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Lessons In Self-Preservation

Diriye Osman

One of the best pieces of advice my father has ever given me was, ‘There is no need to sabotage yourself.’ This is a small piece of wisdom, incantatory in its simplicity, which nevertheless took me a long time to comprehend. There is no need to sabotage myself.

My father takes a disciplined approach to everything he does. When he found out in the late nineties that he had high cholesterol, he cut out red meat from his diet and lived on broth and boiled foods. He started walking for an hour every morning before he went to work and every evening after he returned home from the office. Our home was chaotic, filled with kids creating all kinds of ruckus, but my father would come home, promptly eat his dinner, watch an innocuous action movie and go straight to bed afterwards. I asked him several times how he slept through the racket. His answer was straightforward: ‘When my head hits the pillow,’ he said, ‘I concentrate on nothing. I give myself permission to rest. It’s that simple.’

I marvelled at this level of self-care and confidence. I’m still in awe of it. But establishing healthy habits and consistently maintaining self-control has always been part of my father’s character. Whether it is pursuing excellence in his chosen field or spending time with his large, noisy family, he always takes enormous pride in the life that he has created for himself and those around him. It is a life of graft that leaves no space for self-doubt or regret.

When I started smoking in my teens, my father was appalled and embarrassed. To him smoking wasn’t simply a death wish: it conveyed a corrosion of the self-control that one needed in order to achieve a balanced life. For him, lack of self-control signified weakness.

Three years ago I gave up smoking after sixteen years of lighting up (I’m thirty-three as I write this). Whenever I was bored, I would spark a cigarette. Whenever I was anxious, I would spark a cigarette. Whenever I was angry or happy or horny, I would spark a cigarette. After I gave up smoking, I gained some weight and, after years of eating unhealthy food and not exercising, I bought a yoga mat and started training my body in my living room. I was so physically unfit that even doing a couple of sit-ups initially took my breath away.

After decades of bad living, I am learning to take better care of myself. After decades of self-destructive behaviour I am learning that my life has value, and that I mean something to myself and to my loved ones. After decades of depressive cycles, I am learning to pick myself up a lot more quickly, a reflex action against the tyranny of victimhood.

This time last year my professional life was on an upswing. I had written a critically-acclaimed, award-winning collection of short stories about the queer Somali experience called Fairytales For Lost Children. Even though my book was doing well and I was experiencing new heights in my career, I was confused about why I felt so stuck, why new ideas for fiction no longer flowed as easily as they had done before. I felt like a hamster in a wheel and this is why I started reconsidering my priorities.

By remembering the wisdom my father gave me all those years ago, by remembering that there was no need to sabotage myself, I started nurturing myself. I still have rough moments. But these are mere moments that don’t, as they once did, bleed out into days and weeks. In order to gently regain my pleasure in creating fiction, I set myself the challenge of writing a modest two hundred words a day. I have now finished my novel, We Once Belonged to the Sea, a book about a reclusive Somali artist who decides to mentor a gifted, hijab-wearing punk teenager who is determined to get accepted into a prestigious London art school. I fell in love with the idea of a story about two African female artists of different generations helping one another to succeed. Also, I like the fact that even though the characters in the book are lesbian, gay, straight, Somali, Iranian, Somali-Iranian, Senegalese-Finnish, they don’t see themselves as defined by their cultures in the same way that the characters in Fairytales For Lost Children wore their Somaliness. These characters are driven by other factors like artistic ambition and simply loving one another. To say that I enjoyed writing this novel is an understatement.

All of this happened at a sustainable pace. Every time I have a moment of doubt and want to hit the self-destruct button, I simply remind myself that there’s no need to ruin a good thing. There’s no need to sabotage myself.

I choose joy in all its small modulations.


DIRIYE OSMAN is photographed by STEVE BROWN

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