In a dark couple of weeks for LGBT rights, the Indian government’s supreme court has re-criminalised gay sex, ensuring men and women now face police harassment and potential life imprisonment, stating gay sex is “unnatural, immoral and a reflection of a perverse mind.” While in Australia the first same-sex marriage law was revoked by the high court just days after being passed, annulling marriages that had already taken place. This retraction of LGBT rights has come in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s recent bill, so vaguely defined, that he has implemented a draconian governmental stance in a country where violent attacks on the LGBT community are normalised and commonplace.
Diriye Osman, author of the short story collection Fairytales for Lost Children, explains in his piece for TimeOut London: “… countries like Nigeria and Uganda are crawling with covertly US fundamentalist-backed Christian missionaries clamoring to promote anti-gay hatred as a vital component of religious salvation.” There are still 57 countries that have signed a statement opposing LGBT rights, some holding onto the right to exercise the death penalty. In Osman’s country of birth Somalia, the maximum sentence being life in prison.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once claimed “Every piece of art is an uncommitted crime”. In consideration to Fairytails for Lost Children, such an expression is sonorous. Osman has orchestrated a melodic world that is alive and effervescent in the pulp of the pages. The collection of narratives oscillate around a common nucleus, exploring a myriad of identities and gender-sexual spectrums, the result of what feels like delicate inward expeditions. Whether the protagonist is a “hard-boiled, six-foot Somali tranny” working in a mental hospital; or a femme boy trying on lingerie for a conflicted “masculine, active man” with a wife. We are allowed entry into each characters internal psychology, intimately hovering in the blind spot of their consciousness.
Describing himself as “Somali first, Muslim second, gay third,” Osman has employed the structures and syntax of children’s stories — albeit nocturnal lullabies, more akin to the Brothers Grimm tales — or folktales. At his most flamboyant, the prose vibrates with a restless immediacy, riffing like a syncopate jazz trumpet, or with the liquid roll of a hip-hop canter, flecked with Somali and Sheng. “Bwoy had moves. Toes tightened into corkscrews. He fucked with his body’s limits, bending, flexing until he broke through. Attitude and Arabesque became pop, lock, drop. No sweat. Such control is dangerous. I know this dance. It is ours.” Not an isolated example of Osman’s ability to depict sex with a lightness and visceral poetry, sex that is inherent, not merely flesh hung over a skeletal story or moment, but human and holistic.
Each character is progressively aged in each story, which generously bares differing perspectives and ideas in time, as well as in a number of environments: Peckham, Nairobi, Bosaaso. But despite this linearity there lies in the narratives and character portrayals, a coexistence of polarities. One of them subterranean tides, undertows of torment and pain, the other, a buoyancy of wonder, optimism and profound resistance. It is within this reverberating field that a tension moves, bringing the narration to breathe, and nourishes the work. In the opening of ‘Shoga’, based in Kenya, a grandson is having his hair braided by his Grandmother, that as an image is a delicate and tender scene between close family, yet soon this is fiercely reconfigured to a taut conflict.
‘…this business of me braiding your hair has to stop! You’re a boy not a lady-boy!’ ‘You know you love me,’ I smiled. ‘Besides, what’s wrong with being a lady-boy? It’s a good look.’ She pulled my hair and said, ‘Waryaa, if you grow up to be gay, walaahi I will do saar.’ ‘Saar’ was a brand of Somali exorcism.
Such a collision is enlarged to a dramatic horror in the short memoir piece ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You‘ in which Osman recounts revealing much he had kept hidden to his family, who subsequently disowned him. Made even more harrowing by it unfolding in increments. “I had always thought of family as a fixed, all-powerful entity. I was raised in a culture where family was the most important thing. But as a young gay man I had to learn that nothing in life is fixed, especially family.”
Although the stories are populated by rejection and loneliness ‘Earthling’ introduces Zeytun, a character that is never alone. Suffering with aural hallucinations, interrupting and in a persecutory form, these voices rob her of the capacity for stillness. While the majority of memoir or fictional accounts of mental illness document either the frenetic energy of a soul detonating, or the bleak, crowded darkness of depression. We are here exposed to the unromantic, unsentimental reality of mental ill health — in this case psychosis — and the possibility of oppression being internalized.
Each of Osman’s characters has been written into emancipation, whether it be erupting, a gentle acceptance, or falling quietly — like snow in fog. This book is also a record of the physical, mental and emotional effects of conservative power, pressure and prejudice on his richly resistant and defiant characters. In totality we are presented with an exhibition of loss: innocence, fear, family, shame, virginity, love and belonging. But what is lost leaves the space for something more precious, sacred and transformative. Something necessary. The freedom to explore your own ways of being with ownership — that as the last line of the collection states — “We own our bodies. We own our lives.”