Difficult Names Background

Difficult Names Background

Warsan Shire is a young (born in 1988) London-based Kenyan-born female writer from Somali whose strength as a poet lies in her straightforwardness. Most of her poems, like the one is question, “Difficult Names”, are in prose, which defies the convention of most poetic works being in verse forms. Her prose poems command direct attention, stand apart from the crowd with a beautiful boldness, and serve as an Objective Correlative to the practical reality (Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharya once wrote that “Poetry is all prosaic in this world of hunger / And the full moon stands for a half-burnt pie”). According to Kameelah Janan Rasheed, “raw and unsheltered words meet the warmth and tenderness of her spirit” in the poems of Warsan Shire.

According to Amir Sulaiman, “To write poetry, like sincere poetry, is like performing heart surgery on yourself without anesthesia . . . in public . . . You are peeling back layers”. In “Difficult Names”, that is exactly what Warsan Shire seeks to do. The poem is about the human psychology that assigns importance to what it cannot decipher. In her signature simplicity, Warsan asks the mothers to give their daughters difficult names that would be hard to pronounce, so that the names can command attention. The context of the poem may not be that simple, as it delves into deeper realms of history and psyche, reflecting the cultural marginalization of the colored peoples in Africa. When you hear a common name already familiar to you, you do not take time out of your busy schedule to ponder over it. Nevertheless, when you hear something unusual, it may appear exotic, silly, wonderful, or unique – in short, anything but normal. That way, the otherwise-indifferent Anglophone listener, usually commanding a position of power in the cultural or gender-Panopticon, is forced to pay attention to the marginalized, the unheard, and the ignored.

The poem thus shows how empowerment may begin right from one’s birth through the very act of naming. Michel Foucault once said that naming is an act of power, and when we name something or somebody we usually assert our power on that. “Difficult Names” seeks to invert that equation where naming becomes a ritual of empowerment, a tool to fight back. The word “tongue” may also mean “language”, which adds another lay to the interpretation of this poem: since language was the primary tool for cultural colonialism and subjugation, it is through language that one has to fight back. Who would forget Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who answered Prospero in the latter’s own terms: “You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse.”

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