Warsan Shire’s Portraits of Somalis in Exile

The poet’s new collection melds verse and reportage to capture voices of the Somali diaspora.
Warsan Shire standing outdoors.
Shire’s “anthems of resilience” began on Tumblr, where she became a star.Photograph by Tracy Nguyen for The New Yorker

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On a wet day in London, around 2013, the poet Warsan Shire turned on a voice recorder as her uncle talked about his youth in Somalia, his life as a refugee, and his addiction to the bitter-leaf stimulant khat. Shire, who is thirty-three, with dark curls and a high forehead, sat with him in his room at a boarding house in Northwest London, where several immigrant men lived. Her uncle had lost most of his teeth because of his khat addiction. “When you chew khat, you don’t sleep, it keeps you up,” Shire told me recently. “I asked him how it feels to do that.” He told her, “While you’re high, it’s like you build, with your words and with your dreams, these massive towers of what you’re going to do tomorrow, how you’re going to fix up your life. And then the sun comes up, and the towers have been toppled. And you do that every single day and never get anywhere, because you’re constantly lying to yourself.”

When her uncle was a teen-ager, he won a scholarship to study abroad; family members spoke of him as the relative who had great promise. But when a civil war broke out in Somalia, in the early nineties, he lost the scholarship. He immigrated to England, but he never married or had children. Shire’s parents had also gone to England as refugees from Somalia, and through the years she had often talked with her uncle about his past. In the boarding house, sipping qaxwo—Somali coffee, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom—he told her he felt that he had “failed at life” and was “cursed by the war.”