The Star (Nairobi)

13 December 2012

Kenya: Kwani? Litfest Stories of the Horn

"She stood taller than the twin towers Osama blew"... "Policemen stop me and force me to produce my identification. Unafanya kazi al shabaab?", so read two lines from two separate poems by Kenyan-Somali poet Akil Ahmed, better know as El Poet, at the Kwani?

LitFest. His words put the spot light on Somalia, Eritrea and countries in the horn of Africa from where writers participating in the Litfest have their origins.

On Tuesday at the National Museum of Kenya, Nigerian author Helon Habila shared his thoughts on the contemporary Novel in Africa but his address was preceded by voices from the horn - El Poet and the the London-based, Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire.

Having left Kenya at only eight months, Warsan's first visit back to Kenya for the litfest is a home-coming of sorts. "I met my grandmother just yesterday", she said. " Grandma Nora. She so beautiful!"

Spotlight on Warsan Shire

In person, Warsan Shire is effusive. Her work, on the other hand, is explosive. Brazen enough to shock her audience but not at all in a cheap-thrill sort of way.

Her's is the profound kind. The sort that gives you goosebumps for how real it actually sounds and how revealing it is of Somali culture and living in exile abroad.

It was therefore not surprising when she said, "I sit with my mum and my aunt's with a dictaphone and record their stories."

And when an audience-member asked her whether she writes in Somali she humorously replied. "I put some Somali in my work because I think in Somali. I was forced to learn Somali as a child. My father beat us into learning it but he beat us lovingly."

These three sentences helped better distinguish, if at all possible, Warsan the poet from Warsan the person with a normal family life of her own which just like any other ordinary person includes a mother, aunts, uncles and other relatives in general.

And yet she seems wise beyond her 24-years years when she writes in one of her poems, "You know how easily a war starts.

One moment quiet, the next blood!" As for her brazenness, another audience-member asked if she gets flak from the Muslim community of which she belongs because of her works and she replied, "If people have complained about it they haven't done so to me. My mother calls me a liberal. She supports my work and so do my family. The Muslims I know of generally respond positively to my work."

However, a friend of Warsan's, a Mexican poet visiting in London had told her of a time he overhead at a coffee shop a Muslim man praising work but then the man added a disclaimer. "He said: 'Yeah, Warsan's work is good but I know a lot of people who just want her to shut up'," said Warsan in good-humor.

The author of the poetry anthology Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth is currently working on poems for a new book some of which she read on Tuesday during the litfest.

A line in one such poem is vividly brazing reading, "The night I laid upon your father and rode him like an old excuse..." Another poem, with the opening line (and presumed title) "Our Men Do Not Belong to Us" got loud sounds of acknowledgement from some female members of the audience. She then read: "My uncles they go back home and are shot in the head, they are not mine."

"Maymmun's Mouth" is the title of a poem in Warsan's poetry book and also among the poems she chose to read at the litfest.

She explained, before the reading, that this poem is actually about assimilation and how resilient a person living in exile can be.

"How does a young woman just back from a war a week before slide so easily into a life of watching the Kardashians?", she had laughingly asked the audience right before reading from yet another poem "Conversations at the Deportation Center" in which her tone turned serious as she read, "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark".

If the mark of a good writer lies in their ability to quote other writers then Warsan Shire is certainly more than a good writer.

In answering yet another question from an audience member about why her poetry tends to gravitate towards painful memories as opposed to heart and flowers, she quoted The Color Purple author Alice Walker by saying,"'Writing saved me from the inconvenience of murder'" .

And as if reflecting some of the potency in her poetry, Warsan Shire says with some finality and a touch of humour, "I'd probably kill everyone if I didn't write."

Her poetry and its influence perhaps gives her the responsibility of being of a voice to the voiceless Somalis and other other people in the homeland and in the diaspora.

"I cannot claim to be the authority or the voice of the entire Somali community. That's crap! But I like to believe that my poetry in a way is helping to create some awareness on these injustices suffered by many. I may be a bit awkward when I'm speaking normally but when I write, that's the sh*t. It's what I believe in."

The Litfest kicked off on Sunday at Kifaru Gardens. Somali poet and songwriter Maxamed Ibraahim Warsame, better known as Hadraawi was the main act.

He captivated the guests with his two poems Daalakan (Clarity) and The Sense of Life and later answered questions from the audience.

Other guests who performed included Kenyan actor and playwright Ogutu Muraya , Kenyan-Somali poet El Poet Nigerian novelist Chuma Nwokolo and Djiboutian poet Chehem Watta, who writes and performs in French.

Today, Egyptian feminist writer Nawaal El Saadawi gives an address on the role of the writer in politics of the Nation at the National Museums of Kenya at 2.30pm to 4.30pm. Later from 6.30 pm, Sayadiin Hersi, Awes Osman, Warsan Shire and Jamal Mahjoub discuss living in and writing their homeland from the diaspora.

For more information on the litfest visit litfest.kwani.org

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