When I first moved to London in my teens, people often asked me where I was from. For some reason this seemingly innocuous question yielded up some unwieldy responses on my part. I would reply that I was born in Somalia, grew up in Kenya and now called London home. It felt like a tediously lengthy statement every time the words tumbled out of my mouth.
One of the great markers of maturity is an appreciation for complexity. Although I’m of Somali descent I did most of my growing up in Nairobi and London. As the years zipped by, the lens of my identity also zoomed out to encompass my sexuality as an out and proud gay man.
As a young gay African, I have been conditioned from an early age to consider my sexuality a dangerous deviation from my true heritage as a Somali by close kin and friends. As a young gay African coming of age in London, there was another whiplash of cultural confusion that one had to recover from again and again: that just because one accepts one’s sexual identity doesn’t necessarily mean that the wider LGBT community, with its own preconceived notions of what constitutes a ‘valid’ queer identity, will embrace you any more welcomingly than your own prejudiced kinsfolk.
So what to do? There are only two options when one is barricaded in by banal yet dangerous stereotypes: either shed some of the complex layers that have made you who you are, or cling to those complexities and appreciate the value of the long game, the fact that there is power and strength in multiplicity; the fact that there is power and strength in a beautifully unwieldy heritage.
This is what I learnt when I started writing Fairytales For Lost Children. The book, which focuses on the lives of young LGBT Somalis, made me realize that it was not only possible to respect cultural complexity but to revel in it. Utimately, we are the only people who can give ourselves permission on how to live.
This message of hope is the connective thread between me and my readers. We may come from different parts of the world and have contradistinctive histories but we all yearn for love, a modicum of peace, understanding and acceptance. Whether we voice it as such we’re all looking for mirrors that reflect our realities back at us. We are all in pursuit of freedom regardless of where we are coming from. There is something deeply moving about this idea of interconnectedness; the notion that our individual complexities endow us with a sense of shared humanity.
When I first started writing, my younger brother, who was then in his pre-teens, complained to me that my characters all had Somali names as opposed to the English characters he was so accustomed to reading about. I told him that it was important for me to write about Somali characters, that it was important we all told our own stories and shared our heritage with the wider world. Initially he seemed unconvinced, but before long he too started writing stories that featured Somali characters.
That memory alone makes me happy to this day.
DIRIYE OSMAN is photographed by JAROSLAV SCHOLTZ.
Graphics by DIRIYE OSMAN.