Sometimes writing makes you really uncomfortable, and not in the Lolita sort of way because that’s more of a revulsion. And not uncomfortable like the boy on the subway who’s too busy manspreading to notice that you need room to lean your chin on your elbow to read. No, uncomfortable in the way that perfection seems just a little more real, a little more visceral and in your face. And that’s terrifying because we really don’t want everything to be perfect, do we? That’s how I thought about Warsan Shire’s new poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth.
I never thought I would have to add manspreading to my personal dictionary, but here we are. Uncomfortable.
I think it made me uncomfortable because for the last five years I’ve come to understand my privilege as a white woman in America. While sometimes I still find the heat rising when I read tweets blaming the white population as a collective whole, and I want to respond immediately with “don’t lump me in with those people.” Or I find myself huffing over side comments my best friend Seth makes about “using my privilege.” Like wearing “I’m with Her” t-shirts, stickering my computer with Red Bubble social justice and having my students discuss race, gender, and class with every text or task makes up for a smooth series of injustices caused by this country. Injustices that I can’t even see because I’m blinded by the grocery list of privilege that I carry.
This is what Warsan Shire brings us to in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, this idea of perfection. That perfection that I’m second closest to as a white woman in America, I stared it down a little harder with Shire. Not only does she make us look at our own womanhood and the experiences we live because of it, but also at the blemishes of the world that we ask to be both hidden and forgiven from.
“Her body is a flooding home. / We are afraid. We want to know / what the water will take away from us, / what the earth will claim as its own.”
Just the other day I was listening to the local radio show and the host Erica was asking to be shielded from the actual news because “all it is is murder.” And why do we want to be shielded from this? I would argue that it’s not because we can’t deal with the fact that humanity is a cruel beast, but that we don’t want that news to interfere with our beautiful lives, our perfect lives. We want ignorance is bliss. We don’t want the effect. And this is what Seth is always arguing on Facebook. When people argued that she wished people wouldn’t block highways for #blacklivesmatter Seth told everyone who agreed that they just don’t get it. It isn’t about safety anymore, it’s about the impact on someone’s everyday. The “This is Water” that David Foster Wallace was talking about. An interruption so huge that it makes us look.
“We stare at the small television in the corner of the room / I think of all the images she must carry in her body, / now the memory hardens into a tumor” (30).
This is the same with Warsan Shire. The refugee crisis does not impact me directly… ever? And that’s why I haven’t given to one charity in support of refugees. When it doesn’t impact my day, I’m in my own water, my selfish needs trump anything happening thousands of miles away. Instead I ask myself will it really ever get into the hands of the people that need it? Or I say I’m doing my part by working in high poverty schools like that’s some sort of penance for the lives that crossed seas and land and didn’t make it. Just one stop short. Like that’s a penance for anything really. (It’s not. People should stop saying that like it makes them a Saint). I might, one life ago, have used this book as a reason to say that I’m informing myself of the problem. I’m facing our world in all it’s hot breath, commotion, scars, but I can’t even say that with a straight face anymore.
“Your daughter is ugly / She knows loss intimately, carries whole cities in her body” (31).
It’s pretty uncomfortable right, facing those leftovers within us? There are people carrying anthems instead of extra shoes. People who know no other language but the one of disaster. Children who have never had a home because their home is a back on a road. I found this collection so moving because it stared back. It asked me “and what have you done lately?” It spoke, “and your perfection for this?”
“I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue, or another language” (24).
And we’re upset over a man in a jersey kneeling. Just think about it. If you can stare it down without putting your face to your knees, then congratulations, you’ve compartmentalized it all. Satisfaction over human life. Tragedy of war. Look the other way. Turn your cheek. All those little white lies we tell ourselves.
And then there’s womanhood. When the social studies teacher next door to me discusses how great all his girls are in class and it’s really the boys that we’re all failing, shouldn’t we blame society a little? Could it be that we taught girls to sit pretty, be quiet, work hard to get ahead, keep your sexuality as secret as your faith. Do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. (Matthew 6.3). Do not trade words for parts of your bodies. This is all told to us from an early age and Warsan Shire turns that on its head too. I’m not going to lie I was really uncomfortable with all the sexual references in this collection. As much as I preach “Girls Rule the World,” I still can’t shake the belief that being a good girl means a certain level of modesty. And I’m the first to say we shouldn’t add drama as women, we should support each other, but when Kylie comes up in her underwear everyday on Snapchat, I sit in the fog of judgment, like the good little girl that I am… (… sucks).
“Her body is one long sigh.”
There were a lot of tongues in this collection. And not the Biblical kind. The erotic kind. Sometimes it felt like an invasion of privacy. The way we always say, “I just like to keep some things private” when we start a new relationship and our Mom is asking all kinds of questions about his family, and his upbringing and what he wore. I found the poems about refugees, home, culture, and heritage more moving than the erotic poems, but that’s not to say that these didn’t also impact my level of restlessness.
“Why did you not warn her, / hold he like a rotting boat and tell her that men will not love her / if she is covered in continents, / if her teeth are small colonies, / if her stomach is an island / if he thighs are borders. What man wants to lie down / and watch the world born / in his bedroom?” (31).
I think this is an important collection for any woman in our current times, from any cultural background. We need to check ourselves. And not just sometimes, but all the time. I remember when I got “Poverty Training” for my old county’s teaching professional development and I came to the idea that even the ways that department stores are laid out are made for the middle class. The way our current world is structured and maintained is for the middle class. I think it’s high time for us to think about this too in terms of culture, in terms of race, in terms of gender.
If in my whole life, I spend more time uncomfortable than comfortable, then I must be making more rights than wrongs. How uncomfortable are you willing to be?