Diriye Osman was born in Somalia during civil war and later relocated to Nairobi. He has written imaginatively about his experience as a young, gay African with a particular focus on the minutiae. The first African to win a Polari First Book Prize (2014), Osman has a knack for creatively exploring an assortment of multifaceted themes through a number of literary fashions — and brilliantly at that. Osman’s first book Fairytales For Lost Children, released in 2013, is a collection of short stories that explore identity, sexuality, immigration, diaspora, family, mental health and trauma, all of which successfully wander through the universality that is the Somali experience. We spoke with the author below.
Huda Hassan for Okayafrica: Fairytales For Lost Children starts off with “Watering The Imagination”; a short story narrated by the mother of a daughter who is beautiful and attracts the eye of all, but she seems to accept that her daughter’s focus is elsewhere, specifically, another woman. Why was it important for you to start your book with a hopeful narrative between a Somali mother and her queer daughter?
Diriye Osman: I wrote this book from a position of love and “Watering The Imagination” is a reflection of that. It’s a story about the bond between a mother and her daughter, and how one is prepared to sacrifice her standing within her conservative community in order to endow the other with a sense of honour and self-esteem. It’s the kindest thing that we can do for our loved ones. To be able to say, “I respect and value you despite our differences” is such a powerful statement to make, especially within the cacophony of the more orthodox members of the wider African community. With “Watering The Imagination”, I wanted to show two strong Somali women sharing an unspoken bond that extends beyond filial/parental responsibilities.
OKA: What stages of your life or headspace were you situated in when you wrote “Watering The Imagination” in comparison to when you began envisioning this book?
DO: I was remarkably clear-sighted when I started writing Fairytales For Lost Children. I was in a loving relationship, my academic career was blossoming and my family was still a large part of my life. I was fizzing with energy. But shortly after I began writing the book, I came out to my parents and my relationship with them became significantly strained. This took a toll on my emotional and mental wellbeing but I kept writing and I kept loving well. When my relationship with my former partner ended, I still kept writing. The process bolstered me and kept me afloat. I remember being hit by a particularly painful bout of depression during the summer of 2010. I had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and everything I had worked so hard to build was collapsing around me. There was a moment whilst I was writing “Shoga” and “Ndambi” where I found myself at a complete loss. One sticky summer night I was lying on the kitchen floor smoking a cigarette, thinking that the jig was up. But as soon as I felt that way, I came back to the writing and I literally wrote my way out of those circumstances.
By the time I was putting together “Watering The Imagination” I had finally found some semblance of peace. There was no anxiety, no fear, and I was a totally different person to who I was when I started writing the book. That’s why “Watering The Imagination” is suffused with optimism. I had begun to love my life. I had created a support network. I was in a happy place during that period and I still am. Even though the book has done extremely well, my greatest achievement was to get to the point where joy and freedom intersect. That’s the greatest gift that’s come out of writing Fairytales For Lost Children.
OKA: In “To Be Young, Gay and African”, you wrote: “Shame and fear are the most potent weapons in the homophobe’s arsenal. If one rejects the notion that one has to be ashamed of being gay or lesbian, then half the battle is won.” Have you won this battle? If so, what was the process like and are there parts of this process that you have not shared with others?
DO: I’m pretty open about my life and I walk around with a real sense of self-value. I like myself and I think that’s important. When you experience trauma you can learn how to cultivate self-esteem and pride, and that’s what I’ve done. Like one of my characters says, I love being gay. I’ve become the man that I always dreamt I would grow up to be. If that’s not winning at life, I don’t know what is.
OKA: There are many themes explored through the stories of Fairytales For Lost Children. Some include mental health, homophobia, immigration, gender-transgression, and the intersectional experience of being Somali, Muslim, immigrant and queer. It is fair to say that the themes of this book are wide-ranging, much like the experiences of a Somali-diaspora, queer-identified, Muslim man. Can you speak to process of trying to encompass all of these experiences into only 150 pages? Was it difficult and compact during the process, or natural as it has been part of your personal experience (or the experience of those around you)?
DO: The writing process of Fairytales For Lost Children was organic. I knew what the overarching themes of the book would be before I wrote it but it was only after I completed it that I configured the texture and flow of the entire narrative. I like getting in and out of each story after laying down my arms. It was important to me that the book encompassed what it meant to be a young, LGBT Somali person living within the diaspora. It was important to me that my characters were passionate, sexual beings. It was important to me that my characters retained their humanity and did not harbour any bitterness. We all have to struggle in order to create meaningful lives. It was a challenge trying to condense these complexities but it was a valuable lesson in compression and the art of building short stories. If the novel is a mansion, the short story is a dollhouse: the minutiae matters.
OKA: What was the intention and significance in using Arabic calligraphy for each story in this book rather than Somali?
DO: I grew up in a Muslim family so Quran lessons were a large part of my upbringing. I was a very artistic child and I was always drawn to the creative intensity of Arabic calligraphy that I inherited from my Quran lessons. The Arabic calligraphy in Fairytales For Lost Children is a nostalgic nod to that personal history.
OKA: Through many of the narratives of Fairytales For Lost Children, there is a lot of sympathy or insight into both ends of relationships between the oppressor and the oppressed, especially when these dynamics are explored through families. Why was it important to you to present the oppressor’s narrative or voice?
DO: An American friend of mine once told me that, when we come out to our families, it is as if we are reintroducing ourselves to them. The entire process is as traumatic for them as it is for the LGBT person – although for entirely different reasons. The voices of our families are just as worthy of representation as our own whether they are in the right or wrong. By adding the oppressors’ voices to the mix, we amplify the validity of our own.
OKA: Fairytales for Lost Children deals a lot with multifaceted identity and labelling. Specifically, in “The Other (Wo)man”, the protagonist explores belonging to multiple societies, but he is categorized as “Somali first, Muslim second, gay third.” You write: “But perhaps that was only a matter of timing: born Somali, raised Muslim, discovered gay.” By categorizing these multiple identities and the experiences associated with them in numerical order, are you alluding to these identities as separate from one another? Do you categorize your own identity similarly?
DO: My identity is complete but the character in “The Other (Wo)man” is someone who is young and conflicted. I recognize that conflict and it’s something I empathise with, but it’s important to not compare that character’s life with my own. He is a fictional character struggling to come to terms with who he is. I wanted to explore that primal, frightening space that we sometimes find ourselves in when we’re questioning who we are and where we are coming from – especially when we’re young and vulnerable. But that’s not who I am. All the characters save for one in this book are fictional. The beauty of fiction is the ability to imagine and then present other ways of being.
OKA: There is a notable level of eroticism existing in the stories of Fairytales for Lost Children; the best example of this would be in “My Roots Are Your Roots”. I notice that there seems to be less description of eroticism amongst female relationships in comparison to male relationships. Is this coincidental or intentional?
DO: It’s completely coincidental. I remember my editor urging me to write more realistic sex scenes as the years passed and I kept squirming. Sod’s Law being the damn bitch that it is he was super-shocked when he received the final manuscript and thought, “Shit, this has tons of sex in it”. He was genuinely surprised because sex is very hard to write. I hope to write more lesbian sex scenes in the future. I think it would be buckets of fun.
OKA: What can we expect next from you? Do you have any writings in the works that we can look forward to?
DO: It’s been a busy couple of years for me so I’m hoping to take a break soon. Life is short and it’s necessary to have a ball whilst you still you can. I intend to do just that.
Huda Hassan is a Somali-Canadian writer based in Toronto that can be found on Twitter: @_hudahassan.