Ladan Osman is the author of Exiles of Eden (2019) and The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (2015), winner of the Sillerman Prize. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals, and several documentary film projects are forthcoming in 2020. She lives in Brooklyn.
Name: Ladan Osman
Occupation/Role: Writer and filmmaker
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
It seemed like a zany plan but all I ever wanted to do was write. I didn’t know a better way to communicate with others except by taking my time with words, ideas, and images. This was challenging growing up because I hardly saw any Somali people represented in literature. My goals have modified to expand my practice so I can create more accessible storytelling and be of assistance to emerging artists.
Who were your biggest role models growing up?
I looked to my mother for courage and encouragement. I didn’t have much mentorship and being the eldest daughter can be so isolating, but I invented role models. I imagined people like Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton (as well as the people they wrote about) were my friends.
What is one thing that you would like to tell your younger self?
So many things! Mainly that she’ll be granted mercy and be granted the power to keep herself safe as an adult. I would want to tell her that, then hug her and praise her eccentricities.
What was a life-changing moment you experienced that shaped you into the woman that you are today?
As a teen, my family ended up homeless after a property manager violated the contract and held onto the deposit. During that confusing and seething period in my life, I realized that words have so much power and that much of capability is hidden in paperwork. I also learned that justice isn’t straightforward, that compassion for others and the self is mandatory for a sensitive life. I knew who I wanted to be but this experience solidified my desire to free myself from vigilance. To be so ready for my life that no one could come for my stability. It also offered some protection from the poor fortune of classism/elitism.
What made you pursue your current career?
I say this all the time but as a fourth-grader, I read Maya Angelou’s poem “When I Think About Myself” and needed to learn how to put this much living, this much yearning on a page. From then on, I would imagine my own books on the shelf when I visited the library.
What is a typical day like for you?
It depends on which project I’m pursuing and at which stage. If I am researching and gearing up to write, it looks like reading, daydreaming, long walks, and visiting art spaces. While drafting, I need four-hour blocks to write, so that’s me hunched over a desk until evening, often forgetting lunch. While editing, I like to be more social, take more meetings, and complete tasks at cafes or museums. For film projects, it’s super collaborative: talking a whole lot, morning ‘til night in focused tasks at various locations, then staring at footage at night. While editing, it’s repetitive viewing, also hunched over a desk forgetting lunch, surrounded by hard drives. When I focus on photography, I feel the freest. I walk, listen, make eye contact, enter a world of invitations and disinvitations. That work is a mix of socializing and remaining private in public.
What has been the biggest obstacle in your professional life so far and how did you manage to overcome it?
First, I’ll say I’ve had a lot of support and good luck. But the biggest obstacle I’ve encountered is the psychic and social illness of scarcity. Making art can be lonely but even lonelier is this weird sense of competition when we’re each so specific, each on our own paths. It’s also a tricky balance between emerging and arriving. I may have received more celebration than actively being “put on” by peers and gatekeepers. Sexist, racist, and xenophobic systems would like us to be grateful for little, for our top to be someone else’s bottom. I try to maintain my sense of discipline and rely on my faith. This world is certainly one of glitter and posturing. If I say I want something, I explore why I want it and how I can use it to be of service. Any good fortune I receive is to share with others so that has to inform my drive, not how well other people receive me or my writing. If I win something from this world, I have to make sure I’m in decent company, that I can still face myself every day. This may not make me a “winner” but I will have won.
Which Somali woman inspires you and why?
Just one?! Nadifa Mohamed is such an incredible writer and thinker. Besides her prose, I could read her thoughts on history and descriptions of her research “rabbit holes” all day. She’s also very warm, not operating from a place of being the “only Somali.” She must have all her flowers.
What advice would you give to a person pursuing your chosen career?
Read and think and create in a way that necessarily evolves you, even if it has to drag you forward. Don’t look for someone else to do it for you. If something is missing from the archive, make it and never let anyone tell you it’s impossible, that you’re not welcome. Walk with fear and know that you command it. Cultivate a process that nourishes you and protects you from a desire for things given to you by other humans. This way, you can protect your craft and your heart. The readers and viewers are always there, your blessings are always going to find you. If you operate based on your own definitions of success, you can enjoy the gifts the work gives to you while still recognizing yourself.
How would you like people to remember you?
This is an unexpectedly emotional question! I would like people to remember me as a friend to art and underrepresented artist. Also, as a kind of magician for making space for myself where there was none.