Diriye Osman is a storyteller – on page, stage and canvas. His writing has appeared in publications including Poetry Review, Kwani? and SCARF. “Fairytales For Lost Children”, his debut collection of short stories, is based on his experiences of exile and homosexuality in the Somali community. He spoke with Anna Jäger.
Anna Jäger: Diriye, let me start with a little anecdote: when I picked up your book “Fairytales for Lost Children” from the post office my little vial of Attar Al Bakhoor leaked into my bag. While I was reading the book, the heavy scent of sweet flowers and agarwood streamed out of the pages, and I was amazed by how appropriate this olfactory adornment was. Your bittersweet stories are painfully beautiful. Yet in amongst all the sadness of exile and repudiation there is always an emphasis on lust, joy and pleasure. Your writing seems to be a carousel of languages, scents, melodies and flavours which celebrates beauty. Is beauty the solution? Does it offer a home, a refuge?
Diriye Osman: I’m an aesthete and beauty matters. When you read poetry or listen to jazz, you want your senses to be stimulated. Life is long and yes, it can be rough, but pleasure matters: beauty and lust and joy matter. We live in a world where everything has the feel of a microwave meal: our relationships, our friendships, the way we communicate with each other. We want instant gratification. We measure our self-esteem by how many likes we can generate on a Facebook page, how many retweets or reblogs we receive. This kind of quick-fix living is where we are at as a society and that’s OK. But what if you don’t want a microwave meal? What if you want to season and stew your dishes, make them undeniably your own? “Fairytales For Lost Children” is a reflection of that old-school vibration. Everything about the book – whether it’s the writing, the quality of paper used, the drop-down capitals at the start of each story, the texture and tone of the illustrations and the cover – has been carefully considered. It’s a book designed to inspire another way of seeing and thinking. In that regard, beauty is the solution and it does create a sense of solace. Beauty is the lighthouse that guides us to shore.
AJ: Your writing is very scenic and visual. Furthermore each story is accompanied by an illustration – mostly portraits with fantastic ornamentation and Arabic writing that meander somewhere between Klimt and calligraphy. Which role does the visual art play in the book? Did you develop each story and illustration together?
DO: Arundhati Roy once said that the complex structure of her novel “The God of Small Things” was down to her background in architecture. For me, my writing stems from painting images: a mother and her daughter writing their dreams down on bits of paper and flinging those hopes and dreams into the ocean: a young drag queen sliding on silk stockings: the diamante-like drop of sweat on a man’s nose as he makes love to his boyfriend: everything is imagistic. Visual art is a language and so it felt natural, necessary even, to incorporate illustrations that would add flavour and nuance to the visual quality of the prose. I wrote the stories first, which took nearly four years. When I was done with the writing I started doing the illustrations, which took a couple of weeks to complete. The Arabic calligraphy is essentially translations of the title of each story. My cousin, Osob Dahir, who’s an incredibly gifted poet and fluent in Arabic, helped me with the translations. I don’t think I could write a book that doesn’t incorporate visual art in some way. It’s how I make sense of the world.
I stand firm on this soil and I tell stories. I tell stories to my daughters about kings and warrior queens, freedom-fighters and poets. I tell these stories to remind my children and myself that Somalia is fertile with history and myth. The only seed that needs regular watering is our imagination.
AJ: You pay such meticulous attention to tonality and the kaleidoscope of languages that your stories are audible even on the page. You decided to publish a book but I wonder how important is the performative act of storytelling for you?
DO: Writing is ultimately a performative pursuit. As a fiction writer you have to make your sentences sing on the page. You’re telling a story and therefore you’re performing. I’m really inspired by jazz and hip-hop poets. I love Langston Hughes, Essex Hemphill, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Ntozake Shange, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie Smalls: artists who are/were geniuses at poetic formation. These artists understood that rhythm and sensuality, sexuality, tonality and straight-up flavour counted for everything. When I write I go over every sentence again and again, repeating it out aloud to make sure that each cadence clicks. Sometimes I’m lucky if I can create three hundred words a day. I’m drawn to hip-hop and jazz because they are art-forms that embody something of the lyrical storytelling tradition of Somalia. This sensibility has seeped into my live performances. I try to give a little sass and swing on the page and stage.
AJ: The abundance of styles and sensory impressions in your stories is complemented by the device of constant contradictions: you call your stories fairytales only to fill them with explicit images of sex or drug-use. Following the fairytale tack you employ a timeless language drawing on elegant versions of Somali, Kiswahili and Arabic until the now hits us with hip hop slang or Kenyan Sheng. Did you develop this style to reflect the brokenness of your protagonists as well as the conflicting situation of expected warmth and social corsets many families are wedged in?
DO: Fairytales have been sanitized by the likes of Disney but they have always had dark overtones. The original “Little Mermaid” was not some cute redhead with Barbie-doll features. And no, she did not get with a Ken doll lookalike. Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm created these visceral, haunting fables that were often quite gruesome. Also the title “Fairytales For Lost Children” should not be interpreted literally. The book is about how innocence gives way to experience. In that sense, the book is a coming-of-age narrative spread out over eleven short stories: moving between children to teenagers to young adults. I use hip-hop slanguistics and Kenyan Sheng because that’s how I express myself. I grew up in Kenya in the nineties when hip-hop culture was booming, so it seeped into my consciousness. It’s my voice so it’s not a style that I reached for. It just flowed naturally.
When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Audre Lorde
AJ: Many of your stories end rather happily with an emphasis on the strength of even the seemingly weakest and least promising figures and situations. To elucidate this motif you introduce your stories with the above-mentioned quote from Audre Lorde’s “The Cancer Journals”. Along these lines you seem to be very suspicious of the conventional, gendered idea of strength and power. Would you say that this is something that links you to Nuruddin Farah and his strong female characters?
DO: I believe fiction should challenge us, and my favourite fiction certainly challenges me to see things from a different angle. It’s like picking up a shard of glass. On the one hand, you can argue that the shard of glass is merely rubbish and needs to be discarded. But what if you take that same shard of glass and hold it up to the light of the sun? That light refracts and you end up witnessing something brilliant and kaleidoscopic. That shard of glass can cause pain but it can also create possibilities. So yes, my characters struggle, but I’m no cynic. Struggle has to lead to some semblance of hope. If it didn’t, then the work would have failed. I write to show my readers that struggle will always happen but if you carry through you’ll get to where you need to be. That message is important because I understand that a writer is not an island: we’re citizens of the world and we have a duty to our fellow brothers and sisters.
Audre Lorde was someone who created a language of her own. She did it with every molecule of her being and to me she is the ultimate hero. She understood that as an African American lesbian artist she had a duty to her readers, which is to say her fellow citizens fighting to retain a modicum of their humanity. Nuruddin Farah understands this position too and this is why his stories matter. Here is a man who placed the complex, multi-dimensional lives of Somali women at the heart of his radical creative practice. What a bold and beautiful thing. I think every writer understands this act of lending one’s voice to the proverbial chorus. Some accept the call and others decline it, but every writer understands their position and their power within society. I know what it’s like to not be offered a seat at a table. Now that I’m older and wiser there’s no sting to it because I no longer want a seat at the table. I want to keep telling these untold stories of freedom again and again. I want to keep challenging the reader into other ways of seeing.
AJ: You just mentioned your readers. I gather your stories have a very strong appeal to people who have personally experienced the same traumas. The suffering you deal with can be described as a double exile: one, the geographical and cultural exile from Somalia to new homes in Kenya and the UK, and two, and maybe even crueller, the alienation of people breaking out of their constructed gender roles. How difficult was it for you to write about homosexuality and female self-determination in the Somali community and what was the response?
DO: I subscribe to the “free your mind and your ass will follow” philosophy. As soon as I was psychologically emancipated from the negative energy of my so-called nearest and dearest, I opened myself up to the world. My coming out, my development as an artist and as an adult happened in conjunction with me writing the book. The book was my way of processing the trauma, the years of silence. Somali culture promotes silence and I’ve always been resistant to this notion. Why remain silent? Speak your truth. Openness leads to happier lives. I kept on reading all these articles saying that the Somali community was an “invisible community”, which I thought was horseshit. There’s no such thing as an invisible community, only a silent one. Once I rejected that code of silence, everything was infinitely easier. Journalists often call my writing “brave”. My story does not require bravery because I live in a society where homosexuality is legal. There are laws that protect my rights in this country. If I was living an openly gay life in Somalia, Uganda or Nigeria then you could call me brave. The response to the book otherwise has been overwhelmingly positive. People send me messages of encouragement and support because they identify so deeply with the characters and the stories in the book. These messages are a gift, an unexpected one, but a gift I value tremendously.
AJ: Now that your debut is out, with much acclaim by readers and critics alike, where are your free mind and ass wandering about? What are you working on, Diriye?
DO: I’m working on a collection of short stories called “The Shape of Purity”, although I really can’t say when that particular project will find its way into the world. Writing requires a particular kind of muscle, a specific type of emotional and psychological stamina. This is why I’m not rushing the next book. I realized recently that writing fiction will always be a form of excavation for me, an archaeological dig of my innermost desires, dreams and hopes for the future. It isn’t therapy. It never was because it’s eviscerating. The last ten years of my life have been so tumultuous, so riddled with traumatic experiences, that I feel the next natural direction for me is to work at my own personal happiness. This drive for happiness is not an abstract conceit. I know precisely what will make me happy and writing fiction is the least of it. For me, happiness involves working with my hands. Happiness requires a return to my roots, to my first love which I have neglected for so long, and that is making art: painting, drawing, varnishing, creating collages. I miss the smell of oil paints and turpentine. I miss the sweetness of painting for pleasure. It comes so naturally to me because I have been doing it since I was a child. The narrative of my life has in its own small way come full circle: I started out with visual art and now I’m returning to visual art. It’s a return to a time of relative innocence and lord knows, when you have witnessed the kind of destabilizing situations I’ve witnessed, a return to innocence is the ultimate wish fulfilment. It is the perfect coda to this story. It is the manifestation of the freedom I’ve yearned for my entire life. I turn thirty this year. I couldn’t have written a better ending to my youth.