In a new interview, courtesy of The Guardian, Evaristo spoke with Warsan Shire, celebrated British-Somali poet, whose work has been featured on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Black is King. Sprinkled through the interview are photographs of Shire looking stunning in Valentino and Mara Hoffman pieces.
The duo have quite a lot in common, as we learn from their long conversation. Shire had been a mentee of Evaristo’s poetry mentoring initiative The Complete Works, founded in 2007. Shire was also the inaugural winner of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, which was founded and funded by Evaristo, to support and celebrate emerging poets from the continent. Most recently, Evaristo was elected president of the Royal Society of Literature, which, in 2018, elected Warsan Shire as its youngest fellow.
Speaking from their respective locations in London and Los Angeles, Evaristo and Shire broach a range of topics that include growing up, their early literary influences, hurdles they individually had to overcome, the effect of literary success, refugee crisis. They also talk about Shire’s book, Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice in Her Head, which was published on March 12. Read the excerpt here. Shire reminisces on her collaboration with Beyoncé, noting how star-struck she was and also how great it was to work with the pop star.
Here are a few excerpt from the interview:
On Her Feminist Upbringing:
Shire: my mum has always been this natural feminist, even though she spent her life as a housewife and didn’t really get to go to school. She always relished seeing me be free. My family is a Muslim family, so at times when I would be told: “Hey, you need to wear a hijab,” it would be my mum who’d be like: “She’ll do it when she wants to.” So that just made me feel formidable. My dad’s a writer and he was the reason why we had to leave Somalia. He was writing this book about the corruption in the Somali government, there were threats and intimidation, and ultimately, we had to leave just before the war broke out. He was the first person that introduced to me the idea of being Afrocentric, pan-Africanism, and the history of Somalia. He made me feel really proud to be Black from a very young age. And he also put in me the importance of writing and sharing your stories. So that, mixed with growing up with the backdrop of a civil war – and constantly looking after and meeting traumatised family that had just come from war – all of that came together to create in me this urgency to write.
Shire: So the Beyoncé thing happened very randomly, honestly. I opened up my email and there was one from Parkwood, which is Beyoncé’s company. I thought somebody was pranking me, but it turned out to be actually them. They thought I was in London, and I said: “Actually, coincidentally, I happen to be in LA right now … ” So it all happened very quickly. I woke up that morning, and that afternoon, I was sitting with Beyoncé listening to the album [Lemonade]. I grew up listening to Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, so it was very surreal. I was very starstruck. I thought, finally, the mental health issue that my mum has always talked about on my dad’s side of the family had kicked in, and what a beautiful psychosis this is! Of all the ways to lose my mind, this is a great one. And then it turned out to be real. It was a really beautiful experience, in that she made me feel just safe and special. She was very, very kind to me and she’s really sweet – she sent me flowers after the births of both my children – but yeah, then I just went back to writing. I don’t really think about it much.
On growing up with poetry:
Shire: Yeah, it’s very true. That’s why, when I met Jacob, I was like: “Oh, you can do this for a job?” Because, before then, in my home, I was around people just reciting poetry, all willy-nilly. We call it “gabay” in Somalia, and it’s used when a child is born, when somebody dies, when we go to a wedding, when you’re courting somebody, when you’re cursing somebody, when you’re beating your children – there’s something for every single activity in life. When I was born, my grandmother wrote me a poem about how one girl is better than a thousand boys, basically, because everybody wanted the first child to be a boy – y’know, sexism and everything – so, to counteract that, she wrote me this poem.
Read the full conversation on The Guardian.