Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

W arsan Shire—Kenyan-born Somali poet—is the best kept secret in the African poetry scene. I discovered her work a few months ago when she won the first edition of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize.

Her poems are blistering, beautiful, bewitching. They are suggestive of violence and a deep sense of loss and longing.  And they smell of woman. I think of some of her poems as anthems to femininity.

The gorgeous and melancholy “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love” is probably her most popular and one of my favorites. What I take from the poem is that sometimes being woman means being “terrifying,” “strange,” and “beautiful”—“somethingnot everyone knows how to love.”

The 24 year old poet lives in London and was recently named the first ever Young Poet Laureate for London.

The two poems below—one titled “Beauty,” the other “Ugly”—are part of the collection of ten poems she submitted to the competition for the 3000-pound Brunel University African Poetry Prize.


Portrait -

Warsan Shire (source:


My older sister soaps between her legs, her hair
a prayer of curls. When she was my age, she stole
the neighbour’s husband, burnt his name into her skin.
For weeks she smelt of cheap perfume and dying flesh.

It’s 4 a.m. and she winks at me, bending over the sink,
her small breasts bruised from sucking.
She smiles, pops her gum before saying
boys are haram, don’t ever forget that.

Some nights I hear her in her room screaming.
We play Surah Al-Baqarah to drown her out.
Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex.
Our mother has banned her from saying God’s name.



Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.

As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and seawater.
She reminded them of the war.

On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope
and smoke it over burning frankincense.

You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty. 

You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her?
hold her 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 her thighs are borders?

What man wants to lie down
and watch the world burn
in his bedroom?

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.

But God,
doesn’t she wear
the world well


Tags: , , , , , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

8 Responses to “Girls Smelling Of Lonely — Two Poems by London’s Coolest Poet, Warsan Shire” Subscribe

  1. Oluwadunni 2013/12/09 at 02:14 #

    Warsan Shire is just so beautiful. Her words, the way they flow into your soul. Palpable emotions. I discovered her on Goodreads early this year so I remember reading the second poem, but not the first. I agree that her poems seem feminist.

  2. Ainehi Edoro 2013/12/09 at 14:21 #

    Yup. She’s awesome. Love what she does with feminine bodies.

  3. ope akiyode 2013/12/12 at 10:58 #

    nice work warsan shire

  4. Obinna Udenwe 2014/01/21 at 21:11 #

    Oh my God! since Diana Eke’s ‘Symphony of Becoming’ i haven’t read poems that are so titillating like these ones. Had to copy and past on Ms word, will print them out tomorrow at the office and keep close to my bed. 🙂

    She will go far!

  5. Ainehi Edoro 2014/01/24 at 15:49 #

    Happy her poem is speaking to you. I was blown away the first time I read her. Like you said: she go go fa.

  6. janet 2014/10/14 at 09:48 #

    Hmnn. She sure has talent. But somethings been eating at me awhile. From my observation, It seems like these days, more attention and awards are given to works of literature that has at least 40 percent explicit content. I mean, I rarely see literature that has almost no mention of sex given much credit. I might be wrong, I’m a student, but i’m not studying literature, though I love it.


  1. Warsan Shire’s Tenure as London’s Young Poet Laureate Comes to a Sweet End | Brittle Paper - 2014/10/14

    […] HERE for a couple of poems to get you started. Feel free to check out her poetry chap book Teaching My […]

  2. The Quirky African Poem We Can’t Stop Reading | Quarantine With Abdelhalim Hafez | by Safia Elhillo | Brittle Paper - 2015/05/22

    […] a training ground of sorts for Africa’s poetry stars. The first winner of the prize, Warsan Shire, went to serve as London’s Young Poet […]

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


Photos | Pages & Palette Hosts Reading of Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men in Abuja

Lives of Great Men - Frankie Edozien at Pages & Palette -- photo by Victor Adewale (9)

Last December, Abuja bookstore Pages & Palette hosted a reading of Chike Frankie Edozien’s memoir Lives of Great Men. Published […]

Mauritanian Blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir Has Now Been in Jail for 5 Years

mohamed mkhaitir

In December 2013, Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir wrote a blogpost criticizing his country’s government for using religion to discriminate against minorities. […]

Read Chapter One of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

an orchestra of minorities - graph

Chigozie Obioma’s second novel An Orchestra of Minorities was published this January. As part of The Summer Library’s “selected extracts from […]

Laila Lalami’s Fourth Novel, The Other Americans, Is a Family Saga, a Murder Mystery, and a Love Story

laila lalami - alchetron - graph

Laila Lalami’s new novel is forthcoming on 26 March 2019 from Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The 320-page […]

Thursday’s Children: 11 Contributors to Forthcoming Anthology Discuss Experimentation and the Nature of Creative Nonfiction

thursday's children - graph

Thursday’s Children is a forthcoming anthology of personal essays. Co-edited by Adams Adeosun and Bello Damilare, it comes with an […]

Clickbait | Saddiq Dzukogi | Poetry

image by Esther Vargas from flickr

Inspired by the Western media coverage of the Dusit Hotel terror attack in Nairobi.   At the Dusit restaurant in […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.