“For whom do I write?”
It’s a question that is fleeting in its apparent ease of response. Those who see it as cut-and-dry enjoy a measure of privilege — or perhaps they’re robbed of it. And those who are baffled by it must labor for longer, though they have much more to chew.
Warsan Shire — a poet most noted for her work’s appearance in Beyonce’s "Lemonade" — writes in the margins and thereby complicates this question. In the articles profiling her in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Guardian, you would think she writes for everyone: the displaced and disoriented immigrant, the Somali women whose legacies she blossoms out of, her own aching, addled soul.
During a poetry reading held in April at Duke, Shire said she is most interested in writing about people whose stories are either not told or told inaccurately, especially the stories of immigrants or refugees. She herself is devoid of tethered roots, a marginalized person as a result of her cultural in-betweenness; she was born to Somali parents in Kenya, and moved to London at the age of one.
Which home is really hers? Or do they all belong to her? What does it mean to have no home, or to have so many that the walls cave in?
When floating in this space of metaphorical displacement, the question of who one writes for becomes poignant and perplexing, and it is from this current that Shire’s poetry flows, serving to answer the oft-mined question, “How does the presence of one’s own marginality inform the content of one’s art and its aesthetic?”
Let us first explore what others say. Perhaps marginality affords us greater freedom: Two and a half decades ago, Edward Said argued that intellectuals in exile are “not afraid to overturn the applecart, anxious about upsetting fellow members of the same corporation” because they do not claim allegiance to any corporation in the first place.
Or perhaps it binds us to Earth: Three weeks ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates said of African American art and music, “The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it.” There is no liberation from the we, he suggests. Marginalized people must carry the weight of their history, “of all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder” that necessarily informs them and their art.
Perhaps it is neither. When scrawling in the margins, the question of for whom one writes becomes unanswerable because one’s identity is inherently splintered. When you are marginalized, you do not know whether to write to those in power or for the powerless. More than a century ago, W.E.B. DuBois described the “double consciousness” of being “an American, and a Negro,” and Claudia Rankine echoed that sentiment a hundred years later when writing of the “Self-Self” and the “Historical-Self,” stating, “You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard."
The dilemma is as old as human displacement has existed: Who do you write for? Choose one. Rankine and Said chose academics. With "Lemonade," Beyoncé chose her own marginalized culture. Coates chose intellectuals and later anyone who’d listen.
Or maybe there’s an alternative where you don’t have to choose to write for anyone at all. In order to find purpose in your writing or your art, maybe you don’t have to choose one splinter on a many-pronged brush. As Shire’s poetry suggests, perhaps you can just paint with the whole damn thing.
The reason why Shire’s poetry so gracefully refuses to lend itself to the question of “for whom do I write?” is that her writing lies in the crevice of contradiction, crisscrossing vast swathes of territory to unite images that have no apparent desire to be held together. Shire’s poetry is about everything at once. It’s about attempting to build a home out of your own bones when no country will call you its own: “I know a few things to be true,” says a nameless refugee in “Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)." “I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing…My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory.”
It’s about sexuality as transgression, humanity, and violence, sometimes one at a time and sometimes all at once: In “Fire”, upon learning about her husband’s young lover, a wife douses herself in lighter fluid, beckons her spouse to the bedroom, and subsequently lights him and herself on fire. It’s about the possibility of Allah when your face is shoved into the ground and your mouth is filled with dust: “Your daughter’s face is a small riot / her hands are a civil war / a refugee camp behind each ear / a body littered with ugly things,” Shire writes in “Ugly”, “But God, doesn’t she wear the world well?”
Shire’s poetry throbs unabashedly and resolutely, making it easy to wield as a rallying cry. In The Guardian, Rafia Zakaria said, “Finally, here is the migrant talking back, trolling the absurdities of documentation that have such unquestioned legitimacy in the Western architecture of border and boundary.”
The New York Times editorial board quoted her poem “Home” in an op-ed beseeching Western countries to do more for refugees: “You have to understand / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than land.”
However, we should not mistake Shire’s capacity to effectively put her finger on human longing for our own desires to level challenge against the powerful or find art to claim as our own. She doesn’t necessarily write to or for anyone; rather, her poetry documents all, functioning much like a camera trained on immigrant life that not only captures the photo but also the emotions that swirl within its margins.
The openness of Shire’s work is what makes it so malleable and thus so individually significant, allowing it to command a room. At Shire's poetry reading, the audience was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Her ability to blend the reverential nature of her work with the quotidian commentary that bookended her readings – whether it be references to reality TV, current events, or personal anecdotes – was both awe-invoking and endearing. Shire centered the room within a span of a minute, managing to be simultaneously worldly and ethereal in her all-encompassing nature, and one couldn’t help but think, “God, doesn’t she wear the world well?”
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