When I first embarked on my life as a writer, my younger brothers asked me why I gave my characters Somali names. They felt it wouldn't amplify the stories I was trying to tell in any meaningful way, but would instead work to diminish their power.
I tried to explain to my younger siblings that writing about Somali folks was important to me, that giving my characters Somali names and distinctly Somali cultural locations was my way of moving the needle of my life — and the lives of my beloved community — from the margins to the centre. At that time, I didn't realize how deep this literary activism would seep.
Men like me, which is to say gay men of African descent who identify as proudly Muslim and proudly neurodiverse in cultures that value the opposite, are left for dead at the dominant intersections of said cultures. We are repeatedly reminded that we were not built to survive, that we are unlovable and unworthy by every seemingly significant metric.
When I was recovering from hospitalisation as a teenager, my father, a man I had up until then respected, called me a slave. In the many years since that incident, I wondered what would compel a grown man — and a scientist at that — to call his own disabled teenage son a slave. I understood then that bondage, in this instance at least, was in the eye of the beholder. My father saw me as chattel; I saw myself as the freest human being alive. I came out a few years later and stopped speaking to my father for decades. He didn't realise that the moment he had called me a slave had radicalised me in ways that were impossible to mention.
In the years since that harrowing incident, I have zeroed in on the experiences of queer African immigrants who had been altogether erased from the narratives of their own lives. Forget marginalisation, these were human beings who had been gaslit into thinking that they didn't exist. In the academic essays and journals filed by scholars whose experiences could not be further from the realities of these lives, such narratives as mine are forensically examined, which means that we, the queer African immigrants in question, once again become disembodied spectators to the dazzle of our own desires and dreams. We become overly labelled specimens to be gazed at again and again behind the glass displays of the academy.
So why still do it, you ask? Why try to centre the lives of queer African immigrants in my cultural output? Why not take a leaf out of my younger brothers' Disney-drunk brains and write about the Emmas and Katies and Crispins of this world, instead of the Migils and Fahmas and Ahdias like I have done in my latest book, The Butterfly Jungle?
I love my life. I love the extravagant dynamism of my imagination and the imaginations of my beloved LGBTQ+ community. An important aspect of this love is to remind my inherited siblings from across the African continent and beyond that we are magnificent and flawed and fabulous and fucking human. These stories, these images, this life, is a map that says, 'This is how far I have come. I suspect you can go further.'
Keep going further, beloved reader.
Keep going further.
DIRIYE OSMAN'S new book, The Butterfly Jungle, is out now and can be ordered via these global retailers: https://bit.ly/3L9SLR4
Song of the moment: 'Strength, Courage and Wisdom' by INDIA.ARIE.