‘There is beauty and power in owning your identity’– A conversation with Diriye Osman
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
By Louis Pilard
Diriye Osman fled civil war in Somalia as a child, grew up in Kenya and the UK as a queer Muslim, and was diagnosed with psychosis and temporarily institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital at the age of eighteen. These experiences are woven into his critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, which propelled Osman into the literary limelight in 2013.
Despite the pain and trauma described in Fairytales for Lost Children, the stories are full of playfulness, compassion and hope – much like Osman himself. Set against disparate backdrops across Somalia, Kenya and the UK, the stories are unified by resilient protagonists who seek peace and integration despite their fractured lives.
In conversation with The Channel, Osman reflects on his goals to represent the diversity of his community; the intersections of art and life; and how to survive when you’ve been marginalised by your family and society.
TC: Your work has been praised for bringing a nuanced portrayal of queer, refugee, LGBTQ+, race and mental health issues. Do you ever worry that your personal story and writing will be tokenised or pigeon-holed?
DO: I don’t feel these tensions and maybe that speaks to my own sense of privilege. I have never seen myself as a token or hungry for inclusion in diversity programs. The problem with the arts is that the term ‘diversity’ becomes a marketer’s cum-stained sloganeering. There is no depth or meaning behind it. It’s a trend and that’s a shame. In the early 2000s, when Zadie Smith was being touted as the voice of multicultural Britain, a slew of mixed-race female writers with creative nous and great hairdos were put forward as the heirs to Zadie Smith, much to her chagrin, I’m sure. All of these well-meaning initiatives can be weaponized against us, and ultimately co-opted as a capitalist’s wet dream. So we will continue to see more black and brown writers being published over the next few years, but I then suspect that will all stop and we will go back to the status quo. Watch this space.
Photography: © Steve Brown
TC: A major theme of your work is about the experience of being African, Muslim and queer. How do you deal with the responsibility of being a prominent and influential voice for these intersecting identities?
DO: I feel a real responsibility to represent the variety of the LGBTQ+ Somali community. As I get older, I’m more invested in imagining the future of the queer Somali diaspora in all its complicated glory. I’m no longer interested in a future that universalizes our very specific concerns and ambitions, and where we don’t see ourselves. This, of course, means imagining new ways of reconciling our faith with our sexualities and creating new families of our own. When I was growing up, the history books would say that the Somali community was essentially a homogenous one but this assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re individualists and that’s wonderful to me. So why not represent that?
TC: Your writing is particularly exciting because of its linguistic twists and turns. You switch from traditional English literary styles to using Arabic, Somali and other languages, as well as playing with linguistic registers that are more American and London. How does this style relate to your experience as an intercultural and multilingual artist and to the times we currently live in?
DO: I was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya and South London. Naturally, all these divergent cultural locations have informed not just my writing but my way of seeing the world. It was only when I moved to the UK that I understood that I was an African. In Kenya, we were dead specific: you were Somali, Senegalese, Malian or Congolese and we extended that sense of specificity and nuance to folks who were from the West or the Middle East. So, you were never just Jewish or Arab. You were Polish or Israeli or Palestinian, English or French. That sense of definitude defines my work. Also, I love, love, love language. There’s a kind of sorcery to what you can do with it. I live for that magic.
TC: In some of your pieces and in your various art forms there is a sense of perceiving life itself as an artwork, or at least a heavy blurring between ‘real life’ and ‘art’. Do you view daily life as a form of artistic expressions? Or do you draw a line between art and life at some point?
DO: For me life is art. Once you get beyond the stage of simply trying to survive, then you start to relax and enjoy your hard-earned freedoms. Small things make the biggest difference. I know it sounds like a triviality but I spend a small fortune on scented candles and perfumes every month. Why? Because they bring me joy. I like smelling good, I love eating right and I take pleasure in loving well. There’s no toxicity in my life and that’s the real gain. I feel like that’s what we mean when we discuss privilege: a sense of peace and comfort in one’s own skin, one’s own space.
TC: You have a piece called ‘Resilience is King’, where you provide a walkable path as a series of small, simple steps towards a life that is healthier, happier, and easier to manage. What advice would you give to someone going through the difficult process of owning an identity that doesn’t necessarily fit with the values of their family, religion or community, especially those who risk being turned away or discriminated against?
DO: First of all, there is beauty and power in owning your identity. This is not an abstraction. It’s visceral in every sense. Make sure you have your own income. Then make sure you cultivate wonderful friendships that are predicated on love and mutual support. Once that’s done, ensure that you have your own space to call home. This could be a shared house or your own place but it’s important not to depend on anyone to pay your way. Everything else – the deepening of one’s interiority, the sense of peace that you crave – will follow. Be patient and nurture yourself. Life doesn’t have to be complicated. Never allow anyone to rob you of your peace.
Photography: © Steve Brown
TC: Your work explores themes around experiencing and living with trauma. Recently, thanks to movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, there has been growing public discussion and awareness of the trauma experienced by large portions of our society. Is there a particular relationship between trauma and our society that you try to express or do you see it more as a personal battle?
DO: The definition of trauma is very particular to each person who experiences it. I wrote about issues of mental illness way before it was socially acceptable. The Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, had this great line about yearning to be a voice in a chorus of voices. I think that’s my ambition. I want young people of all ages and cultural locations to be able to freely express their struggles with mental illness without shame and receive help for it. We’re getting there.
TC: Your ability to show varying ways of being queer, religious, and multicultural seems like an integrated way to approach living in a society that has become more openly hostile to immigrants and Muslims since Brexit and Trump. Do you have a philosophy of integration, or thoughts on ways to unify people beyond their perceived differences?
DO: Kindness. Approach the world with the level of kindness and courtesy you would like to be shown. It’s that simple. There is a paraplegic English patient who goes to my GP at the same time that I attend my fortnightly appointments. She’s a very sweet, confident woman who often likes to strike up a conversation with me. Before the Brexit referendum kicked in she’d told me that she was voting for Brexit, making the argument that her grown sons couldn’t get jobs or council flats and were still living at home with her, spending their days in a depressed stupor and playing video games. After the referendum, I wasn’t going to switch on this poor woman because she voted for Brexit. So we still chat and keep each other company in the waiting room of my GP every other week. It’s a small act, but kindness and courtesy really do matter.
Fairytales for Lost Children won the Polari First Book Prize in 2014 and is available to buy in bookshops. Osman’s debut novel, We Once Belonged to the Sea, came out in 2018. It is about a reclusive queer Somali female artist who has been inveigled into mentoring a teenaged Somali-Iranian hijabi punk who wants to enrol into a prestigious art school in London. The book also examines issues revolving around the #MeToo era, what it means to be a black artist in a culture that devalues black art, as well as imagining a future for queer African parents who are happily married and functional. For more information visit: https://www.diriyeosman.com/.