No victimhood – writing a proud gay Somali experience.
Diriye Osman is a British Somali writer and visual artist. He writes short stories mostly about the gay Somali experience set in England and Kenya. Whilst his stories are edgy, witty and urban, his artistry is, in his words “extravagant’ and sensual. Here Diriye discusses his work and coming out as a gay man, with art and culture magazine Beige
Tell me a bit about your background and how this has informed your writing?
I was a really creative kid growing up in a very religious Muslim household. My first love was fashion design, and my biggest ambition was to be ‘The Somali Gianni Versace’. My parents took this in their stride and actively encouraged my interest in becoming a designer and we moved to London. My ambition to study fashion was cut short when I ended up having a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised. My doctors diagnosed me with psychosis and I spent nearly a year in hospital. After that, making clothes seemed like such a frivolous pursuit. I was so traumatised by the experience that I didn’t speak for nearly six months. I was eighteen years old at the time. Reading became my release. I began to read a great deal of fiction. I was heavily into Salman Rushdie’sMidnight’s Children, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu, and basically any writer from India. I was beguiled by how these writers were playing with the English language, bending it to fit their own vision. I found myself thinking, ‘Where are the Somali writers?’ Sure we have Nuruddin Farah, who’s a legend, but beyond that there was no one I could look up to as a creative role model from my community. Toni Morrison once said that she first started writing because there were no books that represented her story. I took that to heart and began to actively pursue a career as a writer.
What themes/concerns do you address in your writing and how do you do this?
In Somali culture, sexuality is a tricky topic. This has to do with the fact that although the culture is a rich and fascinating one, it’s ultimately dominated by a conservative outlook that resists making space for different world-views, which is such a shame because the people are brilliant storytellers.
In 2008, after recovering from another health setback, I began to write short stories. At this point I was fascinated by Alice Munro, Edwidge Danticat and David Sedaris. But I didn’t want to emulate what they were doing, and I felt that in order to write honestly I had to examine my own life and write about the issues that mattered the most to me.
I was coming to terms with my sexuality as a gay man and I wanted to write about these experiences. I started writing short stories about the gay Somali experience that had a deeply humane, universal outlook. I have never been interested in victimhood narratives, so in stories like ‘Pavilion’, which was published in Prospect, the protagonist is a hard-boiled, six foot Somali transvestite who works in a mental hospital. When she’s sexually harassed by one of her patients, she doesn’t crumble into self-pity: she decides to teach him a lesson.
All my stories are threaded together by the gay experience. I like writing gay Somali characters who are defiantly proud of who they are regardless of the difficult circumstances they find themselves facing.
Tell me about your work as a visual artist.
While my short stories are spare, my visual work has an extravagance to it. I paint mostly androgynous women — inspired in part by fashion illustration, the dreamy animation of Hayao Miyazaki and early Disney, along with Klimt, Giger and Fritz Lang. I paint with 3D textile paint and other craft-based materials like glow-in-the-dark glue, temporary tattoo stickers, collages and powder dye. These materials are counteracted with more lavish ones like Swarovski crystals. There was one image that required £400 worth of jewels studded on to it. Both the writing and the painting require intense concentration, but I realised recently that my paintings are a way of distilling mania and transforming it into something beautiful.
What can people expect to find in SCARF magazine?
SCARF Magazine was founded by my editor, Kinsi Abdulleh. Kinsi is an artist as well and we work beautifully together. SCARF is about fusing disparate ideas that shouldn’t work but always do. It comes out annually in a limited edition, small print run and it has a bespoke feel. We encourage artists from multiple disciplines, whether they are poets, musicians, filmmakers, to write about things that mean something to them. So for the current issue, ‘Breathing Space’, we asked MacArthur ‘genius’ fellow Edwidge Danticat to share a recipe and seder from her home country, Haiti, that touched on slavery, independence and immigration with intense lyricism. We asked Grammy-nominated musician Meshell Ndegeocello to write about what freedom means to her and we also asked the brilliant jazz singer, Lizz Wright to write a poem about finding one’s voice. The fun part was pairing these renowned artists with young, British illustrators whom we commissioned to create portraits of them. We like the creative, DIY, punk aesthetic.
What issues surrounding gay identity particularly resonate with you?
A few years ago, before I came out to my family, I really didn’t believe I could lead an openly gay life unmarred by shame. But the beautiful thing about being gay is that you grow up as an outsider and I really believe our levels of empathy as a collective global community are extremely high because we know what’s it like to not be offered a seat at the proverbial table. We know what’s it like to be discriminated against and I think that fortifies our sense of injustice. So I appreciate that level of humanity….Continue reading on Beige
Diriye Osman’s debut collection of stories Fairytales For Lost Children is published in September 2013 by Team Angelica Publishing.
For more info go to www.diriyeosman.com