Bodily Pain as a Trope for Existential Pain
Warsan Shire, born in Kenya of Somali parentage, now lives in England. She is the most vocal of contemporary African women writing against female genital excision. She states in an interview her motive for writing poems on the issue: “I write poems on FGM because I have been raised and loved by a community where many people I know have undergone this procedure. To work towards the eradication of this practice, their voices need to be heard.”61 Judging from her tone, she likely did not undergo the ritual of female genital excision. Her interpretation of her project as a poet can be read as a gesture of empathy. In a remarkable exercise of imagination, she suffers vicariously on behalf of other women who have been cut. In the remaining section of this chapter, I will examine four of her poems, three of which, “The Things We Lost in the Summer,” “Tribe of Woods,” and “Girls” are exclusively about female genital excision. I use the other poem, “Your Mother’s First Kiss” as an introduction to her poetics of pain.
Like Nnedi Okorafor, Shire uses violence as an introductory motif for her poetics in the collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. In the second poem, “Your Mother’s First Kiss” the speaker uses images that suggest a violent origin. The first line of the poem shocks the reader with its positioning of the ritual of love alongside the violence of warfare.
The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women when the war broke out. She remembers hearing this from your uncle, then going to your bedroom and laying down on the floor. You were at school.
Close attention to the wartime conditions that generated that act of violence provides a complex picture of Shire’s poetics. The poem most likely refers to the Somalian war and the ensuing sociopolitical dysfunction in the country. This is the backdrop against which we can understand the series of violent acts that the women of that society experience. Men and women are victims of society’s dysfunction, but men redirect their anger and frustration onto women’s bodies. The second stanza amplifies the shock announced by the first:
Your mother was sixteen when he first kissed her.
She held her breath for so long that she blacked out.
On waking she found her dress was wet and sticking to her stomach, half moons bitten into her thighs.
The experience of rape, we learn, is actually of the woman who received the kiss in the first scene. She shares her experience with another woman, who makes wine illegally, and claims that no man had ever touched her in that way before. The winemaker laughs sarcastically, and her laughter indicates the other woman’s naivete. She is only getting to know what has become a routine experience for many other women. It is possible that the reason the winemaker makes wine is to deal with the effects of trauma. It is also possible that she comes to the aid of all the other women who have been assaulted, and who did not want to carry their children to term. The fourth stanza rounds off the sorrowful tale:
Last week, she saw him driving the number 18 bus, his cheek a swollen drumlin, a vine scar dragging itself across his mouth. You were with her, holding a bag of dates to your chest, heard her let out a deep moan when she saw how much you looked like him.
We have the picture of three persons marked by violence: the mother, the first man in her life, and her child. The last line of the poem suggests that the child was born from her encounter with that man. Atmosphere is a character in the poem, and the violent atmosphere of the speaker’s conception sets the stage for the narrative of women’s experience of pain in Somali society. The atmosphere is one of pain itself. The violence of the speaker’s conception is similar to that of Onyesonwu in Who Fears Death.
“Things We Had Lost in the Summer” involves the pain of loss. Exactly what has been lost is kept from the reader, and this lends the poem its peculiar, ominous mood. There are insinuations of what might have been lost. Carefully chosen words reveal that the subjects are girls: “Amel’s hardened nipples push through. ” The speaker is twelve years old and “swollen with the heat of waiting.” Waiting for what? Menstruation? Initiation? Or some other thing that is peculiar to girls at that age in that culture? In the second stanza, we get a clear intimation of what might have happened, that is, what the speaker might have waited for.
My mother uses her quiet voice on the phone:
Are they all okay ? Are they healing well?
She doesn’t want my father to overhear.
The “father” was excluded from what was going on between the mother and the speaker on the other end of the phone, who obviously has had something to say about healing. A wound? The wound could surely not have been a result of an accident. The mother must have been privy to what caused it. Mood plays an important role in our appreciation of “Things We Had Lost in the Summer” just as it did in “Your Mother’s First Kiss.” The poet creates a dizzying atmosphere of loss. The question, “are they healing well?” suggests a wound, a cut, pain, which in turn hints at something that has been excised. In the last stanza, the feeling of emptiness that comes from loss crystallizes.
In the car, my mother stares at me through the rear view mirror, the leather sticks to the back of my thighs. I open my legs like a well-oiled door, daring her to look at me and give me what I had not lost: a name.
Even though the speaker claims that the only thing she has not lost was her name, we might wonder whether that too was not lost. Did she have a name in a culture that never considered her as an individual? Do women have names in such intensely patriarchal cultures? In the online version of the same poem a note indicates that the poem is about female genital excision. We have another helpful piece of information: “One of her earlier poems, The Things We Lost in the Summer was inspired by the experiences of people she knew who were to be cut when they were on the cusp of puberty [sic]”.62 That piece of information surely helps the reader to appreciate the poem all the more. Could the last line have been meant to be sarcastic? To be denied the right to pleasure in one’s body is to be denied a name, an identity; it is to be denied human rights. It is not just the clitoris that is lost. So, what did those women lose? The mood insinuated by the poem prohibits us from answering this question because any answer will diminish the magnitude of the loss.
In “Tribe of Woods,” a poem published online and not part of the collection, Shire explores the issue of female genital excision in a somewhat more obvious, though less detailed way. The poem has an explanatory note by the website’s editor: “Female genital mutilation, the contradictions and sometimes cruelty of cultural traditions are tackled in this poem by this courageous and sensual 20-something Somalian poet.”63 The poem captures the perspective of a mother who, now informed by time and hindsight, appears to regret having submitted her daughter for genital excision:
I held down my daughter last night spread her limbs across the forest laid her out to rest
crushed berries across her mouth and
gave her my knuckles to chew on.
The ritual takes place in a forest, a remote area where the women could be undisturbed by men for a more literal interpretation for the ritual of initiation. Nature contrasts with modernity and suggests a place where traditions are kept intact. It is a place where girls can be taught how to be women, and the mother is there playing an important role, albeit a violent one: she holds her daughter down, and the daughter’s limbs are spread, obviously not of her own accord. The color of the crushed berries across the girl’s mouth evokes the outcome of the application of force/violence in the process. But the daughter has to go through the ritual; she should never give up, and to help her persevere in that agonizing practice, her mother has to give her something to sink her teeth into: the mother’s own knuckles. Knuckles are symbols of persistence and perseverance. In effect, the mother also suffers. Both mother and daughter experience intense pain merely to maintain a ritual that does not acknowledge them as individuals entitled to their own pleasures.
The second stanza paints the picture of the immediate outcome of the ritual on the girl’s body. When the speaker gives her daughter to another ritual—that of marriage —she, the mother, learns that the daughter felt nothing when she had sex with her husband:
I gave my daughter to a man
an offering that made my stomach tight
with want, he spread her limbs across the town
I prayed she felt something,
wriggled underneath him like
the women across the border,
I listened out to hear her moan but I heard nothing.
Realizing her mistake, the mother declares in the last line of the fourth stanza: “And I want different for my granddaughter.” She now knows that her daughter, who will eventually produce a daughter ofher own, will curse her in a foreign hospital “where her limp pregnant body /will be inspected by a bone lipped doctor /who’ll ask “‘what happened to this woman”.’” We assume that the woman whose own mother was complicit in her genital excision is now in another country where female genital excision is not practiced. The reference to the daughter’s “limp pregnant body” alerts us to her zombie-like existence, resulting from the ritual. She felt no pleasure while her baby was being conceived and while the baby was growing inside her. The woman has been reduced to a breeding machine. If this sounds harsh in judgment then it might be even harsher in reality. Shire suggests that the only way to avoid the harshness of the act and of its narration is to let women be women, to let them experience the pains and pleasures that their bodies naturally experience, not those that culture imposes. This is the knowledge that the speaker has gained. While still expressing her regret, the mother requests her pregnant daughter to reveal to the foreign doctor who will attend to her the identity of the person who deprived her of her right to those experiences:
tell him your mother took it
a tribe of women the woodsmen
a rusted blade the axe
folklore and religion,
but tell him your mother meant well
and promise me
that you’ll teach my granddaughter that there is never any shame in want. 64
The “rusted blade” in the third line is juxtaposed with “the axe” to suggest the effect of the ritual on the bodies of women. The blade is to the vulva what the axe is to a tree root. The next line, “folklore and religion” suggests the ideology that sustains that ritual. Folklore and religion notoriously ignore the feelings of individuals; they serve mostly the ruling classes or group, in this case, men.
The third poem, “Girls” was written as an expression of solidarity with Fahma Mohamed, a 17-year-old Bristol girl who began a campaign to educate people in England about the devastations of female genital exci- sion.65 The poet read out the poem as part of the campaign, at an event in (date, time):66
Sometimes it’s tucked into itself, sewn up like the lips of a prisoner.
After the procedure, the girls learn how to walk again, mermaids with new legs, soft knees buckling under their new stainless, sinless bodies.
Daughter is synonymous with traitor, the father says. If your mother survived it, you can survive it, the father says. Cut, cut, cut.
On a reality TV show about beauty, one girl exposes another girls’ [sic] secret. They huddle around her asking questions, touching her arm in liberal concern for her pleasure. Can you even feel anything down there? The camera zooms into a Georgia O’Keefe painting in the background.
But mother did you even truly survive it? The carving, the cutting, the warm blade against the inner thigh. Scalping. Deforestation. Leveling the ground. Silencing the devils tongue between your legs, maybe you did? I’m asking you sincerely mother, did you truly survive it?
Two girls lay in bed beside one another holding mirrors under the mouths of their skirts, comparing wounds.
I am one girl and you are the other.67
The change of perspectives in the three FGM poems is instructive. In “The Things We Lost in the Summer,” the speaker, a twelve-year old girl, has obviously experienced the ritual. In “Tribe of Woods,” the perspective shifts to a mother who has allowed it to be performed on her daughter. In “Girls,” the perspective is that of the third-person point of view. “Girls” also dispenses with the more traditional format of the first two poems. It is a prose-poem that achieves its greatest impact in its voices. First we hear the voice of the father, the patriarch, who orders that the ritual take place. His belief that (his) daughter is synonymous with (a) traitor recalls the view held in most patriarchal societies that girls are of lesser value than boys. It is known that some families kill infant girls because they will only be a burden for the family.68 However, in this instance, the patriarch’s utterance is tinged with spite and the wish to control. “If your mother survived it, you can survive it, the father says. Cut, cut, cut. ” We feel the sharpness of the cutting process in his words. The repetition of the word “cut” lends the act a patriarchal urgency. There is no room for doubt in the father’s mind about the importance of the act. He obviously does not see his wife and daughters as individuals with rights that must be respected. He sees them in the ways that tradition—folklore and religion—stipulates.
But it is now the turn of a girl to question the wisdom of a patriarch. We assume it is the voice of one of the girls who had to learn how to walk again after the procedure. She chooses to direct her question to her mother. “But mother did you even truly survive it?" The question alludes to the physical and psychological devastations of the ritual. The girl knows that her mother has been disabled. The patriarchal tradition sees the woman’s body only as a breeding machine that serves the needs of men; it does not consider other aspects of the woman’s being: the inner world of the woman, her dignity. Through the girl’s voice we too, through a process of empathy, wonder whether the patriarch knows what he is saying. How could he know whether the mother of his daughters survived the cut she had as a girl? In questioning the patriarch’s knowledge, we also interrogate the assumptions of patriarchy, which is that the father knows everything, including the feelings of women.
The last stanza of “Girls” achieves the most impact, by giving an overview of the girls in bed comparing their wounds. They take us under their skirts, and what we could not have imagined all alone, they show us. The last line, “I am one girl and you are the other” is a sad comment on their existence. They see themselves as mere girls, that is, replaceable human beings whom society has denied rights and dignities. They have no names and are thought to have no feelings.