In a revealing interview with Salon, Donna Tartt once said, “I had a fairly well-known editor tell me that The Secret History would never be published because no successful book by a woman had ever been written from the point of view of a man, and that I would have to change it to a female narrator.”
Although it’s tricky for both male and female writers to write from the point of view of the opposite gender, there have always been a number of tremendously talented and successful female authors who have not only risen to the challenge but, in doing so, have completely demolished deeply-embedded social codes that should not have existed in the first place.
British-Nigerian novelist and poet, Bernardine Evaristo is not only a master of literary gender-bending but she’s also adroit at subverting well-worn tropes from slavery to stifled sexuality in a way that feels new, visceral, vital. Although Evaristo has always been an innovative stylist, her latest novel, the critically acclaimed, award-winning smash, Mr. Loverman, is her chef d’oeuvre; a masterful dissection of the life of a 74 year-old, British-Caribbean gay man. It is a book about secrecy and self-protection, freedom and fear, history and the future, family and faith, repression and renewal.
For Evaristo, this extraordinary act of ventriloquism was necessary. “I knew this was an explosive mix for fiction”, she says. “Not only is black homosexuality all but invisible in British fiction, but the idea that a septuagenarian is actively gay is potentially very controversial.”
“I like the challenge of writing beyond my own culture (I’m not Caribbean), gender, age, sexuality and so forth, but it does mean that I have to work hard to create authenticity with my characters. To make them totally believable and convincing.”
Evaristo, who originally trained as a stage actress, nurtured her writing talent by penning roles for black actresses “because few parts existed for us in the early 80s.” She dropped acting but fuelled the fire to keep writing. “The magic of writing,” she says, “the emotional, intellectual and imaginative connection I feel to it, is addictive. My influences are wide and varied, and certainly many writers inspired me to tell my own stories when I was very young – Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, Keri Hulme, Toni Morrison, Michelle Cliff, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker.”
With the recent anti-gay legislation in Nigeria and throughout a depressingly large part of Africa, does she feel there’s been enough of a response from African writers in terms of exploring the issue of homosexuality in fiction or non-fiction?
“I’d say not,” she says. “It’s still quite a taboo subject in many communities and certainly not enough people speak out. You’re probably one of the very few writers writing black African stories with gay characters. When I chaired the Caine Prize for African Fiction a couple of years ago we shortlisted a gay story by Malawian writer Stanley Kenani. Lola Shoneyin’s super novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wivestouches on lesbianism, as did Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Caine Prize winning “Jambula Tree”, which won the Caine in 2007. But essentially, when you can list such stories on one hand, there is a problem. I wrote a piece for The Guardian about the long history of pre-colonial homosexuality in Africa when the recent anti-gay legislation was passed in Nigeria, my father’s homeland. We need more voices out there, gay or straight, writing stories that include homosexual characters.”
Aside from her work as a novelist and poet, Evaristo teaches creative writing at London’s Brunel University, where she spearheaded the creation of the prestigiousAfrican Poetry Prize, which offers a powerful platform for gifted poets on the rise.
Part of what makes Bernardine Evaristo such an important cultural figure is that she’s an intellectual who’s unafraid to take creative risks. Every book that she has written doesn’t feel so much a progression as a complete re-invention of style, subject matter and genre. Once you add a hearty dose of compassion and energetic forward-thinking to the mix, what you get is not only an artist who repeatedly resists status quos and shoots straight for the jugular but a bonafide literary rebel with a cause. This in itself is worthy of celebration.
Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman (Akashic Books) is out now as is Diriye Osman’sFairytales For Lost Children (Team Angelica Press).
Review of Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Mr. Loverman’ by Diriye Osman
James Baldwin once stated that “love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” This is a sentiment that applies equally to anyone who has ever experienced a profound sense of difference, a secret identity that is both a source of comfort and corrosion.
One of the many challenges with settling for “living in Narnia” — the closet — is that it invalidates half of your existence without you realizing that you have consented to such a huge degree of self-erasure; and what is left is a half-life teeming with anxiety, paranoia, shame and fear. This is where the love that Baldwin discusses so eloquently retains both its balm-like and burning qualities.
Stepping out into the sun requires strength. Although the majority of us who do come out of the closet increasingly do so at a younger age there are also those late-bloomers, those beautiful, older LGBT men and women who have spent a lifetime with one foot in the shadows and the other in a state of strenuously cultivated emotional paralysis, a seemingly sunlit space peopled with straight spouses, children and grandchildren.
This concept of double-identities, of secrets and consequences, forms the crux of British novelist and poet Bernardine Evaristo’s latest work of fiction, Mr. Loverman, a dazzling, gorgeously textured portrayal of a gay, British-Caribbean late bloomer and his infectious zest for life, language and love. In fact, one of the most remarkable feats of the novel is show how a septuagenarian can possess the kind of sizzle and sexual passion that would make most millennials look like poor relations of Mary Poppins.
The septuagenarian in question is Barrington Jedidiah Walker Esq, an Antiguan-born dandy based for decades in East London, who’s deeply in love with his childhood sweetheart, Morris Courtney de la Roux. The caveat is that Barrington is married to Carmel, his wife of 50 years. Carmel suspects that Barrington, or Barry as he’s also known, is having an affair, but assumes it to be with a woman. What Evaristo does so well is not only depict the strain that Barrington’s justifiable deception places on his marriage but she also deepens the narrative to include Carmel’s side of the story. One uses the term “justifiable” deception entirely accurately here. Homosexuality is still illegal in most parts of the Caribbean and Antigua is no exception. As evinced by the attitudes of Barrington’s grandson, Daniel, this stigma has seeped from generation to generation, from one continent to the next, creating a virulent animus against gay relationships within Britain’s collective black community, and the consequence of coming out of the closet is immediate rejection or violence.
So if Barrington’s deception can be considered justifiable — even for a minute — what about Carmel’s reality? A 50-year marriage is a lifetime’s investment, and Evaristo depicts Carmel’s disappointments with earth-deep empathy, showing us her vibrant youth, her pursuit of spiritual sustenance through the Church, and her struggle with post-natal depression. It is a beautiful, touching portrait of a woman pushed to the edge of her parameters. There is no victimhood here, and that sentiment extends to Barrington’s circumstances as well. The plot fizzes in a way that enables Barrington to confront his fears and face up to the truth of his “down-low” lifestyle with results that are poignant and cathartic in equal measure.
It must be noted that by writing directly in the voice of an older, gay Caribbean man, Bernardine Evaristo, who’s British-Nigerian and a woman, has executed an extraordinary act of ventriloquism that crosses gender boundaries as well as racial, cultural, sexual and linguistic differences. The fact that she accomplishes all of this with lyricism, authenticity and compassion is not only an act of bravery and confidence but a testament to her virtuosic capabilities as a writer. If the novelist’s job is to make sense of the world, Bernardine Evaristo’s entire oeuvre attests to her desire to upend preconceived notions of what is and isn’t impossible and reflect that mirror right back at her readers. Mr. Loverman is a powerful, morally rigorous and joyful novel and Bernardine Evaristo is a writer at the height of her imaginative powers.
Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo is published by Akashic Books. You can purchase the book here.
I once attended a book club in which my short story collection,Fairytales for Lost Children, was being discussed. Except for me and the acquaintance who had invited me to this event, all the members of this book club were white readers. Everyone was curious about the idea of a sexually explicit book that tackled issues of family, faith, immigration and love filtered through the very specific lens of the LGBT Somali experience.
The book club members asked me questions about the structure of the book, the use of Arabic calligraphy and illustrations and the fact that I chose to write in a lexicon that was studded with Kiswahili, Kenyan street slang, Jamaican patois, Italian and Somali. They were fine with my use of Italian phrases because they could easily use Google Translate to offer them meaning and context. But what about my pesky use of Jamaican patois, Kiswahili or Somali? They tried to use Google Translate for these “challenging” terminologies but came up short. The sting in the tail came when one reader, a middle-aged, middle-class Englishman asked me, “Who are you writing for?”
I was slightly taken aback by this question and the atmosphere suddenly assumed a hostile edge. I reached for blandishments in order to keep my cool and, ultimately, my dignity.
“I write for anyone who has an interest in the lives of others, which is all readers,” I said. The reader was dissatisfied with this response so the moderator kept the conversation moving along until it was time to go home.
As I sat on the bus, however, I gave the question serious consideration. Who do I write for? I thought about this again and again over the next few days until the answer crystalized in my consciousness. I was right the first time. I write for all readers. But my primary interest is in representing the complex but universal experience of Somalis. I do this because the media representation of the global Somali community is one that is carved out of derivative clichés crammed with pirates, warlords, terrorists, passive women and girls whose entire existence seems to be nothing more than a footnote on the primitive dangers of female genital mutilation. I write because I want to give a long-overdue voice to a community that has experienced a tremendous array of challenges but who constantly face these challenges with the most wicked sense of humour, humility and dignity. My father always used to tell me that in our culture, the done thing when you’re facing hardship and your belly is empty is to moisturize your face, comb your hair, press your clothes and step out into the sun with your sense of humanity intact. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me to this day.
My book, “Fairytales for Lost Children”, was important for me to write as an openly gay Somali man because I was telling an untold story. I was offering a window into the lives of young people who happen to be African and gay in the midst of considerable hostility, but still managing to hang on to their identity. Who hasn’t experienced moments of despair? Who hasn’t faced rejection or unrequited love?
Not all my future books will focus strictly on the gay Somali experience. My second short story collection-in-progress, “The Shape of Purity”, examines the lives of feisty, rebellious Somali women and girls – straight, lesbian, transgender – as they deal with the challenges of filial love, passion, heartbreak, careers, motherhood and even hardboiled, gangster shenanigans! The first story from this book is a dark, haunting fable called, “The Memory Snatcher”, which hinges on the sense of sisterhood between a troubled Somali woman and her young niece. These characters are punk rebels in hijabs and part of telling their stories is because I want to challenge the pervasive image of what the Somali community is all about. In telling these stories, I’m offering up a mirror and saying, “There are other ways of being.” That’s the beautiful thing about literature. We read in order to catch a glimpse of other lives that will ultimately reflect our own empathetic and imaginative capabilities. As writers, we must keep giving voice to the unexpressed; we must keep telling these untold stories again and again armed with the small knowledge that it is a joy-inducing, transformative privilege to be the teller of these tales. That, in itself, is something worthy of libation.
Diriye Osman is photographed by Boris Mitkov.
You can read and share Diriye Osman’s latest story “The Memory Snatcher” here and you can order his critically-acclaimed book “Fairytales For Lost Children” here. You can also connect with Diriye via his personal website and Tumblrwww.diriyeosman.com
Dorothea Smartt is a literary activist, live artist, and an established and respected poet with an international reputation. Born and raised in London she is of Barbadian heritage. Described as a ‘Brit-born Bajan international’, her work typically bridges the islands of Britain and Barbados, effortlessly shuttling between local and global scenes as it weaves a diasporic web. With two full collections, Connecting Medium and Ship Shape [Peepal Tree Press] her twenty years of experience, includes been engaged by the British Council and travelling to Bahrain, South Africa, Egypt, and Hungary. In 2013 she was keynote speaker at the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award, the premier literary award in Barbados. She is an honorary team member and advisor to Cambridge University’s Caribbean Poetry Project. She is Co-Director of Inscribe, a national writer development programme, Associate Poetry Editor of “Sable Litmag” and guest co-editor of their LGBTQI issues, and an Advisory editor to “Scarf”, a global arts & literature magazine. In her forthcoming third collection she continues to rework standard narratives, this time examining same-sex relationships and cross-gender experiences as push-pull factors behind ‘West Indian’ émigré workers on the Panama Canal.
In this interview, Dorothea underlines her relationship to her Bajan voice as a critical medium for her poetry. She reflects on her South London birth and upbringing in a Bajan household and the process of finding her voice and creating her place in the world as a Black girl in Britain. In the course of discussing her depiction of specifically located characters and their particular voices within her poetry collections, she repurposes historical and mythological figures, from Medusa to “Samboo” whom she renames Bilal. She engages us in her practice of historical “healing, restitution, recovery, re-membering and re-calling” in the excavation of overlooked and erased voices in past and present contexts. Her philosophy as a cultural practitioner is revealed through her treatment of cultural narratives as they impact individual and collective memory and consciousness, and implicate themselves in geographical landscapes. Her work re-inscribes a gendered, multiply located, lived and mythologized individual, familial and collective healing space.
She concludes by reading the introductory poem to her latest publication, “Reader, I Married Him & Other Queer Goings-On”, which was launched in Barbados at the Bim LitFest held on May 15-17, 2014.
Kagendo Murungi is a Kenyan writer, video producer and activist with a background in international sexual and gender rights advocacy. Her writing has been featured in the Queer African Reader (2013), Kwani? 07 (2012), United Nations Days of Vesak/International Association of Buddhist Universities Conference Journal (2012), Yellow Medicine Review (2011/2010) Sing Whisper Shout Pray: Feminist Visions for A Just World (2002), Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social & Political Black Literature & Art (2002) and a range of other publications and multimedia productions.
More than 250 immigrants traveling in 6 small boats have landed in Grand Canaries and Andalucia in the past 24 hours. Out of a total 1000 refugees presently in Grand Canaries, 198 were flown to the Spanish mainland. According to El Pais the numbers of Africans reaching Spain in the past year has gone up by 200%. Spanish TV news reported that there are presently some 10,000 people waiting in Mauritania to make the crossing to Grand Canaries.
In that same year, 20,000 men, women and children made the perilous crossing to the beaches of Andalucia in southern Spain. I met many of the young men and women when I lived in Granada, the majority from Senegal and Morocco. They came in the small rubber dinghies or wooden boats, one young Moroccan I knew well from the village I lived in stowed away in a lorry on the ferry crossing from Tangier. Sierra Leone / British journalist, Sorious Samura’s documentary “Living With Illegals” provides an insight into the dangers faced by people crossing the Sahara which itself often takes months and comes with it’s own set of dangers, and the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
Sorious Samura becomes an ‘illegal’ [his words] immigrant traveling from Morocco to Europe with a group of African migrants. Three of the men decide to make the crossing by swimming to the European enclave of Ceuta in Morocco – one makes it three are caught. The journey is horrendous and desperate and can take up to 4 / 5 years. At first there is a sense of commradre between the men (there are no women in the film) as they struggle for a life of selling battery’s, flowers and DVDs and living in make shift dormitories. But by the time Samura gets to France and realises he has been conned by the smuggler anger takes over. Many of the men admit to begging which is something I never saw in my life in southern Spain so maybe this is something new or something which happens in northern Spain, France.
Some excerpts from Black History month in unGrand Britannia : Many people are aware of the Black Panther movement in the US but how many know of the British Black Panthers which had a brief 10 year life in the late 60s and early 70s. The Independent reports on a photo documentary by a group of young people called “Organized Youth” who interviewed many of those who were involved in the British Black Panther movement. Like the US Black Panthers, their struggle was against institutional racism, poor housing and education, and police brutality. Olive Morris was one of the few women involved in the movement.
Although many members were inspired by hearing American activists talk in London – including Angela Davis, who addressed a crowd to thank her British peers for their support while she was in jail – there were notable differences between Black Power groups in Britain and the US. “Over there, they were a party; they were seeking political power,” explains Kenlock. “The American Constitution allows people to carry guns, so they were policing the police. There was segregation in America at that time – the system in America was far behind Britain. What we were about was seeking better education and jobs, and making sure the police treated us fairly. It was just the name and the culture that was adopted.”
The name was a quick way to attract attention and get young people excited; some of the style was taken on, too. “The berets, black trousers, black T-shirt and guns,” is how Darcus Howe, a member of the British Panther inner circle k and later editor of Race Today, describes the iconography. ” But we didn’t get to the [real] gun bit over here.”
Howe got involved in the movement after meeting Panthers at the Mangrove Trial in 1971. The Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, was repeatedly raided by police; a subsequent protest march saw nine people – including Panthers such as Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese – arrested. Their trial became a turning point for racial justice in Britain: they were acquitted, and the institutional racism of the police was publicly acknowledged.
But while the British movement was largely founded on political protest, it was also culturally significant and socially rich. Linton Kwesi Johnson describes, in an interview for the exhibition, how his interest in poetry was ignited by exploring the library at the movement’s headquarters: “Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature.”
While the movement had its own literary sub-groups, it was primarily concerned with fostering understanding of black history and radical political thought. For many, it was a Marxist struggle, an adjunct to the labour movement.
The British Black Panthers’ founders were often highly educated immigrants, scholarship kids who came to the UK from the colonies in order to gain a university degree; from wealthy backgrounds, they had never before encountered racism and were incensed at the violence and prejudice of Britain in the 1960s. They made it their mission to educate and radicalise the black immigrant working-class, too, uniting against racism across class divides (and, of course, across different ethnicities – members might have Caribbean, African or Indian heritage). Continue on the Independent.
According to the late British social historian, Peter Fryer, Black people have been settled in Britain since Roman times. However it wasn’t until the 16th C that the numbers became significant. The Old Bailey records and research into plantation owners reveals much about the lives of Black people during this period and later. However most of the records are limited to England so it was with great interest that I read this account on ‘Scotland’s complicated Black history‘.
SIDEBAR: My own British roots are English from West Yorkshire, my great grandfather was a French polisher who was recruited to work on the Grand hotel in Manchester which of course was built buy capitalists money from the cotton plantations and slave labour of the West Indies. At that time Manchester was possibly the richest metropolis in Britain as it was the center of the industrial revolution factories producing cotton and sugar with an exploited indigenous work force including child labour. As a ‘skilled’ workman, my great grandfather would have had better living conditions than factory workers nonetheless my grandmother spent her working life in factories or as a cleaner to rich industrialists. Whilst my grandfather worked in a grocers shop.
Men and women were put to work in Scots-run plantations in the colonies. Female slaves were also sexually abused by their owners.
An exhibition on slavery held in 2011 involving the Centre for History in Dornoch and Edinburgh Beltane organisation featured correspondence detailing the keeping of sex slaves.
The letters were sent by Highland owners to relatives in Inverness and their contents were described as “graphic” and “disturbing” by researchers.
Prof Tom Devine’s article asked the question “Did slavery make Scotland great?” in which he argues that the close relationship between Scotland’s 18th C economic growth and slavery in plantations owned by Scottish masters. He also admonishes Scottish academics for ignoring this fact.
The acclaimed historian added: “If you look at the telephone directory for Jamaica it’s stuffed full of Scottish names. These are people who have taken their names from their Scottish masters.
“The jewel in the crown in the Caribbean was Jamaica, which was the single richest colony in the British Empire during the 18th century. We know that and we have evidence that the Scots were the dominating force in Jamaica.
“Their owners didn’t want to live in this lethal environment so they were absentees. A lot of young Scots went out there, including one Robert Burns, who was about to go out to a post in Port Antonio in Jamaica in 1786 when he made his money with his poetry.”
Scottish academics have always skirted round the issue of Scottish slavery because it was mainly thought that the nation had not been involved. Professor Devine expressed regret in the lecture that in earlier studies he had also failed to realise the impact slavery had on the nation and omitted references to Scottish slavery in his past work.
FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
Praise for FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN
‘Fantastic writing. I am most highly impressed. I’ve read some of the stories more than once and saw in each one of them plenty of talent everywhere – in every sinew and vein.’ -NURUDDIN FARAH
‘There is nothing more humbling than good writing except when the author is fiercely beautiful and ferociously generous of heart. That Diriye Osman should possess so much talent is only fair in light of his goodness. Read this book.’
- MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO
‘The characters in these fairy tales are displaced in multiple, complicated ways. But Osman’s storytelling creates a shelter for them; a warm place which is both real and imaginary, in which they find political, sexual, and ultimately psychic liberation.’
- ALISON BECHDEL
‘East Africa. South London. Queer. Displaced. Mentally Ill. My excitement over Osman and his writing comes, in part, out of delight at the impossibility of categorisation.’
- ELLAH ALLFREY, The Telegraph
Fairytales For Lost Children is out now and available here and here.
I came to learn of Stuart Hall in the 1980s London and with him my introduction and understanding of being Black British – not something I ever felt personally but an identity that made sense to my children growing up Black in Britain. As Akomfrah writes, Stuart Hall was a kind of ‘rock star – pop icon with brains’ disseminating race and empire… We were proud, we listened and learned….
“I’ve been making projects on memory for a while now, but this one feels like the one I have been ‘preparing’ for a very long time indeed, possibly all my working life.
In our teenage years, there is always at least one person we meet or see perform or watch on the screen who in that first encounter leaves such an indelible mark on our soul that we end saying to ourselves: “when I grow up, I want be just like that; I want to be that cool, that hip, that confident, that compelling”.
Of course we always change our minds later since this is after all our ‘growing up’ years. But whatever reasons we subsequently give ourselves for our change of mind, for that shift in our thinking, secretly we also know that it usually coincides with the growing realization that we don’t have the talent or the brains or the wherewithal to become that person.
Once we accept we are never going to be exactly like our heroes, something very interesting begins for us because the initial burst of enthusiasm they sparked off, the charismatic example they offered about the purpose and direction one’s own life could take, these remain with you, moulding and shaping one’s expectations and, crucially, what ‘deals’ we end up making with this unfolding thing called life.
For many of my generation in the seventies, Stuart Hall was just such a figure. In those heady, mono – cultural days, he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. I loved all the athletes and singers and dancers too but when you are a black teenage bookworm in seventies West London, let’s just say a public intellectual of colour disseminating ideas on television offered other more immediate compensations.
Stuart Hall was a kind of rock star for us; a pop icon with brains whose very iconic presence on this most public of platforms – television – suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’. By just being there in our bedrooms and living rooms, he opened up pathways into that space that he has referred as the place of ‘the unfinished conversation‘, that space in which the dialogue between us and the external world begins, that place of identity. With him and through him we begun to ask the indispensable questions of that conversation: who are we, what are we and what could we become.
Throughout the making of The Stuart Hall Project, I’ve thought a lot about this questions of identity and of our ‘debt’ to this man. I’ve also thought a lot about the poignancy of the eulogy delivered at the funeral of Malcolm X by Ossie Davis, especially the section where Davis talks about “the presence of his (Malcolm’s) memory”. And the section I find the most affecting in that eulogy, the one I returned to again and again to the point where it became the organizing motif for this piece, comes at the end when Davis says “.. in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves“.
The presence of memory. What a wonderful way of describing all our lives. And for me, the question of ‘honoring’ begins there; with memory, with uncovering the stems of memory, the ghosts of history, sifting through the debris and detritus of past events for traces of the phantoms. It begins with searching and rummaging through all those itineraries, those collective unfinished conversations that tell us something about how a very bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became ‘Stuart Hall’.
In understanding him and the movements he shaped and was shaped by, we begin to understand something about how we became what we are: the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution , the anti- colonial project, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the new Left, feminism, class politics, cultural studies. All these interventions, these unfinished conversations.
And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. Amen to that.”
“Getting Out,” a 60 minute documentary produced by the Refugee Law Project in collaboration with the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law, explores the reality that for many LGBTI Africans coming out to family and friends at home is not even an option. Before they can come out, they first have to get out. This means not only finding means to escape the political forces promoting homophobia at home, but also dealing with the hypocrisies and failings of asylum systems around the world. Filmed in Uganda, South Africa, Geneva, and London, with supporting footage from Malawi and Zimbabwe, “Getting Out” depicts the true stories of five individuals navigating their way through this complex issue.
‘A Night of Fairytales’: An Audience With Diriye Osman – If you are in or around London you need to attend this event at the Poetry Cafe…..
Diriye Osman is a Somali-born, British short story writer whose debut collection of stories ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’ has already garnered praise from the iconic musician, Meshell Ndegeocello, feminist graphic novel genius, Alison Bechdel, African literary lion, Nuruddin Farah, and editor extraordinaire, Ellah Allfrey, who noted in The Telegraph that ‘My excitement over Osman and his writing comes, in part, out of delight at the impossibility of categorisation’.
In an intimate evening of storytelling, Osman will be performing dramatic snippets from ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’ interspersed with anecdotes in his infectious, trademark style. This event is brought to you by the groundbreaking LitCrawl series, which took root in San Francisco, and is now rocking it London-stylee!
WHAT: A Night of Fairytales: An Audience With Diriye Osman.
WHERE: Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H.
Seven men will be sentenced for 43 offences — ranging from rape and conspiracy to rape to supplying Class A drugs to using an instrument to procure a miscarriage — against six underage girls. But what about the police officers and social workers whose refusal to act enabled these rapes? Will they be prosecuted for aiding and abetting rape? Were they involved in other ways? Is that why they didn’t act against rape? Or is it their bias against working class children and against rape victims generally?
For 8 years police and social services allowed girls between the ages of 11 and 15 to be systematically raped. They even threatened to arrest some of the girls when they reported. As with Savile, with the care homes in Jersey and Wales, with Rochdale and many other cases, those responsible for the children’s protection refused to ensure their safety and welfare, and protected the children’s’ rapists instead. They blamed the children, even labeling child victims ‘trash’ and the rapes they were suffering a ‘lifestyle choice’. That is just what the rapists did. How are they different?
But because the men in the Oxford and Rochdale cases are Muslim and the girls we know about so far are white, media racism has let the authorities off the hook, calling rape a “cultural problem”. Instead of pressing the authorities for an answer, much of the media is feeding the EDL and other racists looking for excuses to attack people of colour, women and men. Yet we know, and the Deputy Children’s Commissioner Kate Berelowitz has emphasized, that teenagers all over the UK are being raped by adult men who are mostly white. Her 2012 report said: “The evidence is clear that perpetrators come from all ethnic groups and so do their victims — contrary to what some may wish to believe.” The report also suggested that the proportion of Asian perpetrators in the official figures may be higher because the police were targeting non-whites. In other words, white rapists are even more likely to get away with it.
Reported facts in the Oxford case — do they not amount to criminal neglect by the authorities?
v Girl C’s adoptive mother begged Oxford social services for help in 2004. She contacted them a further 80 times.
v Victims contacted Thames Valley Police at least six times but investigations were halted when they withdrew. One was even threatened with arrest for wasting police time over her repeated absences from a children’s home.
v Girl A reported to police in 2006 being held against her will and forced to snort cocaine, leaving her unconscious. No charges followed.
v Later in 2006, Girl B called police to report rape. When they attended she was in a house with 11 men, having run away from a children’s home. No charges followed.
v A few months later, Girl A’s rape report was investigated. A man was questioned but denied it. No charges followed. He abused girls for another five years.
v Police were called by a guest at the Nanford Guest House who heard crying and responses to pain in a nearby room. No charges followed.
v Girl D reported Karrar twice, in 2005 and 2007. No charges followed.
v Karrar and the two Dogar brothers were arrested in 2006. No charges followed.
v One of the girls in care went missing 126 times, and it was the “general consensus” among staff at the home that she was being sexually groomed by older men in 2007-2008. They reported this to police. No charges followed.
v In 2011 a determined police investigation into sexual abuse of children finally began, and a number of men were eventually charged and some of them prosecuted.
v Two of the children’s homes were closed down. Three successive Ofsted inspections in the year ending May 2008 had found them lacking a safety strategy.
v When Girls A and B returned to the home in a taxi, a care home manager refused to pay the fare and the driver took Girl A, aged 14, back to Oxford where she was raped again the next day. The carer was later sacked and the privately run home where girls were placed by Oxford County Council was closed down.
v Girl C was resuscitated by an ambulance man who told her she had had a massive overdose of heroine.
v The mother of one victim said the authorities had treated her daughter like “white trash”.
v The six girls were further tortured in court during the trial. One girl was aggressively cross-examined by seven barristers over three weeks. They were called liars, had their integrity and lifestyle questioned, and were branded “naughty girls” and unreliable witnesses.
In Rochdale and in Oxford, girls from working class backgrounds were raped for years despite repeatedly reporting to police and social services. Police claimed they didn’t arrest the men because they were worried they would be accused of racism. Yet they have no qualms carrying out thousands of stop and search on men of colour who haven’t been accused of anything. Police are 28 times more likely to stop men of colour than white people; 10 times more likely to stop Asian Britons than white people. (Equality & Human Rights Commission, Vikram Dodd, Guardian 12 June 2012)
The chief constable of Thames Valley Police, Sara Thornton, and the chief executive of Oxfordshire county council, Joanna Simons, said they would stay in their posts despite criticism over the scandal.
The head of Rochdale Council resigned without facing charges. A damning independent report found that the council’s former chief executive Roger Ellis “did not appear to be interested in children’s social care issues” and said there was no evidence that he had any intention of investigating the events that led to the jailing of nine men in May last year for offences including trafficking, rape and sexual assault.
Karin Ward, one of Jimmy Savile’s victims and a former resident at Duncroft school for girls, where Savile was allowed to roam, said that she sensed, “That’s what we were for.” (Panorama 22 October 2012) Duncroft’s retired head Margaret Jones dismissed the claims of her former pupils as “wild allegations by well-known delinquents”.
Years of ignoring reports of child abuse from Jersey to North Wales prove that the priority was not to stop rape, but to shield the criminal and in some cases their connections in high places so as not to disturb the status quo. None of the wealthy chauffeur-driven regular visitors to North Wales children’s homes or other big shots have been prosecuted.
A whistleblower revealed that police spied on Stephen Lawrence’s family to get ‘dirt’ on them so they could undermine their campaign for justice. Rape victims are routinely undermined by police who seem more anxious to discredit us than to arrest the men who have raped us. In the Oxford case child victims were blamed for what violent adults did to them. Other rape victims have even been prosecuted: Gail Sherwood, a mother of three, and Layla Ibrahim, a pregnant young woman, were both jailed while their rapists are still at large.
We now know that working class children with the least social power are treated by police and social services as sexually available and disposable. The government shows no interest that their cuts undermine women’s and children’s ability to escape rape. Is that part of the austerity policy’s attraction? With the welfare cap and cuts limiting child benefits, and thousands of families being moved out of London, many more women and children are already experiencing destitution, lack of food for their children, loss of safety and support networks making it impossible to leave violent relationships. More children will be taken into care or foster homes and become rape victims. Legal aid cuts are limiting even further our access to justice and protection. Only the rich can afford to use the law.
Getting justice for victims and stopping cuts that increase our vulnerability could begin to stop this rape cancer. It would encourage those police and social workers who want to act against rape rather than those who cover up for rapists.
The only way “lessons will be learnt” is if those in power who rape or collaborate with rapists are arrested, prosecuted and convicted. Without justice the only lesson ever learnt is how to get away with rape, of children and adults.
Black Women’s Rape Action Project & Women Against Rape - Tel 020 7482 2496
I first came to London in the mid 1980s so no, I don’t remember Olive Morris and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) took place in the early 80s just before I arrived. Olive Morris was a founding member of OWAAD and part of the Brixton Black Panther Party.
Olive Morris was a key figure in Lambeth’s local history. She worked with the Black Panther movement; set up Brixton Black Women’s Group, was a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and was central to the squatter campaigns of the 1970s. She died tragically young in 1979 at age 27.
The aim of this weblog is to create a collective portrait of Olive Morris, bringing together the personal memories of those who knew her, and publishing online information and materials relating to her life and work. Lambeth Council has one of its main buildings named after her and yet there is very little information about Olive Morris that is publicly available, especially on the Internet.
By the mid 80s police racial harassment along with the “sus — stop and search” laws contributed to the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985; the Handsworth riots of 81 and 85 and Broadwater Farm riot in 1985. For me the mid 1980s marked the beginning of my awakening with the now historic community organizing from Camden Black Sisters, Camden Black Parents and Teachers Group and Camden Black Workers. None of us had heard of ‘intersectionality but thats what we were all living in our daily struggles across race, sexual orientation, gender, class. We read Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Bell Hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, and much more. We walked in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in South Africa and Grenada, with miners and other unions being torn apart by Thatcher. We struggled against police harassment especially - stop and search of Black youth, the institutional racism in our schools leading to the exclusion and pathologizing of our children, and for our rights in the work place. Now most of us have dispersed to various parts of the world, our children grown, our lives moved in new directions but all of US were brave.
Camden Black Sisters is part of Black Women’s History in Britain, the sisters themselves are part of the black struggle in history. I too am part of that history and I celebrate myself for coming this far.
Somali born artist and writer, Diriye Osman has featured regularly on Black Looks as much because I love his work but also because he is a dear friend. Below is an email interview we had a couple of weeks ago.
You are Somali by heritage and born in Kenya. I don’t want to presume your identity is Kenyan/Somali or Somali/Kenyan. Through which lens do you see yourself and what do these heritages mean in the context of a black man living in London in 2013? Do they have relevance to you and to how others see you?
Actually, I was born in Somalia. When the civil war broke out in Mogadishu, my family moved to Kenya. I have never considered myself a Somali/ Kenyan even though I spent my pre-teens to my late teens living in Nairobi. The reason for that is that when I was growing up in Kenya in the nineties, there was a real xenophobic reaction to Somalis in the country. It didn’t matter whether you were born there or whether you had moved there as an immigrant. There was a real, visceral contempt for Somalis in Kenya and even though I haven’t visited since I left, that feeling of not being wanted, of being reminded that you’re notwanted has always stayed with me. So I cannot claim Kenya as part of my identity although it has certainly inspired a great number of short stories (I think particularly of ‘Shoga’ and ‘Earthling’ as well as the title story of the collection, ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’).
I moved to London when I was seventeen and I love the city and all it’s beautiful complexities. I instantly felt more at home in London because it was the first time I had been to a gay bar, it was the first time I had experienced love in it’s purest form. London is also the place where I truly came of age. It was here that I discovered crucial facets of my identity, whether it was my sexuality or my relationship with the world outside of my own community, which is to say my family. So if anything I consider myself a Somali-born, British writer and artist. It took me a while to own this identity and I’m proud of it.
Some years ago you came out to your family. How difficult was that and what have been the repercussions? Any regrets?
It was really difficult because I was very close to my family. I come from a large family — eleven siblings — and so, of course, not everybody is going to get along. But I was always the one who listened to everyone’s grievances and cracked jokes along the way. I was shown a great of love and support and I felt cosseted by that. But at the same time I was also very self-protective. Sexuality, let alone homosexuality, is a huge taboo in Somali culture. There’s a fifties-style undercurrent of piety that’s always been underlined and I respect that. But where does that leave someone like me who is gay? I had no intention of being ‘a confirmed bachelor’. I fell in love and in doing so encountered a world and sensibility that had always been closed off to me. When I came out, the love and the support from my family was retracted. This broke my heart and it pained me to see people who were blood relatives (my father, my siblings) reject me in such a cruel way. I remember speaking to a gay support worker and he told me at the time that my pain would subside in two years. At the time, I laughed at this through tears, but he was right. By the end of two years the trauma had subsided and I was able to function. What made that transition possible was a wonderful coterie of friends and colleagues who helped me open myself up to the world. Not many people are as lucky as I was though. I read horror stories from across the globe of young men and women, most of them teenagers, taking their own lives because they have no one to turn to. This book is called ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’ for a reason. It’s for every man, woman and child who happens to be gay to learn to place value on their own lives. If I can do it, with every possible odd stacked against me, then you can do it too.
As an out Somali do you feel any responsibility to other young or old Somali queer / gay / lesbian? Put another way how did the Somali queer community respond to your coming out?
I feel a sense of responsibility not only to the Somali gay, lesbian and trans community but also to the global queer community. I really believe in Chinua Achebe’s assertion that a writer is a citizen of the world and must create narratives that reflect this. I apply this rule only to myself though because I feel that all artists must essentially express their own truth. The way I try to honor this impulse is to take the political and transform it into the deeply personal. The Somali queer community has always been wonderfully supportive. The gay and lesbian Somalis I have met are some of the brightest, most humane people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
Your genre so to speak is the short story. What was your first story and how did it come about? Did you know then you were a writer or was this something you chose after writing that first story?
My first story was a piece called ‘Looking Back The Way We Had Come’. The story was about a young Somali immigrant in London who, two days after arriving in the city, decides to visit a gay nightclub in Soho. Although later pieces were much more confident, the memory of that story is always the sweetest because I came to terms with my sexual identity whilst writing it. It was also the first story that convinced me that I could seriously become a writer. Everything before then had felt like an apprenticeship.
Why the short story?
I love the short story because to me it’s infinitely more satisfying than writing poetry or a novel. Lorrie Moore, who’s one of my favorite writers, once said that if the novel is a marriage then the short story is a satisfying weekend with a stranger. There are no shortcuts in short fiction — you get in, lay down your arms and get out. I like directness and that’s part of why the form appeals to me.
Your stories are concentrated in limited scenes. The focus is on the characters and dialogue. You set the scene then leave it alone to focus on the story. I like this style: there are no distractions. Is this a conscious decision or does it just happen that way?
It’s very much a conscious decision. I like exactitude and this is one of the major appeals of writing short stories. You set the scene and let the characters do their thing. I liken it to a bebop jam session where every individual plays off each other in an improvised but precise way. The characters dictate their own terms and if you try to pin them down too much, the whole narrative ends up feeling contrived. That’s why I write in small spurts. Sometimes I’ll spend weeks thinking about a particular scene before I actually write it down just so that I can get a sense of each character and how they would behave. ‘Earthling’, for example, took me six months to write, as did ‘Shoga’ for completely different reasons. With ‘Earthling’ it was a case of paring back. It’s one of the few stories that doesn’t have a stylized flow. It was 100% about the story whereas with ‘Shoga’ I had to get into a jazz poetic rhythm but with a very specific emphasis on Sheng (Kenyan slang), which has a musicality of it’s own. I think that particular style is taken to it’s end point in ‘If I Were A Dance’, which is about making each sentence dance on the page. That story was a challenge (how do you describe dancing in a sexy, accurate way?). It made me believe that anything can happen on the page, which is the thrill that short fiction gives me.
I notice three common themes in your work: mental illness, betrayals and non-conformity. I see so many connections in these three themes and I do know from our previous conversations that mental illness is something that interests you. My own thoughts on this are that it is quite insane to live without some deep questioning of why we are here not to talk of the structures of control and obscene violence. Is this the madness people fear?
Whenever I think of the term ‘betrayal’ I remember watching awful American soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful where the term was bandied out in practically every episode! But I see what you mean. Yes, those themes were important during the writing of this book because my own life at the time felt very soap-operatic which fed into the fiction. Mental illness has been a large part of my experience because I suffer from bipolar disorder. Part of the appeal of writing the book was that it kept me afloat during many crisis points and manic episodes. In that sense a lot of the difficulties that some of the characters face, health-wise, were fictionalized accounts of my own battles with mental health issues. I really did contemplate suicide like Zeytun’s character does in ‘Earthling’; I really did see a less heightened version of mental hospitals like the one Cat Power works at in ‘Pavilion’. And of course, the themes of mental illness, betrayal and non-conformity are heavily intertwined with issues about family, immigration, painful relationships, beautiful relationships, and the exquisite yet perilous nature of childhood — all these tropes bleed into one another. I like the idea of the short story being a form that’s just as serious about social issues as the novel.
Where do you find your characters?
I would say that every character is a mashup of real and imagined people. For example, the lead character in Earthling is a young woman who has long, startlingly white hair. Her experience of mental illness mirrors my own, whereas her relationship with her girlfriend is inspired by the kind of loving lesbian partnerships I’ve come across over the years. Her long, white hair is inspired by the film director, Jane Campion’s mane. Another example is the character of Cat Power in ‘Pavilion’. I first discovered the music of Cat Power in 2006 through her album The Greatest. I was completely riveted by the music but also by the fragility of the singer. I have always loved animation and dance (particularly the work of Alvin Ailey’s company). I kept seeing this image of a gorgeous animated short in my head where a beautiful Somali transvestite danced to Cat Power’s The Greatest. Of course, I’m not a filmmaker but I really wanted to tell the story of a feisty drag queen who chose the name Cat Power because the music had such symbolic meaning for her. It was only until I watched Easy A in 2011, the quip-filled comedy where Emma Stone presents herself as a latter day Hester Prynne from The Scarlett Letter, that the whole story came together. I literally wrote ‘Pavilion’ in two weeks, which never happens to me! So characters come from really strange places before they appear on the page.
Who were some of your first authors that influenced you? Who do you read now? Have there been changes in your choice?
There have definitely been changes. When I started out I was reading Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Manil Suri. And then I discovered Nuruddin Farah whose work opened me up to the complex ways in which Somali characters can be presented in literature. I was also heavily into Nigerian and Ghanaian writers like Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua, Chimamanda Adichie, Soyinka. I haven’t traveled for nearly twelve years and so my mind has had to do the traveling. I love Alison Bechdel, K. Sello Duiker, David Sedaris, Janet Malcolm, ZZ Packer. My taste in writers is constantly shifting. Right now I’m really into Grace Paley, who was this genius American short story writer. Every line in her stories has the liquid flow of a well-timed zinger. She’s wonderful.
There is a growing community of writers from Africa and the Diaspora on Twitter. I note you don’t tweet. Any particular reason?
It’s because social networking is addictive and there’s so much to be getting on with. It really is that banal.
What are your thoughts on social media and writing and the internet and the fact that it has allowed so many of us to write who previously would not have had an outlet at least not one with the potential to reach millions of readers?
I think it’s a wonderful thing. As writers the greatest thing we can hope for is to find a readership and the internet has democratized the process of getting the work out there and finding an audience for it. I think it’s healthy because it allows for a much more diverse array of voices to come to the fore.
What are you working on now?
I’m not working on anything at the moment. I love the freedom of not having a project on the horizon and it will probably be that way for a while.
We have talked about Diriye the writer but you are also an artist. Can you talk about your artwork and how it connects with your writing?
Well, usually I do lavish paintings and drawings. They require the same level of focus and precision that a short story needs in order to work. So they’re connected in that way. Painting is a language — a visual one — but a language nevertheless. That’s where both mediums — writing and art — meet: through language. If you look at my paintings they stand alone as aesthetic works but as a writer I like to contextualize the symbolism behind the art through essays, so that’s part of my visual practice. For me, painting is a way of trying to order the world, a way of trying to make sense of my interior landscape. It’s about turning destructive emotions like anger, hatred and mania into something beautiful, transformative even. In the book, there are black and white illustrations preceding each story. These illustrations have the feel of tattoo designs complete with Arabic calligraphy. I like the magpie nature of being an artist.
Lastly could you talk a little about what I call performance photography?
Bjork said something very beautiful once about how she felt the photographs that she commissioned of herself were an extension of her musical expression. I like coming up with outlandish concepts and approaching photographer friends and saying let’s go for this. In my daily life I’m so low-key that the concept of makeup doesn’t even enter the equation. You’ll find me wearing a frumpy T-shirt and tatty shoes as I dash to my local corner store. But when I’m in front of a camera I like to loosen up and play dark, sensual roles that riff on my sexuality. We’re often told as men that masculinity is the only natural mode but I reject that. You can be whoever you want to be. As long as you look tight, it’s alright!
The central criminal court in London, the Old Bailey has published court records from 1674-1913 online. The database includes records on the lives of Africans and their descendent’s in London. The publication of the archives online is probably one of the most exciting additions to the history of Black people in Britain. The site archives records of 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913. I spent many hours looking for cases of Africans accused of crimes, as well as victims of crimes as a way of beginning to understand the kind of lives they lived. My search included keywords ‘negro’, ‘slave’, and ‘African’.
‘There are a thousand black men in London besides me: last Monday se’nnight I went to see a serjeant’s sister that lives at the Three Conies in Rumford road; when I had rode over the stones, and cantered about half a mile, I found my horse would not perform his journey; I turned back again, and got to a house in King-street, Westminster; I got there about ten minutes after five, and gave my horse a feed of corn, and in about half an hour or three quarters after, I went for Chelsea; I have been in England six years. Guilty. Death.’ Joseph Guy was convicted of highway robbery on 18 February 1767.
Esther Allingham was a sex worker who refused to work for nothing and was then accused of theft. Surprisingly, this black woman, a sex worker, was acquitted in 1782. She told this to the court:
‘This money they swear to, is my own, I have saved up at a shilling a time. When I met this gentleman first, he was with a black woman with a white gown and white coat on. What he had, was entirely unbuttoned. I was at a distance, against the rails. I went down towards Pall-Mall; I stood upon the stone of a door in Gloucester-court. He asked if there was any house he could go into; I said there was a house there. I knocked at No. 3, and went in. He said, My dear, I have no money; I have been with a black woman; my money is all gone. He pulled out his pocket, and said, I have got a snuff box, and a watch, and a pin valued at so much, and a pocket-book at so much, which he could not part with. I said, if he had no money, I would not go with him. I said, As you have no money, I do not chuse to give my carcase up to you for nothing; and I hope you will give me liberty to get some water, for I am dry. He said yes; but he would keep my cloak till I came back. What he offered to me, was what is not fit: he is a man neither fit for God nor the devil; he is neither fit for a black woman, nor a white woman. What he expressed to me, put a shock upon my spirits, and frightened me.’ Esther Allingham — not guilty, 15 May 1782.
Another interesting case was that of one Highwayman, John Guy. When he refused to have sex with two women, they robbed him. It was 1786 and Guy was a sailor, so he possibly was a ‘freeman’ from one of the Caribbean islands.
Here’s his testimony:
‘I was just paid off from the Ship Newcastle, and walking along Rosemary Lane , between 4 or 5 o’Clock I met 2 Women; I asked them for a Lodging, they bid me come with them: I went with them to Whitcher’s House, and we had some Salmon and Punch and a quartern of Brandy? Then I went to bed, and one of the Women came to bed to me, tho’ I would not let her: The oldest of the Prisoners pull’d up her Coats, and bid me look at — and told me it was as black as my Face, &c. &c. — I would not do it, but went to sleep, and when I waked I found all my Money gone. One of the Girls own’d before Justice Farmer, that 8 Guineas and 4 s. of my Money was divided among them.’
Like Esther Allingham, John Guy was acquitted — is it possible that black people in those days received better justice than they do today? Certainly if this had taken place in the US, Guy would have been lynched. However other cases resulted in extreme punishment which could have been as much due to class as race. ‘Poor’ Thomas Robinson (‘a Negro Black Boy ‘), for example, was sentenced to death for house-breaking and stealing ‘divers Goods’ in 1724.
John Bardoe was bought as a slave in Lagos by a Genoese sea-captain and, when their ship docked in London in 1859, Bardoe apparently freed himself with the aid of a fellow countryman and began working for another Italian. Bardoe then fell ill and, in a feverish state, assumed he was being recaptured. He first barricaded himself into his room, then made a break for it and stabbed a policeman in a rooftop chase. An interesting story in itself as the translator at the trial was ‘Miss. M. B. Servano, a native of Yorubah, and educated in England’. Bardoe was found to have acted in self-defence and judged not guilty.
These are only a handful of the many cases at the Old Bailey that involved black people. There are lots of interesting analytical details to be found: social networks among Africans in London, the continuation of slavery at sea, varying perceptions of freedom, and the education of African women. Roughly the period I looked at was between 1725 and 1860 and it’s worth briefly examining other events and legal cases during the same period for example through the civil courts. For example, Saartje Baartman arrived in England in 1810 and was exhibited at Piccadilly Circus. What I did not know was Baartman’s role in the abolitionist movement in her capacity as the “Hottentot Venus”. This is explained by Christina Sharpe in “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post Slavery Subjects”. [a must read]
Zachary Macaulay, Robert Wedderburn and the African Institution petitioned the Court of the Kings Bench on account of the indecent nature of the exhibition, in which they suspected she was being kept as a slave. After hearing and viewing the evidence [including testimony and a signed contract between Dunlop [her keeper/owner] and Baartman dated 29 October 1810] the court concluded, “She came by her own consent to England and was promised half of the money for exhibiting her person – She agreed to come to England for a period of six years”
Sharpe explains that the court’s decision was to “resolve” the question of whether Baartman was someone else’s property [chattel] or a ‘free’ person with rights over herself. Although the intention of the petition was to free Baartman and effect her return home, but in claiming Baartman was consensual to her own humiliation, meant she remained in captivity.
“Even as Baartman has the legal signifers of a free subject conferred upoin her by the outcome of the case, in fact she remains captive to her employer and becomes a kind of theoretical limit case that helps define the limits of freedom for the English subject. However the case could have been resolved, the freedom at issue was never Baartman’s own. Had she not been viewed as a free citizen under contract in England, she would have been set free [redemption operating here in the sense of the 'action of freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment' ] on the Cape into a state of near slavery” .
I have taken Sharpe’s work slightly out of context of her book to provide a historical and political understanding of this period in the history of Black people in Britain and the changing significance of race… The point is that the criminal and civil courts can provide us with an additional perspective on the presence and lives of black people in Britain in the 18th and 19th century’s and how these were and continues to be intertwined closely with the empire.
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
A humorous 15 minutes from Black Scottish writer, Jackie Kay on her birth, life in Scotland and her journey to meet her Nigerian father who turns out to be a ‘Born Again Christian’ who spent their first meeting jumping up and down praising God. Wonderful – a must listen!
The Red Dust Road
Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father. She was adopted by a white couple at birth and was brought up in Glasgow, studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Stirling University. Her experiences of growing up inspired her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers (1991), which won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. Her other collections include Other Lovers (1993), Off Colour (1998), Darling: New and Selected Poems (2007) and The Lamplighter (2008). Her collection of poetry for children, Red, Cherry Red (2007) won the 2008 CLPE Poetry Award. Her first novel, Trumpet, published in 1998, was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize and short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Award. She has also published three collections of short stories: Why Don’t You Stop Talking (2002), Wish I Was Here (2006) and her latest book, Reality, Reality (2012). Her memoir Red Dust Road (2010), a memoir about meeting her Nigerian birth father, which was short-listed for the 2011 PEN/Ackerley Prize. Jackie Kay was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2006.
Violent suppression of initiatives we cannot understand or even deaths in the African Diaspora as well as the African LGBTI set us back for generations but worse still is the hypocrisy and corruption that blinds us to this fact. Why? When you kill a living being because of their gender identity or whatever reason, you rob yourself and the rest of the universe of a part of What Is. Because of our mundane human conditioning and ingrained religious intolerance we adopt self-righteous pedestals and snuff out the life force that is human diversity. We laugh at what we see as spectacles as we slowly die away ourselves as part of the essence of the universe. “Everyone dies sooner or later,” is something we dread hearing while knowing the truth of the statement.
When I think of the plight of the transgender community as an African in the Diaspora I’m reminded of all those little murders that happen daily in the name of propriety or why most of them happen in the western world. In Africa most transgender people are underground so nobody knows any better but as a friend argues it is no surprise. “If African transgender people were out they’d suffer the same plight as their sistren and brethren in the west,” and don’t we know it?
Even as I gather my thoughts in my head to write this piece, I can hear the whispered indifference of people who ought to know better as they willingly give in to learned bad behaviour in the name of “doing what’s best for you” as if that makes them better people. In fact they are no better than Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” when he drags Ikemefuna off to sacrificial slaughter. I do not mention this lightly. Okonkwo’s masculinist stance leads him to greatness but robs him of responsibility with regard to Ikemefuna’s death and eventually to his own exile for killing a clansman.
However in this context, Ikemefuna is no longer the little boy of the novel but a vision of the future -openness, courage and compassion. In this guise, he is the spirit of the transgender dead facing up to cultural traditions that exclude difference for nepotistic gains. This usage is not accidental as we live in post colonial or neo colonial times in terms of gender identity and the rules remain the same: conform or die! Exile for anyone is a type of death as some transgender people can attest and we do so in plain view daily: at home, abroad or overseas.
As a transgender person that also identifies as a lesbian, I’m constantly aware of the dangers of being out but some of us cannot help but be. In this sense then as beings, human beings, even in the company of allies we still face predictable and unpredictable danger within the global LGBTI not to mention back home in Africa. How many have died suspicious deaths globally so that “old western values” last? How many more suffer in silence boxed in by the subtlety of compulsory binary fixity? How many more of us must go underground for life’s sake? How many are displaced in dehumanising exile in far away lands that circumstances have hand picked for us?
The temptation here is to join forces with the gender debate rattling on in traditional Gender Studies academy and fix the players… Obiageli and Okonkwo’s other wives and their prescribed roles in that world cannot always be fixed. The consequences of such fixation stifles our evolution. Rather in those very communities and elsewhere, Ikemefuna must become more than the little boy but a sort of archetypal voice conferred for the remembrance of transgender victims of persecution alive or dead by allies as by foe. In other words, art and literature of peoples all over the world must speak out lest they accept their complicit roles to stifle diversity and equality. Hiding behind religious intolerance, tradition or fixed notions of “the way things are” or Western values is no longer an option.
I’m reminded of openness and courage in the face of impending deaths or hard worn longevity, I’m reminded of compassion exercised in the face of ostracisation because we dare to say, “for us, in the transgender community, there is more to being human than merely following the flow of constructed, possessive and or perceived sameness,”. I’m reminded of the loaded injustice of those in the medical profession whose training would rather they told a parents lies rather than admit to the ambiguity of a child’s gender and the parent that either leaves the fate of child and mother to societal indignation. I’m reminded of men who have leered at first sight only to take up “honour restoring” arms or “corrective rapes” to cover their own monstrous appetites.
A pitiful attempt to announce to the patriarchal world that they are not gay or women who take sides with their tyranny claiming, “I’m not a lesbian” or worst still, “That’s not a real woman. I should know!” I’m reminded of some members of the LGBTI whose selfish supremacist yearnings threaten the very ethos of activism. Their aim: to isolate, incite violence against and or exclude permanently all transgender people out of existence. But most of all, I’m reminded of the many transgender dead whose names, like Ikemefuna’s, are with me every waking day. Those whose lives made mine worth living in plain sight; those whose very deaths have changed and continue to change the judicial framework and will do so for those to come in future times.
Thank you all for paving the way for all of us!!!
Last week Paul Gilroy spoke at a meeting in Tottenham on the recent riots in London and elsewhere. Gilroy makes some insightful observations on the differences between the 1980s and 2011 for example the relationship between information and power has changed along with the way we as a nation are “managed”…
The difference between 1981 and now is that the relationship between information and power has been changed, and our tactics for understanding our defence of our communities have to take those changes into account. And that means that we have to think very carefully about how we engage with the media. I’m very happy that there are people here who are independent distributors of information and news, who are circulating what goes on here and circulating interpretations of what’s happened in this country. We have to get it to people outside of our country–we have to internationalize it. We have to think about how technology can work for us. And media is not something transparent.
Because what happens in the digitalization of media and privatization is the contraction and the impoverishment of our media. People talk about “dumbing down”–it’s not just about dumbing down–it’s something different than that. And that means that there’s a much tighter control over what can be said.
And that technology which is so different from in 1981 is also part of what I’d like to call, tonight, a securitocracy, ruling us through security. And that means the DNA in your bodies, in your mouths, in DNA swabs, the CCTV cameras that are all around us here…And, and this is another interesting feature of last week, the way the spin operation works. The media, owned by people like Murdoch, have a ‘golden hour’ after the story breaks, in which they can fix the story, and then that fixed story grows, like a snowball rolling downhill.
What is amazing is that the police admit to 100,000 searches under the terrorist legislation yet not one of these has led to an arrest – so the question is on what basis, what intelligence were these searches carried out and in what manner? One observation Gilroy makes which stands out for me is the “privatisation of the movement” or the “consultariat”. This is something which is also happening across countries in Africa with the NGO-isation of activism and movements and no doubt is happening elsewhere across the world – which leads to a loss of imagination but I think that is the point. It’s happening in Nigeria right now with activists abandoning movement building in exchange for contract building in Abuja.
When you look at the layer of political leaders from our communities, the generation who came of age during that time thirty years ago, many of those people have accepted the logic of privatization. They’ve privatized that movement, and they’ve sold their services as consultants and managers and diversity trainers. They’ve sold their services to the police, they’ve sold them to the army, they’ve sold them to the corporate world…go to some of their websites and you’ll see how proud they are of their clients. And that means that, in many areas, the loss of experience, the loss of the imagination is a massive phenomenon. So that the young people in the courts today don’t have a defence campaign. They don’t have one yet, but I hope that one will develop.
So a lot of that leadership has been channeled into the local government, and has formed a kind of “consultariat.” And if you want to understand what that means, you have to look at places like South Africa, where, in the process after the end of apartheid, a whole layer of militants, a whole layer of people went over, and they got their pensions, and they sold this, and they sold that, because the government, in changing that society, thought that having a Black middle class was going to be the way to do it. Well, that’s not the way it’s going to work here. [applause] Continue reading ……..