Diriye Osman | F is for Fairytales

Diriye Osman is a short story writer and illustrator bringing much needed power, panache and pretty to the genre. His first collection of short stories Fairytales For Lost Children traces the lives of gay and lesbian Somalis living in London, Nairobi and Somalia. The book will be published in the UK, Europe and North America in September 2013.



Portrait of Diriye Osman. Photo | Boris Mitkov.

Portrait of Diriye Osman. Photo | Boris Mitkov.


In one of our many conversations preceding this interview, he described the crafting of the short story as the art of constructing miniatures: ‘if a novel is a grand mansion then a short story is an intricately constructed doll house’. It is no mere coincidence that these words bring to mind Steven Millhauser’s short story In the Reign of Harad IV. Osman takes on the role of the miniaturist in the king’s court, the wielder of the special craft, allowing him to etch out every word with an almost obsessive detail.

The same applies to his illustrations which usually feature female heroines, adorned in intricate lines, decadent and colourful, reminiscent of the Art Nouveau masters of the past. The Austrian artist Gustav Klimt is hinted at but his work finds an uncanny kinship in Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, a brilliant Scottish artist also of the Art Nouveau period. He however goes a step further, and incorporates Arabic calligraphy and Hebrew in a manner reminiscent of William S. Burroughs. It is this amalgamation and perfection of a range of different art forms that not only marks Osman’s work but also challenges his audience. In the words of Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, ‘My excitement over Osman and his writing comes, in part, out of delight at the impossibility of categorisation. Where would you shelve him in the bookstore?’

I caught up with Osman in London to discuss Fairytales for Lost Children.

Elmi Ali | Diriye, so when did you start writing and why?

Diriye Osman | I started writing when I was nineteen years old. I had actually written two novels before Fairytales For Lost Children but they were such a shambolic mess that I dumped them. I was trying to locate my voice – both thematically and linguistically – and both those novels didn’t cut the cake. So I buried them but kept on writing. My creative breakthrough as a writer came at the same time as I was coming to terms with my sexual identity. I can’t do justice to just how visceral and dangerous and exciting it was to start writing gay stories. My first short story was called ‘Looking Back The Way We Had Come’ and I’m so glad I wrote that piece. It was galvanizing in a way that is hard to articulate. Naturally, of course, it got cut in the end. Sod’s Law and such.


EA | So why short stories?

DO | For me the short story is the ultimate literary form. It’s incredibly challenging to write but when you’ve written a great story you feel an intense sense of accomplishment. If the novel is a grand mansion with too many interlocking rooms then the short story is a doll house: exquisitely crafted with every microscopic detail in place. It’s perfect for me.


EA | Are there any other writers that you feel have influenced your writing?

DO | I enjoy reading a great deal of short fiction but I can’t say that any particular writer has been a direct influence on my style and vision. For example, I love reading Lorrie Moore, ZZ Packer and David Sedaris, but I couldn’t say that they were a direct influence on my work. The way I work is very slow (a short story of mine usually takes four to six months) but within that time I’m letting the sentences simmer in my mind, I’m letting the characters take form and I then very slowly jot them down. I read a lot but I’m not particularly influenced by other writers.


EA | How much of your work is based on personal experience?

DO | Fairytales For Lost Children is my debut and I really stuck to that age-old axiom of ‘write what you know’.  So I would take bits of autobiographical experiences and bend them until they formed into fiction. For example, I really did go to a kindergarten called ‘Pine Tree’ in Nairobi when I was ten years old. This was not because I was irredeemably daft but because I was new to the country and I had to learn English pronto. There really were baboons living in the trees near ‘Pine Tree Kindergarten’ but they never attacked us at school. Instead they took the piss out of my beloved but hard-faced grandmother and me whenever she would pick me up from school. I say my grandmother was hard-faced because the baboons would fling berries at us and she would grab rocks and stones and dash them with it. We would then both take off, cackling with glee. In conclusion, the stories are rooted in reality but I have taken such liberties with them that they’ve become fictional.


EA | What role does music play in your writing and your creative process?

DO | Music is the biggest influence on my writing. Every story in Fairytales For Lost Children was written whilst jamming to some great ‘choon. The earlier stories like ‘Earthling’ were written whilst listening to Meshell Ndegeocello’s Comfort Woman. Stories like ‘Tell The Sun Not To Shine’ were written whilst listening to Lizz Wright’s Dreaming Wide Awake. The sexier stories like ‘Ndambi’ and ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ were inspired by the kinetic heat of Maysa’s Sweet Classic Soul and D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (I know this will sound like sacrilege to most D’Angelo fans but I think Brown Sugar is an infinitely sexier, more satisfying album than Voodoo. I’m just sayin’). There are other artists who’ve been wonderfully inspiring: A Tribe Called Quest, Cassandra Wilson and Roxante Shante (Bad Sister never gets old).

Diriye Osman, The Godess Complex – Aquatic Arabesque


EA | You are also a formidable artist. Do you see any points of convergence between Diriye the visual artist and Diriye the writer?

DO | I was an artist before I became a writer so I tend to see my writing as an extension of that visual background. There has to be a well-plotted narrative, of course, but when it comes to metaphors, similes and descriptions I see things in a very vivid, imagistic way. It’s a convergence of different disciplines and interests whether it’s art, music or linguistics: one without the other makes little sense, to me at least.


EA | What difficulties did you face, if any, when writing Fairytales For Lost Children?

DO | There were, what Buchi Emecheta would have called, ‘a catalogue of disasters’ whilst writing Fairytales. No, I’m exaggerating! There were some hiccups, most of them health-related, but I got through them in the end and soldiered on. There were a few other challenges too but I’m not one for dwelling. That’s only because I find victimhood narratives limited in their scope in terms of what they offer the storyteller and the reader.


EA | You were born in Somalia and grew up in both Nairobi and London. How does this wealth of experience inform your work?

DO | My background of pure soap-operatic dysfunction has served me pretty well. Growing up in Somalia, Kenya and the UK has been great because I was always an outsider but I had access to a worldview and way of life that not many people are privy to. Lesson Number 1 For Writers (Courtesy of Nora Ephron): ‘Everything is copy’. And so it goes.


EA | What does the book Fairytales For Lost Children mean to you as a writer exploring gender politics?

DO | It’s too early to say what will become of this book but for me writing it was revelatory. I not only accepted my identity as a gay Somali man but the book made me incredibly proud of the fact. Writing Fairytales allowed me to expand my perceptions and see things with a clear-eyed vision. I hope that this book encourages other people – whether they’re gay, lesbian, polysexual, straight, Somali or Singaporean – to come forward and share their stories. I have a voice but I want to be part of a chorus of voices who are shaking things up.

Diriye Osman, Fairy Tales for Lost Children.Diriye Osman, Fairy Tales for Lost Children.


EA | As this work deals primarily with issues of sexuality and portrays Somali characters, how has it been received within the Somali community?

DO | Extremely positively, I would say. As Somalis, we don’t give ourselves enough credit and we are often our harshest critics. It’s a shame because as a community we’re inventive, smart and extremely forward thinking. But decades of dislocation and civil war have made us unsure of our place in the wider world. The key to dealing with these problems is by tackling them head-on, by refusing to allow ourselves to be ghettoized, by demanding excellence of ourselves, our children and our children’s children. Like Betty Wright said, ‘Use your wisdom/ no izm, no schism’.


EA | You’ve used not only Somali and Kiswahili words but your characters incorporate slang from both of these cultures with English slang. How important is getting the language right?

DO | Language is king. Every single word, every single cadence and rhythm has to feel right. There’s a story in the book called ‘If I Were A Dance’ and there were many passages where modern dance is being described. I really wanted to get across the impression that you, as the reader, were watching a dance and the only way to do that effectively is to deploy every linguistic trick in the book. For example, the opening paragraph of that story reads ‘Toes tightened into corkscrews. He fucked with his body’s limits, bending, flexing, until he broke through. Attitude and Arabesque became pop, lock, drop.’  So language is super-important. It has to be tick or tossed out.


EA | Lastly, could you let us in on what are you working on at the moment?

DO | At the moment I’m working on my second collection The Shape of Purity. It will be a few years in the making but I’m really excited about it. The book will focus on the lives of Somali women – straight, lesbian, transgender – as they deal with the dynamics of family, faith and freedom.  It will be set predominantly in Nairobi and London. It’s a really dramatic, powerful book so far but like I said, it will be a few years before I release it.



London Preview | Fairytales For Lost Children



Diriye Osman will be doing a preview reading and signing copies of Fairytales For Lost Children as part of the Royal African Society’s Africa Writes Festival.

The British Library
96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB
Saturday 6 July, 2013

The event is free.




Diriye Osman is a Somali-born, British short story writer and visual artist. His writing has appeared in ‘Time Out’, ‘Attitude’, ‘Prospect’, ‘Poetry Review’, ‘Kwani?’, ‘Jungle Jim’, ‘Under The Influence’ and ‘SCARF Magazine’. His debut collection of short stories ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’ is published by Team Angelica Press and will be available from September 2013.



Written by Elmi Ali.


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*The following interview is constructed from face to face conversations and questions posed via email.


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