“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.” – Warsan Shire
When someone mispronounces my name and does not care to fix their fumbling mouth, I say I don’t care, not to put the person to ease, but simply because I don’t. I don’t care that this speaker is used to Ashley and Kelly and Jessica, Johnson and Richmond and Michaels. I don’t care that this is all they know. I don’t care that this is all they wish to know. I don’t care because I’ve heard it before, I’ve dealt with it all, and I have learned that these people live in small, little rooms where the light is dim and the books on the shelf are dusty and there is comfort in abundance, but only for its constant inhabitant; no visitors allowed. I don’t care that I am not invited; I relish in the freedom outdoors.
It’s a feeling that not many people have shared with me. I hear my loneliness echoed when people say: “What an interesting name. What are you?” I see it when they lean forward after I’ve introduced myself and ask, “What?” I clench my jaw when an embarrassed smile appears on their face and they butcher my name and I try to laugh it, my name, my identity, myself, right off. They’re not embarrassed of their ignorance, they are embarrassed for me and I am too empathetic to ignore the nervousness in their soft chuckle. I feel the blush creep to my cheeks before I can stop it and it only fades when I’m angrily alone again, reminding myself that I am not a visitor in that small, little room of theirs. They are the ones who have stepped outside and they should be ashamed of the way they refuse to let their eyes to adjust to the light.
Warsan Shire is a Somali poet based in London and I find that reading her poetry makes me feel that much less alone, a goal that many writers attempt but few attain completely, in my honest opinion.
I am the child of two immigrants and I am a woman. I live in a weird divide, where sometimes, the only thing each world has in common is the outright misogyny. At school, I stare at the boy in the center of the classroom, cutting off every voice that can’t match his aggressive volume. At home, I hear my brother snicker and shamelessly say that I should be the one washing the dishes – the reason why is heavily implied.
Warsan Shire was born in 1988, in Kenya, but emigrated to the UK when she was just a year old. Standing on the border of two worlds is something she expresses in her poetry, but the plight of being a millennial woman, in the wake of a third wave of feminism, while standing along this edge is sometimes louder. Having these three ‘bases’ in my identity covered in literature is often impossible, but Shire is one of few that touches on them all.
I’ve found that a lot of her poems are placed in fragments on the internet and they usually lose this message of duality in the identity. Sometimes even entire poems can be read as simple feminist prose without the emphasis on two cultures meshing or clashing into one person. Her poem, “for women who are ‘difficult’ to love.” is open for interpretation, as is all poetry, but given her background and many other pieces that directly describe her experience as an immigrant, I find that the words are laced in this division. I note that when Shire speaks of love as it sits on the horizon, it is also foreign on the tongue for those dealing with duality.
Shire writes her poem with a motherly, authoritative speaker discussing a strong personality attempting to fall in love with a man who can’t ‘handle’ her. This voice tells the personality she is not to be “tamed,” that the man before her doesn’t understand her, and she should not bend to him. As a first generation, this strong personality she wrote of resonated with me. Even if I didn’t consider myself anything close to a “racing horse,” as she describes, my name and family and culture already seem like flames and any Jessica, Lindsey, Michael or Kyle react accordingly, tending to their wounds upon introduction to my family’s way of living. If I wasn’t considered bold by white feminist standards, I certainly come across that way to those same judges because I am not of the same culture. I am different. I am ‘Other.’ And to be open to love as a Something-American in America, I am watching it as it sits on the horizon, but fearful to let it come closer. I wonder if it, too, will find my flames too high.
But I don’t bend. Shire’s poem is a reminder that not only is love (specifically with a white person) not the be-all, end-all for assimilation, it is also not meant to diminish. It is not water. It is heat and it should let the flames flourish.
My name is on a sign along the horizon from where I stand, standing proudly in front of a blood-orange sun. It serves as a warning. I am a racing horse not to be tamed, and if you would like to ride along, please progress. But if not, please stay in your little, dark room.
Shire reminds me through her poetry that there is bravery in being a first generation woman and I thank her for that. And I encourage anyone to dig into her writing. She’s wonderful without comparison, but truth be told, poetry is a white man’s world (especially the canon that we are pumped in our English classes), and it is refreshing to read something refreshingly new. I think many will agree.