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Reading Helped Me Regain My Voice

Diriye Osman

I wrote my first book, Fairytales For Lost Children, a collection of short stories about the Somali gay and lesbian experience, in order to find my voice—literally.

In 2002 I was diagnosed with psychosis and institutionalised in a mental hospital in Woolwich, South London. When I moved to the UK a year earlier, at the age of 17, I arrived dreaming of a more fruitful, freer existence than the one I had led in Kenya, where I grew up. I was a deeply closeted, timid teenager who yearned to explore his sexuality away from the prying eyes of his conservative family and community. In my first few weeks of life in London I frequented gay clubs and bars in Soho and was astonished and heartened by the sense of joie de vivre and openness that I witnessed there.

The pleasure of exploring my sexual identity was punctured by poverty and a growing sense of dislocation brought on by the expectations of my family and my desire to not disappoint them. I smoked weed to calm my anxiety but the burden of shame, guilt and expectation left me deeply unhappy. I began to hear voices in my head. During the next few weeks I stopped eating and sleeping and began my descent into the first of the many breakdowns I was to experience over the coming decade. I was sectioned in the mental ward for six months and, traumatized by the experience, I stopped speaking altogether.

When I was released from the hospital, my mother encouraged me to apply for a library card. I had always loved reading. As a child I was obsessed with the brilliantly-etched adventures of Asterix, Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes, alongside the delights offered up by CS Lewis and Roald Dahl. I was so obsessed with reading when I was younger that my parents imposed a strict rule that I could only read fiction and comic books after I had completed all my homework. My mother understood that a good book would lift my spirits after I was discharged from the hospital. As I was too afraid to walk outside on my own, my younger sister had to escort me to my local library and help me sign up for membership. From there, things started moving in the right direction.

I began to read Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie (even though I had to hide his books from my deeply religious Muslim parents as though they were pornography). I read Manil Suri, Nuruddin Farah, Alice Munro, Alison Bechdel, ZZ Packer, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz. I marvelled at the way these writers used language, the way they bent syntax to create the most exquisite prose.

With the aid of these writers I re-learnt how to speak, how to hold a conversation. Reading as widely as possible, my brain started formulating patterns, and before I knew it I was speaking in sentences of newfound clarity. I had been expressive before I was hospitalised but I was never hyper-articulate in that way. Reading extensively endowed me with a sense of daring and confidence.

The books I had read opened me up to other ways of being. But I hungered for characters and stories that echoed my own experiences. When I couldn’t find any, I began writing my own.

Over the years my health has been unstable but my desire to tell these stories has remained unwavering. In my most painful moments, when I was in the midst of manic episodes, lying on the kitchen floor of my flat, I clung to the stories that would eventually make up Fairytales For Lost Children like a life-raft. In the quest to save myself by writing narratives about what it meant to be young, gay and endure struggle, I did not realise that these same stories were helping other people from across the world. Nearly all the stories in the book had been previously published in magazines like Prospect, Poetry Review and Attitude. Every now and again I get emails from young men and women in Kenya, Canada, Thailand and Turkey telling me what the stories in Fairytales For Lost Children have meant to them.

When my personal anxieties and fears are punctuated by the kindness and humanity of strangers, I can’t help but remember 'The Second Coming' by Yeats. The line that resonates with me the most in that poem after 'things fall apart' is 'the centre cannot hold.' But the fact that I’m still here, the fact that I’m writing this article, the fact that Fairytales For Lost Children exists is a reminder that we have more strength and resilience than we give ourselves credit for. The centre can and will hold.



Graphics by DIRIYE OSMAN.

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