Imagine if your cultural identity is wrapped up in being part of a Somalian Muslim large family which is not only patriarchal but also conservative. You are dispossessed of your country of origin and seek refuge in Kenya. In Kenya, you are not very welcome and constantly have to hide from the police. Finally you land up in London where you are more welcome but still not part of the mainstream. Add to this being gay, lesbian or trans and you are further on the periphery with nowhere to call home. Most of the stories in this collection describe a version of such lives.
Each one has a unique protagonist with a unique set of circumstances. A further dimension is added in that several of the protagonists also suffer from mental illness in the form of psychosis. In Your Silence Will Not Protect You, the voices in the protagonists head stop once he distances himself from his family. In Earthling, a cathartic moment helps Zaytun towards wholeness.
There is tenderness, anguish, pride, revenge and courage in abundance; all the emotions that exist in relationships are wonderfully portrayed. The writer does not shy away from describing sexual encounters very explicitly until the lust and tenderness and sweat virtually drips from the pages.
In one of my favourites, the title story, Fairytales for Lost Children, the boy is learning “Ingriis” living in Kenya. The school has a wonderful black teacher who subverts all the fairytales so they learn of Jomo and the Beanstalk and Kohl Black and the Seven Street Boys! so inventive. Sadly the teacher does not last long. This story ends a little in the air with the reader wondering if the worst really did happen.
At the beginning of each story there are beautiful drawings sometimes displaying the titles in Arabic. They do not illustrate the story so much as convey the mood and tone. Here is an example of one of them.
The language changes depending on the character, some use english slang, some are aggressive and macho, some reflective. A feature that seems prevalent in writers of African origin is a wonderful use of metaphor. In describing the effect of a tranquiliser, the protagonist says it dilutes the voices “until they were faint crackles: a transistor radio still picking up signals but at a low volume.” In, If I Were a Dance, Anas says of his ex-lover ‘if his ego were bottled a drop would poison a scorpion.” This story is heart-wrenching as Anas and Narciso dance out their relationship in front of an audience.
I often avoid short stories because I can get frustrated with their abrupt endings. In this collection, they seem sufficient unto themselves. Every story has something different to offer as each describes, in one way or another, how they have been displaced and outcast as much in terms of nationality as sexuality. It seems impossible to cast oneself away from the family and/or culture that is deeply loved and to find what truly embodies home. Nevertheless these stories show ways of doing just this.