions that come with being black in the Western world. At the same time Shire clearly has her own style and voice. Her poetry ranges from softer, sensual images, such as in, “Grandmother’s Hands”:

“Your grandfather’s hands were slow but urgent.

Your grandmother dreamt them,

 

a clockwork of fingers finding places to own-

under the tongue, collarbone, bottom lip,

arch of foot” (11)

 

And then, sometimes her poetry is colloquial, brutal, refusing to shy away from abusive sexual experiences and the harsh realities women face every day. Like in, “Birds” which opens with the line, “Sofia used pigeon blood on her wedding day” (14) referring to a woman who uses pigeon blood to hide the fact that she has already lost her virginity. And in “Your mother’s first kiss” which has the opening line, “The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women”.

One of the poems that I found most inspiring was, Shire’s three-part prose poem entitled, “Conversations from Home (at the deportation center)”. The topic of migration continues to be a central issue in the UK and Europe since the beginning of the migration crisis. Somehow Shire manages to adeptly explore a highly political topic through the art of poetry. The line, “no one leaves home unless the home is the mouth of a shark” is arresting and genius in how it manages to attack the other side of the migrant question, achieving one of the essential qualities of poetry; its ability to express political and dense matters in a beautiful, evocative manner.

As Lorde writes in her essay, “Poetry is not a luxury”, poetry is for some, an essential medium, a, “relevatory distillation of experience” that acts as a mouth piece for minorities; people of colour, women and in this case refugees and those who have migrated to another country due to dire circumstances in their departure country, and have experienced racism because of it.

“Conversations from Home” demands a lot from its readers. In part 4 she writes:

“Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and the old currency waiting for its return.” (27).

After reading this line I couldn’t help thinking of the recent image that went viral of a boy who has just survived his home being bombed in Aleppo, Syria and the many people who are so quick to dismiss claims that refugees have valid reasons for leaving their homes.

The final poem, “In Love and In War” reads almost as a warning: “To my daughter I will say, / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.” (34). It is a beautiful, haunting ending to a great collection of poems that I find, like Audre Lorde I will now also be adding to my list of recommendations.

 

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury”. Strong Words. Ed. Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, Matthew. Northumberland: Bloodaxe books, 2000. 137-140.

Shire, Warsan. Teaching my mother how to give birth. The UK: Mouthmark series, 2011.

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‘The Bunker Diary’: Where do we draw the line for children’s books?

Have you ever read a book or watched a film that has already generated a massive hype amongst film critics and readers? So that before you have even turned the page you know that the political dystopian novel you’re about to embark on is supposed to be the best thing ever written since Orwell’s 1984, or a movie is supposed to be the funniest high school drama since Mean Girls?

This was kind of how I felt turning the first pages of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I was told that the ending was sad and that the novel had generated horror amongst certain critics when it won the Carnegie medal for the UK’s top prize in Children’s Literature. Apparently some critics found that the content of The Bunker Diary was too horrific for children. With this in mind I began reading the novel with the expectation for a horrible ending. Two hours later I hurriedly turned the last page of the novel expecting to read more only to find blank pages. Turning that page was like a brutal slap to the face. Horror didn’t seem to cover it.

Author, Kevin Brooks with the Carnegie medal. Photo: The Independent

Author, Kevin Brooks with the Carnegie medal. Photo: The Independent

I must confess that having read the novel in two hours straight and late at night might have added to my shock at the ending. Having stayed with the characters in their monthly stint in the bunker that serves as their prison, without any breaks added to the reading experience. Later, after some time had passed I calmed down somewhat and took some time to assess the book as a whole.

The novel is about six random people who are kidnapped by a man and imprisoned in a bunker. Why they are kidnapped or by whom they do not know. They each have six separate rooms, a bathroom and a dining room. One by one the characters find themselves in a lift controlled by their kidnapper that leads to the bunker. What they do know is that they are being watched through cameras. As the tale ensues, things get worse in the bunker, with incidents of torture, starvation, murder and rape.

The story is told by Linus, a seventeen year-old teenager who has a remarkable background story of abuse and time spent living on the streets that makes you wonder why this young boy deserves to end up in his situation. Yet one might argue that life is exactly that – unfair and it sometimes moves us randomly into the situations we find ourselves. The Bunker Diary is exemplary of that fact, it teaches its readers about the unjust reality of life. Not everyone who is kidnapped in the world is rescued or treated fairly. Why should Brooks’ characters fair any differently just because it is a fictional story?

Aside from the devastating ending, The Bunker Diary, is a beautifully written and well-crafted novel that I would recommend to anyone. Brooks knows that sometimes less is more, and often it is the information he withholds from his readers that adds to the magic of the novel. The reader is only told of the beautiful harrowing poems and passages in Russel’s diary and of the letter that Russel addresses to Linus. In addition, Brooks withholds information about the novels’ kidnapper which only adds to his allure and scare-factory as their mysterious assailant. Much of Linus’ diary is taken up with Linus considering the difficult fact that his attacker has provided him with his diary and could be reading what he has written. In one poetic passage he writes: 

 “You see, you are the unknown. You are you, and sometimes you’re me, but you’re also Him. The Man Upstairs. Or at least you could be Him. I’m not saying you are, but I have to bear that possibility in mind.” (105)

Despite the limited setting I was always fully engaged as a reader and kept on tenterhooks throughout the narrative as to what would happen next. Criticism that Brooks’ novel won on, “shock value rather than merit”, is unfounded for in my opinion. Notwithstanding the ending, the characters are realistic and easy to empathise with. I would argue that the full force of the brutal nature of the story does not hit the reader until the very end.

It is the fact that the ending leaves you with so many questions as a reader that bothered me the most. I have read many novels which end with unanswered questions. In this case I felt like these questions needed to be answered. I also couldn’t stop thinking about all of the children and adults around the world who have been kidnapped around the world as I was reading.

The Bunker Diary is about real world issues, such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, or the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing. However, these are issues that young people have access to hearing about on the news. Perhaps the subject matter is not as X-rated as some might expect.

In defence of the novel, a children’s librarian told The Guardian, “our year nine girls loved it and did not then come to me to complain about content or the unsuitability of it. They were more concerned about letting me know how much it had moved them and how powerfully frustrated and moved they were by the ending.”

I agree with librarian Beth Khalil that sometimes children can surprise us with their reactions. I can even understand why parents might be more horrified reading The Bunker as they follow the story of nine-year old Jenny who is taken from her parents. Indeed, Jenny is a perfect example of this in the novel. Unlike some of the adults, Jenny and Linus are the few characters who manage panic less in the bunker and think rationally about potential escape plans.

I do agree, however that the inclusion of scenes of torture and rape call for at least a young adult specification warning for some adult content. On the other hand does the The Bunker Diary, deserve to be labelled, “vile or dangerous”? – I think not. I believe it is far from vile and highly deserving of its literary award.

Have you read any children’s literature that made you question the author’s chosen target audience?

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Photo: JackieMagpie.com

Photo: JackieMagpie.com

I am constantly amazed at how relevant and relatable historical fiction novels can be to modern day issues. It seems that certain aspects of human nature have remained fairly unchanged over time, and it is through reading historical fiction such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites that we can revisit our existing social systems.

Set in 1829, and based loosley on a true, recorded events, Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a poor Icelandic pauper. Agnes has been sentenced to death on account of having killed her Master Natan Ketilsson and his friend Petur Jonsson. She is sent to a farm in Northen Iceland to work for a farming family as a slave until Winter when she is set to be executed.

As soon as Agnes’ sentence passes she is made a social pariah and I shuddered whilst reading at how quickly cruel guards and people became once she is labelled as a ‘murderess’. Thank goodness we have human rights in most countries today that prevent guards from beating a helpless woman. However, before the trial and accusations of murder take place, Agnes explains that she has always been isolated and disliked because of her desire to better herself. Because of this, Direct Commissioner Bjorn Blondal is determined to make an example out of Agnes whilst Sigridur Gudmundsdottir (Sigga) is allowed an appeal because her simplemindness and innocent seeming nature means that few people think she could be capable of murder.

The Direct Commissioner is successful in his efforts to make an example out of Agnes because of the lack of development in forensic science and ‘corrupt’ nature of their justic sysem. Nevertheless after reading Burial Rites we might ask ourselves today what factors might come into play today when a woman is wrongly accused or treated infidfferently because of her sex and intelligence.

I read Burial Rites as Agnes’ argument for a fair trail, or simply for a just burial, appropriate to the true story of what happened that night Natan and Petur are killed. Kent tells the story admirably, with two interweaving threads: the first, is the cold factual account of the cord proceedings and letters of correspondence sent between the Direct Commisioner and persons attacthed to the case and the second is the more personal, emotional account of Agnes.

The switch between third person narrative for all of the minor characters and first person narrative for Agnes works very well for the novel. The text ultimately prioritises her voice and story, which is significant because in Agnes’ life few people have bothered to listen to her. The family that are forced to take care of her and Reverend Toti are the first people to listen to Agnes full story without prejudice or judgement. As a result they are severly implicated and touched by her story, so that when it comes to the date of Agnes execution she does have people who care for her.

I think the novel read rather slowly at first and it wasn’t until later in the novel that I really started to feel for Agnes and her story. It wasn’t the ‘whodunnit’ element of the tale that engaged me, rather the ‘how did it happen’ and question of who is really to blame that had me hooked.