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Book review: Fairytales for Lost Children, by Diriye Osman


Diriye Osman was born in Somalia and raised in Nairobi and London. His debut collection of short stories mirrors his own migration in its exploration of exiled Somalis. At a time when homosexuality is still illegal in most of Africa, and barely features in contemporary African fiction, this book is a welcome surprise. In sensual, erotic, explicit stories, Osman writes about young gay Somalis whose identities are shaped as much by their sexualities as their cultural origins.

In "Tell the Sun not to Shine", a young Muslim goes to pray at Peckham Mosque and recognises the imam, now with a wife and child, as Libaan, the fellow Somali teenager who was his lover years earlier in Nairobi. "Shoga" is set in Nairobi, where another Somali teenager tells us, "I was 17 and I specialised in two things: weed and sex." He becomes lovers with his grandmother's servant, a refugee from Burundi. When his grandmother finds out, she sacks the servant and cuts off her grandson: "We became two strangers bound by blood and bad history."

Loss of homeland and family permeates these stories. In one of the most moving pieces, "Your Silence Will Not Protect You", which actually feels more essayistic than fictional, Osman's young protagonist struggles with mental health issues and with coming out to his large, conservative family. When he finally does, their reaction is so bad he fears for his life. Yet the voices he has heard in his head, "shouting homophobic slurs", stop.

Osman is a courageous writer but he is also an original one. His language is peppered with Somali words and crafted with all the concision and riches of poetry. In "If I Were a Dance", two lovers work out their relationship through dance. The writing here is delicious: "Bwoy had moves. Toes tightened into corkscrews. He f***** with his body's limits, bending, flexing until he broke through. Attitude and Arabesque become pop, lock, drop. No sweat. Such control is dangerous. I know this dance. It is ours." At a time when African writing is on the rise, Osman stands above the crowd.

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