Whenever readers ask me how I started writing, I find myself stumped, because I know people want their anecdotes edited and perfectly formed. The reality is more complex and messier than anyone cares for, and so my responses are anodyne. I speak of ‘inspiration’ as a generic entity because the truth is self-exposing and I don’t want to come across as vulnerable and flawed.
Whenever I create this inspirational smokescreen, I omit the fact that I started writing when I was in my teenage years, six months out of a psychiatric institution. At the time I was in a depressive slump and I was reading a great deal of contemporary and classic fiction in order to cope with my unreality. My diagnosis was initially psychosis but neither I nor my family fully understood what psychosis really meant for my future. In the midst of the most frightening hallucinations – hallucinations that sliced away relentlessly at my sense of self – I found myself sleeping all day to avoid contact with my loved ones and reading all night to escape the painful sounds coagulating inside my consciousness. I was traumatized but reading endowed me with a sense of possibility. I read Edwidge Danticat’s stunning and heartbreaking Breath, Eyes, Memory about three generations of Haitian women who endured harrowing ordeals. I marvelled at the way Danticat imbued these women’s pain and joy with a poeticism that allowed their nightmares and triumphs to bleed out into the most poignant portraits. There was no pity, just a reminder to cherish all the beauty that is at our disposal. The same was true of Nuruddin Farah, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, who toyed with language like play-dough by stretching its syntactical capabilities.
I’m aware that we live in an age where reading fiction is considered an endangered, artisan concern. The advent of digital media has opened us up to new ways of seeing and thinking but there is still an intense value in fictional narratives. For me, reading novels and short stories allowed me to view the world with a new lens. I luxuriated in the Bombay of Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu or the vitality of Zadie Smith’s Willesden in White Teeth. I even remember travelling to Willesden once on the bus and thinking, this is Zadie Smith country. Ain’t that a beautiful thing? Isn’t that just one of the many valuable things that fiction offers us? In my case, reading fiction has allowed me to travel further than I could have ever hoped, looping through past, present and future landscapes with exhilarating ease.
I was a reader before I was a writer, and when I started putting together my first collection of short stories, Fairytales For Lost Children, I drew on my rich history as a reader to try and create my voice. I wanted this voice to reflect my Somali background, my Kenyan upbringing and my London home. This voice would be a mashup of all the elements that formed my youth; the sticky-sweet Jamaican patois, the Kenyan street slang, my Somali and Italian linguistic tics, my love of jazz poetics and nineties hip-hop slanguistics. This language would form the bed on which my narratives of love, loss, identity and hope would rest.
This was a series of stories forged out of a visceral need. Emotionally dislocated and psychologically adrift, I needed the language of remembrance to anchor my dreams. So I clung to this language and its accompanying imagery like the body of a lover, someone whose form fulfilled my hunger and energised my passion.
Fairytales For Lost Children is a document of survival. When I finished writing the book, I expected to feel relief but instead I plummeted into a wormhole of grief. I had exorcised my deepest fears and desires without filters and instead of feeling free, I felt wiped out. We all walk around burdened with the belief that our pain is singular and unique. One of the most consoling aspects of publishing Fairytales For Lost Children has been the realization that all the struggle, every iota of hurt was worth it. I know this because young and old alike have responded to this small book with a sense of kinship that I could never have anticipated.
This small book that I wrote in order to emancipate myself has helped other people cope with their own traumatic experiences. This is a gift I treasure every day.
All my work, whether it is literary or visual, will be documents of survival. As I write this, I think of something my father once told me about Somali culture. ‘We come from a survivalist tradition’, he said. Imperfect as my contribution may be, I hope that I can one day add something meaningful, something that speaks to future generations, to this powerful and vivid heritage.
DIRIYE OSMAN is photographed by ASTRID HASZPRUNAROVA.
Graphics by DIRIYE OSMAN.