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I have spent my whole life living near the coast of Bosaaso, Somalia. I don’t know any other land. While the boat beat, those who are hungry for new homes in places like London and Luxembourg, risk their lives on cargo ships, I stand firm on this soil and I tell stories. I tell stories to my daughters about kinds and warrior queens, freedom-fighters and poets. I tell these stories to remind my children and myself that Somalia is fertile with history and myth. And the only seed that needs watering in our imagination.
Diriye Osman begins this hauntingly didactic collection of Somali fairytales with this quote, launching the book into a quiet landscape: here the backdrop of displacement is ripe with revolutionary storytellers, dropping seeds into the young, tilling their fertile legacies. A series of poetic vignettes that utilize personal history, national trauma, vernacular, and linguistic sound patterning as texture, this book weaves together personal narratives of queer refugees—from the mother of the lesbian Somali daughter who casts her dreams into the ocean on paper and bits of rock, to the trans woman nurse in the psych ward who manipulates the medical industrial system to her own safety, to the desperate drag queen femme boy who slides on those first silk stockings, this book follows them all. In “Ndambi”, the protagonist is a lesbian-identified Muslim who lives in the shadow of her traumatic break up, summoning her ex-partner in the bedroom, calling to her in her dreams, and reliving her memory daily. She even goes so far as to fabricate their lives together to her sister:
“And how about–?” She pauses, expecting me to finish her sentence. I let the silence drag until I can hear her shallow breathing through the receiver.
“Adrienne?” I finally say with a smile. “She’s great. She’s so sweet and gentle and” –I sigh for a blissed-out effect – “giving. She makes me feel like I’m the centre of the earth, like nothing else matters. Alhamdulilah!”
Though the protagonist has been separated from Adrienne for some time, the narrative centers in this untruth because there is an even more harrowing underlying possibility between the lines; that perhaps there is something far worse than being a gay Muslim—being a gay, single Muslim. In another story in the book, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You”, the opposite narrative is enforced. This story, which features a protagonist whose name will not be lost on the reader (Diriye), delves into the personal coming out story of a young Somali man. Battling mental illness, isolation, and inner turmoil, Diriye finally comes out to his older sister, who is supportive until he finds a boyfriend. As soon as he begins a life as a publically gay man, his entire family revolts, turns on him, and disowns him.
The underlying message inherent in these stories is a grim one: some Muslim queers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Even in the narratives of queer childhoods, the Sapphic or gay children in question come to largely unhappy ends: falling to a gruesome death from a large tree, punishment, or banishment. In the title story, “Fairytales for Lost Children”, a young boy regularly asks his pregnant mother when they may return to Somalia:
“When’re we heading home?”
“Soon,” she’d sigh, “Soon.”
“You said that yesterday.”
“It’s up to God, son.”
“Maybe God doesn’t know best.”
She slapped me for blaspheming but I wouldn’t let it go: “God is punishing our people.”
Hooyo pulled me close. “No, son, we’re punishing each other.”
Fairytales for Lost Children is a must-read for anyone, displaced or not, who has suffered the blessing and curse of coming out as queer in a world not ready to receive it. Texturally beautiful and tonally gorgeous, Osman has created a dark world of language and culture that every lost child can find themselves in.
Fairytales for Lost Children
By Diriye Osman
Team Angelica Press
Paperback, 9780956971944, 156 pp.