Happily Ever After, After All

Somali-British writer and visual artist Diriye Osman talks mental illness, pride and the importance of speaking up.
October 09, 2013

Diriye Osman; Fairytales for Lost Children

When he was 18, like a few of the characters in his stunning debut collection of short fiction, Fairytales for Lost Children (Team Angelica), Diriye Osman began hearing voices. These aural hallucinations marked the beginning of a struggle with mental illness he calls “a powerful, life-altering experience.” Only after his diagnosis and treatment, he says, did he find his own voice as a writer.

Osman’s stories, which incorporate many autobiographical details to conjure a diverse cast of queer Somali characters, suggest other hardships as well—a childhood stretched across three countries (his native Somalia, Kenya and England, where he now lives) and a biological family whose culture makes them intolerant of homosexuality.

Despite the rejection he’s faced from some members of his community and family, Osman remains proud of his Muslim Somali identity, describing Somali culture as “fly, inherently generous, rich”—and even recognizes that he speaks “from a place of privilege, which is the position of a gay African man living in a country where he has rights as a citizen. But,” he continues, “a lot of us within the gay community here in the west still don’t exercise those rights, regardless of whether we’re in Brixton or Brooklyn, because we’re afraid of being ostracized by our family and friends.”

“Ultimately though it’s a question of basic dignity. When someone whom you love dearly—especially a member of your family—tells you you’re not worthy because you’re gay, it breaks your heart. What to do? Do you sit down and say, ‘Woe is me’ or do you get up, get out and get something?”

Osman’s triumphant first book is a testament to just what can happen when a queer person gets up, gets out and gets something. Though his characters face plenty of painful challenges—homophobia, anti-refugee prejudice, mental illness—Osman’s stories are suffused with the possibility of joy and pleasure, whether in the form of sexual awakening, gender exploration or in learning how to stand up for yourself. Ultimately, his fairytales are affirmations of why life is worth living, even for the lost. The book’s final story, about a gay Somali-Jamaican couple living in London, concludes: “We own our bodies. We own our lives.”

“Coming out is scary,” Osman says, “speaking truth to power is scary, but it’s a risk that’s worth taking…The gay, lesbian and trans folks that came before us made it easier for us to enjoy the freedoms we have now. Part of how they accomplished that was by consistently (and loudly) voicing dissent. The only power I have is to tell these stories of freedom again and again. The only power I have is to lend my voice to the chorus.”  

Diriye Osman recommends: The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, Drown by Junot Díaz