Hibaq Osman is a Somali writer born and based in London. Her work largely centres around women, identity and the healing process with a focus on the often hidden, nuanced aspects of our experiences. Her debut poetry collection A Silence You Can Carry was published with Out-Spoken Press in 2015. Hibaq has self-published two online poetry pamphlets, the heart is a smashed bulb (2017) and CARVINGS in 2019. As a member of OCTAVIA poetry collective, she works towards a future where funding and access to the arts for all is the norm and not an exception. Hibaq Osman’s work was selected as part of the Jacaranda #Twentyin2020 initiative and she will be releasing her first full collection later this year.
Name: Hibaq Osman
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to be a writer or a publisher to be honest. As a child, I wasn’t sure how that could be possible or what I’d have to do to get there. The older I got, the more I thought writing would always have to be a hobby, so I decided to study Psychology to widen my chances at paying rent. What ended up happening instead was that studying therapy techniques made me lean into my writing more, and if anything, make it feel more valid than before.
Who were your biggest role models growing up?
My mother and sister were my only role models. I was always in awe at the ways they could hold entire families together and keep connected over continents, how they prioritized and ordered their lives around their loved ones. Particularly my sister for still being able to be fully herself despite cultural norms. I admired their resilience and their ability to adjust constantly to the things they were learning, correcting themselves when they were wrong but also holding onto who they were so fiercely.
What is one thing that you would like to tell your younger self?
I’d tell myself (very softly) that we never have as much time as we think. That life goes by very fast and that the goal is to keep moving forward, even if you feel like you are lagging behind. I’m a major over-thinker and I didn’t realize when I was younger that the longer I spent stressing about a choice, the less likely I was to act on what I wanted. I’ve lost a lot of opportunities this way and while I think it was ultimately all for the best, I wish I had a more positive outlook. Kids deserve to be happy.
What was a life-changing moment you experienced that shaped you into the woman that you are today?
I think I have a few. At a young age, I lost my older brother and he was someone who shaped so much of my personality and interests. So without a doubt, his passing changed me in ways I didn’t expect. Being a young teen dealing with grief is a very specific thing to overcome because you’re already dealing with some major life changes, all while trying to become your own person. You’re also coming to terms with new emotions and sensitivities so I think it was a lot to handle. Those years I spent coming to terms with that, and the ways I still deal with those memories as well as survivors guilt, have ultimately shaped a large part of my identity. On a more positive note, I’ve always wanted to write things that I think would make him proud as he was the one who pushed me to take on new challenges and believed in me the most.
Speaking of siblings, I think my younger siblings also shaped me as much as I have shaped them. I have an age difference of eight years with the oldest of the three, so there’s quite a gap between us all but sharing a space with them and growing with them has made me endlessly happy. I remember the days they were all born and the difference each one has made to my life from that exact minute to now. Children and young people will really change how you see so much of your life and your day-to-day being, I’m very lucky to be their older sister.
What made you pursue your current career?
I always read too much. I started reading and writing from a very early age and my mum used to tell me that I could go an entire day sitting down reading something if she didn’t come and break me out of it. I always wanted to create like the writers I’d read or the musicians I listened to. I remember actually on leavers day in primary school, I was going around the classes to get my t-shirt signed and one teacher who had never even taught me said: “Hibaq if you don’t become a lawyer or a writer I’m going to find you and sort you out!” which was hilarious to me at the time but I think in many ways being a poet or a writer was to be expected from me. Which is kinda cute to think about.
What is a typical day like for you?
Recently I’ve sorted out my chronic insomnia (hopefully for good) so my days are so different now which I’m proud of! I’m also working as a full-time freelancer for the first time in my life, so every day is different but generally: I’ll be up around 7am, do my bed, wash up, make a cup of tea or coffee and fill up my bottle of water. I go through my emails and sort out my inbox into various folders because I’m the type to accidentally sit on something for too long. I scroll through Twitter, mostly just to laugh but also for news. When I feel settled into the morning, I open my laptop and start writing. Recently I had a deadline for my upcoming poetry book and also a deadline for a play that I was writing for a course. So between 9am and 11/12pm I’d block out time to work on those. I’ll eat, take a music break and then get back to work until about 3pm. At that point, my siblings are making their way back from school so working will be a flop. I’m the type of person who works better in short bursts with planned breaks, I think it’s important to find out what works for you and stick to it.
If I have errands I’ll run those, usually while scheduling any upcoming deadlines or meetings I need to be aware of. My emails and calendar are very messy so often this takes longer than expected. If it’s a social week, I’ll see friends in the evening or attend events but usually I’m very much a homebody. I’ll read a little, download some albums or binge some YouTube videos. In January I’ve been both a hermit and a social butterfly to the point of exhaustion, so I’m working on getting the balance right and not always dealing in extremes. It’s not very exciting but that’s life for now.
What has been the biggest obstacle in your professional life so far and how did you manage to overcome it?
I think because I started sharing my work online as a teen, and started readings at around 17, the hardest thing I’ve had to cope with is how other people want to present me and profit off of that presentation. At 17, I took part in the Roundhouse Poetry Slam and surprisingly won it. It was the first major slam I’d done and I was thrilled to even get through the first heat, let alone win first place. This was the summer just before I started university and immediately I was thrown headfirst into this world I didn’t know too well. I was super lucky to make amazing friends who are still a part of my everyday life and I wouldn’t change the experience. However, it was difficult to go from this girl nobody knew to someone who was getting booked 3-4 times a week, and not all of them in venues or with people I was comfortable with. A lot of my work is personal, but back then especially it was all these raw emotions and things I was only processing through writing. It took me a while to realize, but I did at some point gather that so many people were invested in me reliving my trauma for their entertainment. Making the decision to stop sharing my work for a little while, to stop allowing people to promote me in a specific way was the hardest choice I had to make. It was absolutely the right decision but I could tell people around me were upset for not chasing the bag as hard as I could. That’s when I had the idea for ‘the heart is a smashed bulb’ because I wanted to release work on my own terms and for it to be packaged how I wanted.
Which Somali woman inspires you and why?
It might be a bit of a cliché answer but pretty much every Somali woman inspires me. The aunties in my area who helped raise me, my family, my best friends, all the other Somali women poets I know and the ones I don’t. The women I meet through work, the countless women I will never meet but I know live with that same tenacity and courage. Recently, I find myself very inspired by young Somali women who are doing great things in the modelling, music, sport and media industries. It’s lovely to just see them all over my social media and balancing all that they do so openly. I love us so much, I really do. I don’t think anyone compares.
What advice would you give to a person pursuing your chosen career?
The best advice I can give is that you can always cultivate your own community within a community. I’ve been very lucky to be raised in a city where so many spaces for arts exist, even with the drastic cuts to funding, I feel blessed to be able to work in places where everybody wants to do ‘the next big thing’ and I find that inspiring but ultimately, I would have always felt lonely if I didn’t create my own spaces, or be invited to already existing ones. There are spaces within spaces and circles within circles and sometimes you just have to take a step inside. I’m grateful to OCTAVIA poetry collective for always keeping me inspired, levelheaded and providing a space to give and receive love. In short: you can’t and shouldn’t do it alone.
How would you like people to remember you?
I’d like to be remembered as a loving friend.