Warsan Shire: The unexpected gift of Lemonade

Morgan shares her newfound love for the poetry of Warsan Shire and what it means to her. 


Beyonce’s Lemonade gave me all the feels for a lot of reasons. If you’ve ever gone through a bad breakup, been cheated on or desperately needed to draw strength from your tribe, you know what I’m talking about. But Bey’s visual album did more than just give me a new girl power playlist to keep in heavy Warsan Shirerotation. It introduced me to Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet, who was born in Kenya and immigrated to the United Kingdom with her family when she was just a baby. Shire, author of teaching my mother how to give birthwas named the first Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014. Many of her works describe the struggles of immigrants and refugees, including her parents’ stories. She is said to have used a Dictaphone, a small cassette recorder, to record stories of her relatives from their time in Kenya. But it is her poetry about women’s empowerment, body issues, and survival that resonate with me the most.

In her poem “For women who are difficult to love,” Warsan writes about being in a relationship with a controlling man, and how women try to change for the ones they love. In the song “ Hold Up,” Beyoncé used lines from Shire’s poem and added her own spin to them. Shire’s original lines are no less painful to read:

he tells you that no man can live up to the one wholives in your head
and you tried to change, didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer,prettier,less volatile,
less awake
but even when sleeping
you could feel
 him traveling away from you in his dreams.

Having been in a relationship where I felt like I had to change everything about myself to keep the peace, make my boyfriend happy and make myself easier to love, it was a shock to know that powerful women like Beyonce and Warsan Shire struggled with these same feelings of desperation and inadequacy. And even more empowering to hear a song like “Sorry,” with its battle cry, “Middle fingers up, put them hands high.” In “the unbearable weight of staying” Warsan seconds that emotion with lines that are no less dismissive:

i let you leave
i need someone who knows how to stay.

Her words are a powerful reminder that we are strong, not because we haven’t fallen in our six-inch heels, but because we somehow picked ourselves back up. She reminds us that women should be respected on their own terms and not made to conform to a man’s or society’s expectations. Shire repeats this truth in “Difficult Names,” when she writes:

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.

Speaking of struggling with the expectations of society, Warsan Shire also writes about her struggle with bulimia. On Twitter, she tweeted “fat and perfect, perfect and black, black and fat and perfect,” which was later discovered to be about her battle with bulimia.

In “Shame“, she writes:

“Essentially, if our secrets are secrets because we are told to be ashamed, then we must share them.  There is no shame in being sad or struggling or trying to heal … My name is Warsan Shire and I survived bulimia and I have absolutely no shame.”

I’ve only scratched the surface of the beautiful lessons Warsan’s poetry has to teach me, but I can already see what Beyonce loves about her work and wants us to love about it too. In “Redemption”, Beyoncé shares her grandmother’s recipe for lemonade, then writes,

Grandmother, the alchemist
You spun gold out of this hard life
Conjured beauty from the things left behind
Found healing where it did not live
Discovered the antidote in your own kitchen
Broke the curse with your own two hands
You passed these instructions down to your daughter
Who then passed it down to her daughter

Women sharing our stories and passing strength from one to another is how we all find the courage to be, as Shire puts it

 and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.

Have you been reading any of Warsaw Shire’s poetry? Are you a fan? What does it mean to you? 

Photo credit: Warsan Shire Instagram


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