“In those sticky summer nights in South London our windows stay open and our tiny apartment becomes our secret garden. The magic of the secret garden is that it exists in our imagination. There are no limits, no borderlines. The secret garden leads to the marigolds of Mogadishu and the magnolias of Kingston and when the heat turns us sticky and sweet and unwilling to be claimed by defeat we own the night. We own our bodies. We own our lives.”
― Diriye Osman,
Fairytales for Lost Children tries to fill what is a huge gap in African literature, namely the presence of openly queer writers and fictional stories about queer people. It’s a very necessary book as it counters this erasure and the silencing of their lived experiences.
On our continent, there are still around 31 countries where any forms of love, sex and marriage apart from heterosexuality is illegal. People found in contravention of the law may be punished with fines, whipping, incarceration and in some cases – death. Not to mention the stigma they face from society. So for many closeted people fiction is the only way for them to play, dream and hope for society and the law to change. Especially in this climate fiction is vital.
Osman possibly calls his stories, fairytales because like traditional fairytales despite the characters’ trials and tribulations, despite the danger and psychological damage, there is a new equilibrium reached at the end. As well as some small piece of happiness.
“As a gay man I had to learn in a bittersweet way that I can choose my family, that certain people have come into my life who share a genuine sense of affinity with me.” ― Diriye Osman, “
Osman with his interconnected stories of desire, cruising for sex, émigrés in hiding and budding artists takes us through the lives of young Africans. They are part-Somalian, part-British and part-Kenyan. They struggle with identity and where they are from, where they stand now and where they are going. He really captures the precarious nature of immigrant life. The constant creeping feeling of unease.
“The cops weren’t cruel. They gave options: ‘Kipanda’, ‘Kitu kidogo’ or ‘Kakuma.’ Most folks didn’t have kipandas to live in Kenya so they paid kitu kidogo. Kakuma wasn’t an option.” ― Diriye Osman,
When his characters live their truth, problems occur as gender norms and their sexual orientation clash with tradition, family expectations and Islam. Most of the characters are Muslim and the idea of “the good Muslim” is a very narrow one that these “lost children” don’t fit in at all. There is Ndambi whose sister calls her “haram” and “sinful”. Zeytun, another character navigates her relationship with her girlfriend through a storm of schizophrenic episodes and abandonment by her family. And there is also Cat Power, a trans woman who is harassed at work.
I love the way he doesn’t shy away from the mechanics of gay sex, something that writers sometimes glide over, seemingly out of unnecessary embarrassment. Osman, describes it fully and with great erotic style, which I’ll leave you dear, reader to discover for yourself.
He has really put his heart and soul into the book. The story, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You” gets its title from a famous quote by Audre Lorde* and is his own painful story of rejection by his parents after coming out.
Though well-meaning but the book’s themes are handled in quite a heavy-handed way and the plotting is quite obvious. After reading the first couple of stories, the set-up feels repetitive. The dialogue’s stiff too; it reads like a first draft.
But I’d love to see what Osman comes up with in coming years. There certainly is some talent here. He manages to take some extremely dark subject matter but inject the interactions in the book with enough humour to make you smile in between the heartbreak. The Arabic calligraphy fused with dreamlike illustrations is beautiful. Here’s hoping his next offering is a graphic novel. And finally, his greatest strength is the bravery to write these stories at all. Fairytales for Lost Children will certainly be some sort of home for the lost children out in the world.
“I’ve always loved being gay. Sure, Kenya was not exactly Queer Nation but my sexuality gave me joy. I was young, not so dumb and full of cum! There was no place for me in heaven but I was content munching devil’s pie here on earth.”
― Diriye Osman,
*Editor’s Notes: The full Audre Lorde quote: My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”― Audre Lorde,