top of page

Women of the World Festival 2022: In Conversation with Warsan Shire

Lyrical, poignant and memorable, the poet Warsan Shire brought her unforgettable work to the Southbank Centre for day two of the Women of the World Festival - the annual arts and science festival celebrating women from across the world. The Women of the Word Festival describes itself as ‘The world’s biggest, most comprehensive festival celebrating women, girls and non-binary people’, a festival that has touched people on 6 continents. With both a live poetry reading from Warsan Shire herself, followed by an interview with award-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, the evening was nothing short of a politically and poetically stimulating event.

Warsan Shire's headshot
Image credit: Leyla Jeyte, courtesy of Bread and Butter PR

Warsan Shire is a Somali British poet born in Kenya and raised in north London, attending a school where she was repeatedly told that girls ‘like her’ would never amount to anything. She is now an internationally renowned poet who has collaborated with Beyoncé on her visual album Lemonade and film Black is King. In 2011, Shire published her first poetry pamphlet Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. Now, it’s March 2022 and her much anticipated poetry collection Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head has just hit shelves, gracing bookstores and libraries with poignant poems of loss, lust, and powerful affirmations of belonging.

Bernardine Evaristo, who chaired the evening, accurately described Shire’s poetry as ‘imagistic and memorable’ through which ‘the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are dissolved …this is testament to the power of her writing’. This power can be seen in each of Shire’s poems.

‘EXTREME GIRLHOOD’ kicks off the poetry reading, and its strong feminist sentiment binds the lines and quietens the Royal Festival Hall audience. Shire introduced the poem by explaining how, born female, she faced ‘gender disappointment’ from her parents who had wished for a son, while her Grandmother instead would write Shire feminist letters throughout her childhood, ultimately inspiring ‘EXTREME GIRLHOOD’.

Shire described her family home as a ‘Somali reality TV show’ because it was open to anyone fleeing Somalia’s ongoing civil war. She labelled her mother as a ‘social butterfly’ and ‘karaoke queen’ while her father was a writer; the power and hospitality of words has been a prevalent theme for Shire since her childhood and became a way to explore and memorialise her ancestry.

Warsan Shire also performed the seductive infusion of pop culture with politics in her poetry, showcased in the poem ‘Bless Grace Jones’ and through the Britney Spears allusions in ‘My Loneliness is Killing Me’. Charged with emotion and punctured with sporadic moments of humour, decadent in meaning but stripped back in style, these poems are an animated display of Shire’s craft.

Shire’s poetry is an ode to human suffering and human joy of its many forms; it is poetry that is born out of this suffering and joy. Shire writes against and alongside noise; her writing environment was born out of a necessity to feel better. On her writing process, Shire stated ‘I feel rage, I research white supremacy, I listen to grime, look after the baby, cook, watch a horror film and write.’

The WOW Foundation was created by Jude Kelly CBE in 2018 to run the global movement that is WOW - Women of the World Festivals. The Festivals began in the UK in 2010, launched by Kelly at the Southbank Centre London, where she was Artistic Director, to celebrate women and girls, taking a frank look at what prevents them from achieving their potential, raising awareness globally of the issues they face, and discussing solutions together. You can find out about the work they do here.


Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor