Interviewed by Diriye Osman | With thanks to BlackLooks
Wednesday, January 23, 2013.
You are Somali by heritage and born in Kenya. I don’t want to presume your identity is Kenyan/Somali or Somali/Kenyan. Through which lens do you see yourself and what do these heritages mean in the context of a Black man living in London in 2013? Do they have relevance to you and to how others see you?
Actually, I was born in Somalia. When the civil war broke out in Mogadishu, my family moved to Kenya. I have never considered myself a Somali/ Kenyan even though I spent my pre-teens to my late teens living in Nairobi. The reason for that is that when I was growing up in Kenya in the nineties, there was a real xenophobic reaction to Somalis in the country. It didn’t matter whether you were born there or whether you had moved there as an immigrant. There was a real, visceral contempt for Somalis in Kenya and even though I haven’t visited since I left, that feeling of not being wanted, of being reminded that you’re not wanted has always stayed with me. So I cannot claim Kenya as part of my identity although it has certainly inspired a great number of short stories (I think particularly of ‘Shoga’ and ‘Earthling’ as well as the title story of the collection, ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’).
I moved to London when I was seventeen and I love the city and all it’s beautiful complexities. I instantly felt more at home in London because it was the first time I had been to a gay bar, it was the first time I had experienced love in it’s purest form. London is also the place where I truly came of age. It was here that I discovered crucial facets of my identity, whether it was my sexuality or my relationship with the world outside of my own community, which is to say my family. So if anything I consider myself a Somali-born, British writer and artist. It took me a while to own this identity and I’m proud of it.
Some years ago you came out to your family. How difficult was that and what have been the repercussions? Any regrets?
It was really difficult because I was very close to my family. I come from a large family – eleven siblings – and so, of course, not everybody is going to get along. But I was always the one who listened to everyone’s grievances and cracked jokes along the way. I was shown a great of love and support and I felt cosseted by that. But at the same time I was also very self-protective. Sexuality, let alone homosexuality, is a huge taboo in Somali culture. There’s a fifties-style undercurrent of piety that’s always been underlined and I respect that. But where does that leave someone like me who is gay? I had no intention of being ‘a confirmed bachelor’. I fell in love and in doing so encountered a world and sensibility that had always been closed off to me. When I came out, the love and the support from my family was retracted. This broke my heart and it pained me to see people who were blood relatives (my father, my siblings) reject me in such a cruel way. I remember speaking to a gay support worker and he told me at the time that my pain would subside in two years. At the time, I laughed at this through tears, but he was right. By the end of two years the trauma had subsided and I was able to function. What made that transition possible was a wonderful coterie of friends and colleagues who helped me open myself up to the world. Not many people are as lucky as I was though. I read horror stories from across the globe of young men and women, most of them teenagers, taking their own lives because they have no one to turn to. This book is called ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’ for a reason. It’s for every man, woman and child who happens to be gay to learn to place value on their own lives. If I can do it, with every possible odd stacked against me, then you can do it too.
As an out Somali do you feel any responsibility to other young or old Somali queer / gay / lesbian? Put another way how did the Somali queer community respond to your coming out?
I feel a sense of responsibility not only to the Somali gay, lesbian and trans community but also to the global queer community. I really believe in Chinua Achebe’s assertion that a writer is a citizen of the world and must create narratives that reflect this. I apply this rule only to myself though because I feel that all artists must essentially express their own truth. The way I try to honor this impulse is to take the political and transform it into the deeply personal. The Somali queer community has always been wonderfully supportive. The gay and lesbian Somalis I have met are some of the brightest, most humane people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
Your genre so to speak is the short story. What was your first story and how did it come about? Did you know then you were a writer or was this something you chose after writing that first story?
My first story was a piece called ‘Looking Back The Way We Had Come’. The story was about a young Somali immigrant in London who, two days after arriving in the city, decides to visit a gay nightclub in Soho. Although later pieces were much more confident, the memory of that story is always the sweetest because I came to terms with my sexual identity whilst writing it. It was also the first story that convinced me that I could seriously become a writer. Everything before then had felt like an apprenticeship.
Why the short story?
I love the short story because to me it’s infinitely more satisfying than writing poetry or a novel. Lorrie Moore, who’s one of my favorite writers, once said that if the novel is a marriage then the short story is a satisfying weekend with a stranger. There are no shortcuts in short fiction – you get in, lay down your arms and get out. I like directness and that’s part of why the form appeals to me.
Your stories are concentrated in limited scenes. The focus is on the characters and dialogue. You set the scene then leave it alone to focus on the story. I like this style: there are no distractions. Is this a conscious decision or does it just happen that way?
It’s very much a conscious decision. I like exactitude and this is one of the major appeals of writing short stories. You set the scene and let the characters do their thing. I liken it to a bebop jam session where every individual plays off each other in an improvised but precise way. The characters dictate their own terms and if you try to pin them down too much, the whole narrative ends up feeling contrived. That’s why I write in small spurts. Sometimes I’ll spend weeks thinking about a particular scene before I actually write it down just so that I can get a sense of each character and how they would behave. ‘Earthling’, for example, took me six months to write, as did ‘Shoga’ for completely different reasons. With ‘Earthling’ it was a case of paring back. It’s one of the few stories that doesn’t have a stylized flow. It was 100% about the story whereas with ‘Shoga’ I had to get into a jazz poetic rhythm but with a very specific emphasis on Sheng (Kenyan slang), which has a musicality of it’s own. I think that particular style is taken to it’s end point in ‘If I Were A Dance’, which is about making each sentence dance on the page. That story was a challenge (how do you describe dancing in a sexy, accurate way?). It made me believe that anything can happen on the page, which is the thrill that short fiction gives me.
I notice three common themes in your work: mental illness, betrayals and non-conformity. I see so many connections in these three themes and I do know from our previous conversations that mental illness is something that interests you. My own thoughts on this are that it is quite insane to live without some deep questioning of why we are here not to talk of the structures of control and obscene violence. Is this the madness people fear?
Whenever I think of the term ‘betrayal’ I remember watching awful American soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful where the term was bandied out in practically every episode! But I see what you mean. Yes, those themes were important during the writing of this book because my own life at the time felt very soap-operatic which fed into the fiction. Mental illness has been a large part of my experience because I suffer from bipolar disorder. Part of the appeal of writing the book was that it kept me afloat during many crisis points and manic episodes. In that sense a lot of the difficulties that some of the characters face, health-wise, were fictionalized accounts of my own battles with mental health issues. I really did contemplate suicide like Zeytun’s character does in ‘Earthling’; I really did see a less heightened version of mental hospitals like the one Cat Power works at in ‘Pavilion’. And of course, the themes of mental illness, betrayal and non-conformity are heavily intertwined with issues about family, immigration, painful relationships, beautiful relationships, and the exquisite yet perilous nature of childhood – all these tropes bleed into one another. I like the idea of the short story being a form that’s just as serious about social issues as the novel.
Where do you find your characters?
I would say that every character is a mashup of real and imagined people. For example, the lead character in Earthling is a young woman who has long, startlingly white hair. Her experience of mental illness mirrors my own, whereas her relationship with her girlfriend is inspired by the kind of loving lesbian partnerships I’ve come across over the years. Her long, white hair is inspired by the film director, Jane Campion’s mane. Another example is the character of Cat Power in ‘Pavilion’. I first discovered the music of Cat Power in 2006 through her album The Greatest. I was completely riveted by the music but also by the fragility of the singer. I have always loved animation and dance (particularly the work of Alvin Ailey’s company). I kept seeing this image of a gorgeous animated short in my head where a beautiful Somali transvestite danced to Cat Power’s The Greatest. Of course, I’m not a filmmaker but I really wanted to tell the story of a feisty drag queen who chose the name Cat Power because the music had such symbolic meaning for her. It was only until I watched Easy A in 2011, the quip-filled comedy where Emma Stone presents herself as a latter day Hester Prynne from The Scarlett Letter, that the whole story came together. I literally wrote ‘Pavilion’ in two weeks, which never happens to me! So characters come from really strange places before they appear on the page.
Who were some of your first authors that influenced you? Who do you read now? Have there been changes in your choice?
There have definitely been changes. When I started out I was reading Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Manil Suri. And then I discovered Nuruddin Farah whose work opened me up to the complex ways in which Somali characters can be presented in literature. I was also heavily into Nigerian and Ghanaian writers like Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua, Chimamanda Adichie, Soyinka. I haven’t traveled for nearly twelve years and so my mind has had to do the traveling. I love Alison Bechdel, K. Sello Duiker, David Sedaris, Janet Malcolm, ZZ Packer. My taste in writers is constantly shifting. Right now I’m really into Grace Paley, who was this genius American short story writer. Every line in her stories has the liquid flow of a well-timed zinger. She’s wonderful.
There is a growing community of writers from Africa and the Diaspora on Twitter. I note you don’t tweet. Any particular reason?
It’s because social networking is addictive and there’s so much to be getting on with. It really is that banal.
What are your thoughts on social media and writing and the internet and the fact that it has allowed so many of us to write who previously would not have had an outlet at least not one with the potential to reach millions of readers?
I think it’s a wonderful thing. As writers the greatest thing we can hope for is to find a readership and the internet has democratized the process of getting the work out there and finding an audience for it. I think it’s healthy because it allows for a much more diverse array of voices to come to the fore.
What are you working on now?
I’m not working on anything at the moment. I love the freedom of not having a project on the horizon and it will probably be that way for a while.
We have talked about Diriye the writer but you are also an artist. Can you talk about your artwork and how it connects with your writing?
Well, usually I do lavish paintings and drawings. They require the same level of focus and precision that a short story needs in order to work. So they’re connected in that way. Painting is a language – a visual one – but a language nevertheless. That’s where both mediums – writing and art – meet: through language. If you look at my paintings they stand alone as aesthetic works but as a writer I like to contextualize the symbolism behind the art through essays, so that’s part of my visual practice. For me, painting is a way of trying to order the world, a way of trying to make sense of my interior landscape. It’s about turning destructive emotions like anger, hatred and mania into something beautiful, transformative even. In the book, there are black and white illustrations preceding each story. These illustrations have the feel of tattoo designs complete with Arabic calligraphy. I like the magpie nature of being an artist.
Lastly could you talk a little about what I call performance photography?
Bjork said something very beautiful once about how she felt the photographs that she commissioned of herself were an extension of her musical expression. I like coming up with outlandish concepts and approaching photographer friends and saying let’s go for this. In my daily life I’m so low-key that the concept of makeup doesn’t even enter the equation. You’ll find me wearing a frumpy T-shirt and tatty shoes as I dash to my local corner store. But when I’m in front of a camera I like to loosen up and play dark, sensual roles that riff on my sexuality. We’re often told as men that masculinity is the only natural mode but I reject that. You can be whoever you want to be. As long as you look tight, it’s alright!