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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


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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 December 9, 2013 at 2:14 am #

    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 December 9, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

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

  3. ope akiyode December 12, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    nice work warsan shire

  4. Obinna Udenwe January 21, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    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!

    • Ainehi Edoro January 24, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

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

  5. janet October 14, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    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 - October 14, 2014

    […] 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 - May 22, 2015

    […] 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 […]

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