Diriye Osman on being Gay, Muslim and African

'I’m satisfied with the fact that I’m “homed” within my own body. That’s the ultimate gift. I have found the freedom to be comfortable within myself.'

Original image by Oliver Hickmet. Graphic illustration by Diriye Osman.

Every displaced person who’s ever transgressed against the strictures of the culture from which they originated will tell you about that feeling of free-floatingness: others see you as uninhibited, but you know that you have nothing to hold you. You know that some tethers are welcome, and can give comfort; yet, you also know that they are too expensive on the bank account of the soul to afford. So you look at them in the shop windows – other’ lives that seem impossibly out of reach – as you float by. Always, you are mindful of the day on which the raucous laughter, the drugs, the sex, the alcohol, the lovers, the witty wordplay, the dancing, the performance, the ambition to keep moving will not serve to keep you buoyant.

Diriye Osman’s collection of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, is an exploration of how those who are multiply displaced create family, stability, love, and home; it is also an exposition of pain, and the escapes one might seek – through fairytale and fantasy – in order to live with that unbearable understanding: what’s easily available to others is not there for you, but you must make your way, even without. Osman says, to the BBC, that the “the crux of the book is about sexual identity, within the context of being gay, Muslim, African. It is fundamentally a book about freedom”. Each of Osman’s key characters is Somali, living a precarious life in Kenya or England (only the characters in the opening story, “Watering the Imagination,” are still in Somalia), and each of them is gay. None are fully accepted by their blood relatives. They know that family can give one a home, even when one’s country will not; even when one’s nation state disintegrates and ejects, those with whom one escaped can become a nation with borders that re-collect you in the enormity of loss. But what do you do when first, the nation, then one’s family reject you?

We learn about how diasporic people keep their silences well guarded. And that these silences and repressions are expected – they are part of the bargain one makes in order to recreate a wholeness when one’s family has already lost everything. In most of Osman’s stories, silence is a demand, a tithe too impossible to bear, yet people stay together, “bound by blood and bad history”. In rare instances, however, these silences are about acceptance, about allowing a child freedom to love someone, and experience life in a way that would have been impossible in one’s own generation: in “Watering the Imagination”, the mother of a Somali girl – one who has lived her whole life “near the coast of Bosaaso, Somalia,” and remains steadfast in her loyalty to this strip of liminality between water and land whist others who “are hungry for new homes in places like London or Luxembourg risk their lives on cargo ships” – does not ask where her daughter goes at night, and does not force her to accept the many marriage proposals that come her way. “I respect her privacy, and I allow her to live,” she says. In a way, the silence between them is as lovely as this girl, who comes home night after night, “smelling of sea and salt and perfume,” wrapping her beauty – and her secrets – “around herself like a shawl of stars”.

Not surprisingly, many of Osman’s stories centre around a character who has lost her or his mind. They live in London, so their disintegration is medicalised. They are diagnosed as schizophrenics, given tablets, and provided counselling. But as one character says, the root of their unravelling is post-traumatic disorder, displacement, the shock of arrival in countries that provide little space for them to be, whilst – ironically – giving them a space to become. Kenya is the location that Osman’s characters meet corrupt cops who exact bribes from Somalis, murder Somalis in cold blood, and keep them in a panicked, watchful frenzy (“Shoga”). England, too, is a location of terror, but not because of the fear of literal death. The cities of England, and their immigrant enclaves, are the sites of social death: here, young second-generation women and men come out – albeit tentatively to a trusted sister, a much beloved mother – only to face rejection, and even threats to their lives.

In several stories (“Your Silence Will Not Protect You”, for instance), there’s a lot of talk about the son who is now engaged in a practice that is “haram”, something that is against “our customs” despite there being, of course, Somali words for gay men and women (derogatively used). Creatures raised in the den of immigrant and refugee families – who throng together closer for warmth, even as they are physically removed from the location of their nation-ness – suddenly find themselves with no one. In “Earthling”, a woman decides to marry a “traditional” Somali-British man who will provide her the life she belonging she craves, but this new life has no place for her gay sibling. Her decision comes at the cost of cutting off contact with the one person with whom she shares a lifetime of memories: a childhood of waterpark slides, innocent childhood transgressions (peeing in swimming pools), and of surviving a father’s violent death, and the subsequent loss of their mother to cancer. Though the stories are full of near-saintly lovers who stay steadfast through each respective protagonist’s wrenching breaks with sanity, what all-giving, generous lover (or husband, who might give one the solidity of tradition, custom, and continuity) could replace that magical rope of shared experiences, only available to family? No wonder, then, the madness, the voices telling them that they are trash, the starlings and the inanimate objects who hurl slurs at them.

Osman is the first African author to win the Polari First Book Prize, for a first (UK-published) book that explores the LGBT experience. Binyavanga Wainaina calls Osman the James Badwin of our times: expatriated, diffident, beautiful, full of longing for home, and yet hopeful that home will one day make a place for those it rejects, realising that it itself is unhomed – estranged from itself – if it has no place for those like him. In the meanwhile, whist waiting for that miracle, I’m humbled and inspired by Osman’s flight of words and fancy.

Africa’s a Country asked him for some insights:

Often, it feels like your characters are always hungry, and begging unseen masters for a little more; one of his characters, in “If I Were a Dance”, jokes, sarcastically, “Do I look like Oliver Twist’s Angolan brother?” when he’s told that they must work at below scale pay. Can you tell us a little about where that hunger comes from?

Diriye Osman: There are many different types of hunger explored in the book. There is the hunger for new homes, which every Somali is familiar with. There is the hunger that stems from unfiltered sexual desire, as is the case with the title character in the story, “Ndambi”, whose need for comfort and sexual satisfaction is so palpable that it threatens to swallow her whole. I like men and women who fizz and crackle with curiosity, a thrilling and edacious appetite for knowledge and ideas. Because my characters are young and alive, they are constantly courting sparks. They’re constantly trying to maintain a sense of hope and possibility. Also, there is a context for what you refer to as the begging of “unseen masters for a little more”, something which is not explored fully in the book. The mental health system, as it stands in the UK, is an extremely volatile and morbid structure. I don’t write fully about the actual business of being inside a high security mental hospital. Oftentimes, the mentally ill are left to their own devices, are even actively shunned, until they have a full-blown episode. Only then will the system intervene. But what the mental health industrial complex offers is not care. It’s a systemic imprisonment and degradation of people who are too vulnerable to know better. Your family can try to intervene but once you’re in the system, you’re in the system. You’re literally yanked out of your home by police officers and carted off to the hospital like a prisoner. This is not the way to treat someone who is sick. Once you’re inside, the situation quickly devolves into a cat-and-mouse game between personnel and patients where the stakes are, ultimately, the patients’ humanity and dignity. I’ve been in mental hospitals twice in my life and I was effectively a prisoner during both occasions. I was held for six months during both periods and I was legally trapped there – sectioned – even though I posed no threat to myself or to others. In the end, the distasteful joke of it all was that I was ultimately released on the flimsiest technicality: the hospital needed more beds and they no longer had one for me.

This is an environment where grown men and women are stripped and injected with tranquilizers in the ass in front of their families – their parents, their wives and husbands, their children. This is an environment where you’re denied access to basics and you have to rely on family and friends to bring you things like snacks and soap. It’s a repulsive system that’s not going anywhere unless we repeatedly challenge it and fight for reform. To me, it felt like my fellow patients and I were brought to our knees. It’s impossible for such an experience not to leave a haunting impression. The cruellest thing a human being can do to his fellow man is strip him of his dignity. With Fairytales For Lost Children, I was writing my way out of that toxic history. 

NJ: As an immigrant in America, I know what it is like when one’s modest success means that one’s nation-of-origin and family suddenly wants to re-claim you – but only if one plays the right games the “correct” way. For those who’ve already paid too high a cost for freedom, compromising and accepting this poorer form of love is hardly a good bargain. I wonder if you have experienced some of these compromised offers, and how you deal with what often feels to me like a dishonest acceptance…an acceptance that is very attractive in certain ways, but not so much in others? 

DO: I lead a very lucky life. I’m independent, my work is satisfying and my days are full. The people who approach me do so with a sense of respect and I appreciate that. I have found my people and these people hail from all the over the world. And that’s what we have to do. We all have to go out into the world and find our people.

Coming back to that concept of cultural acceptance, again, I’ve been very fortunate. I have met countless Somalis – LGBT and straight – who have been nothing but nurturing and welcoming towards me. I have always loved my culture because it’s an endlessly fascinating culture with a rich seam of history. I sometimes joke that Somalis – rich or poor, young or old – walk around like their shit don’t stink and that’s dope to me. I come from a very confident and beautifully bat-shit crazy community.

NJ: There’s a few instances in which your characters allude to the importance of what Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “self-fashioning” – the ability to shape and re-create oneself according to the signals that one carefully collects from one’s social milieu. But being gay is also about transgressing against – or even being playful with – social norms. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that you yourself are a self-fashioner extraordinaire. I’ve seen you read to audiences wearing a hoodie (one that’s a beautiful shade of purple, though), but you are known for your signature play with Elizabethan dress, face paint, and jewellery: this is a performative present that calls on the past, whist imagining a different future. Will you tell us a bit about the significance of self-fashioning, costuming, and transformation for you?

DO: I’m a strong believer in self-creation. I’m fascinated by individuals who fashion their own identities out of makeshift materials, who improvise with what’s to hand. I come from a large family filled with fully realized individuals. However, everybody has their own role and everybody fits into the mosaic. I always felt out of place within the context of that mosaic, that predetermined pattern. This is a feeling I carried with me from a very young age: the sense that I did not fit. I tried very hard to fit. But I felt adrift at home, at school and beyond those spaces. I remember my sister once telling me, “You do not belong to this world.” She meant it as a compliment flecked with religiosity. I don’t buy into that concept because it’s a way of denying me my humanness. We all belong to this world. We either have to find spaces where we fit or create spaces from scratch. That’s why websites like ‘Meetup’ are so popular. They tap into the basic human need for connection. If we are othered, we want to find people who are othered in similar ways. That’s why the slogan for ‘Meetup’ is so effective. “Find your people.” Self-creation stems from disorder, damage even. I am a product of self-creation.

With regards to the elaborate costuming and makeup that you see in the photos, they symbolize rigid self-control. I wear makeup and I don dramatic attire because I like control. I’m not interested in controlling others but I’m invested in strict self-governance. This is why I don’t do many face-to-face interviews. I don’t like being caught off-guard. It all goes back to that attempt to create order amidst disorder. One of the most frightening things about losing your mind is that you feel like your body, your brain, every part of your essence is being invaded. There is such a palpable helplessness to that narrative and I hate the sense of victimhood that it implies. Certainly, this is how I felt during my moments of psychological disquiet. I felt like my personhood was under attack. Performativity is important to me because I’m the teller of my own stories. I have been performing these multiple roles for so long that they have bled into my identity. I have become the man that I always wanted to be.

NJ: In a “Letter to [Your] 13-Year-Old Self”, you wrote, “You will wear your awkwardness, your aloneness and your alienness in your hair like gold thread”; and “Someday you will create your own family”. The second blessing – the importance of creating a family of one’s own making – is something that one of your characters repeats to himself, remembering his blood-family’s rejection. For many immigrants, refugees, and displaced people, much like many gay people, recognising that one’s “alienness” is “like a gold thread” and that process towards self-acceptance is part of how they’ve created commonality with others who similarly struggled. It is doubly hard for someone who is both gay, and nationally displaced – one does not have the safety net of family nor geography. Will you speak a little about the challenges and alienation that being thus doubly (or multiply) displaced creates? And how does the family you’ve chosen – and your own aesthetic, intellectual, moral, psychological and political choices – “home” you?

My interior life has changed radically since I wrote Fairytales For Lost Children. When I was writing the book, I was engaged in the kind of magical thinking that arises out of trauma and dislocation. I was essentially trying to create a new language for myself out of the detritus of soul-destroying elements. I had been told my whole life that I had a weak character so I was writing in reaction to that false assessment. In many regards, Fairytales For Lost Children is an origin story that charts the development of characters who are initially meek and eventually tap into their power. Ultimately, I realized that I am my own home. If you see my physical home, it’s nice but very spare. There are no paintings on the wall (even though I’m a painter), there are no photographs or personal mementos that are meaningful. Everything is minimalist and basic because I’m satisfied with the fact that I’m “homed” within my own body. That’s the ultimate gift. I have found the freedom to be comfortable within myself.

In terms of family, I’m really happy. I’m surrounded by people who genuinely respect and value me. This is not accidental. We can’t choose the families we’re born into but we can choose the families we decide to make our own. Mine is the kind of alternative family that Alison Bechdel described so wonderfully in her seminal comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. They’re incredibly fun, politically and artistically engaged folks with a sense of joie de vivre. I fit well into this mosaic. I have found my people.

NJ: What’s next for you? What will you be letting us read next?

DO: I’m currently working on a novel that I hope you will like once it’s finished. It grew out of a short story that refused to be contained within the form. It’s challenging but it’s also enormous fun. I’m not going to reveal the particulars of the plot because it’s too far off from completion but I can reveal the themes. It’s a novel about ambition (particularly artistic ambition), class, love, family and how far we are willing to go in order to preserve ourselves. These characters don’t have the issues of balancing out their cultural identities in the way that the characters from Fairytales For Lost Children did. In fact, their identities, which are very complex and interesting, are the least of their worries. It’s a book that’s in conversation with my debut. Fairytales For Lost Children concerned itself with, amongst other things, the pursuit of freedom. The new novel is about what happens when one finds freedom. After all, freedom isn’t freedom unless you do something with it.

Bonus: Video of Diriye Osman in conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘The London Session’:

* Image Credit: Bahareh Hosseini.

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