Ladan Osman

Somali American

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Words and Inspirations with Ladan Osman:

about the author

Ladan Osman is a Somali American poet and teacher. Her poetry is centered on her Somali and Muslim heritage, and has been published in a number of prominent literary magazines. In 2014, she was awarded the annual Sillerman First Book Prize for her collection The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony. Osman’s poetry is shaped by her Somali and Islamic heritage. Fellow Somali author Nuruddin Farah serves as among her main artistic influences. She also cites verse by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, as well as the American poets Sherman Alexie, Gwendolyn Brooks and Li-Young Lee as additional inspirations.

The Reading from the Author

Resources & Discussion

Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing.


Read The Key:

what about this job, that one, those people, did they call? And my father said, everyone says no. I see all the doors but none of them will open. My mother said, maybe we just haven’t found the right key, I’ll go look for it. They laughed for a long time. Their toes looked at each other. Maybe they forgot the bag of keys in the crooked-mouth dresser. I lined up the keys on a windowsill, metal on metal on my fingers until they smelled like missing teeth. I looked at the best one: large cursive F, a scarlet ribbon tied to it. It had two teeth, like my baby sister. I tried the little door behind the community center. Then the big-kids door at my school. The shed of a house with a backyard so large the family could never see me. I got grass and sand and an ignorant pebble in my shoe. Dust climbed up my pants so I could spit-spell my name on my leg when resting. I went back to our neighborhood. There was a black cloud over it while the nice neighborhood down the hill shone. A girl said our house was darkest and the first raindrops fell on it because we’re all going to hell. When I told my father he said it was “isolated” or “separated” storms. So it was true we were set apart for a punishment. The next day dozens of dead flying ants covered our patio. I took all the keys and tried all the doors in the abandoned mall. One unlocked. It was a room with white walls, floor, ceiling. White squares of wood flat or leaning in every corner. The door closed behind me and no key would work. Maybe the room would swallow me and I’d get invisible if I didn’t stop screaming but then a surprised guy, white, wearing white, opened the door. I wanted to try one more time but my keys disappeared and everyone said they were never real.

Discussion Questions:

Keys are often used as metaphors. They are important symbols for many cultures. For example, Palestinian refugees often own the key to the houses they had to flee in Israel whether in 1948 or 1967. They took their keys with them in the belief that their return was imminent. Seventy years have passed, and their numbers have multiplied to around five million in Palestine, the Middle East, and beyond. The keys have been passed on from generation to generation as a keepsake—as a memory of their lost homes and as lasting symbols of their desired “right of return.”

How does Ladan Osmun use the key? Underline or highlight all mentions of keys in Osmun’s piece. Where has she used figurative language effectively? How does Osmun use keys to represent and unite her family members? What else is the family united by? Halfway through “The Key,”  the narrator leaves her family and moves out into the neighborhood and the world. What happens?Do you think this is real or a dream? What is real? What is figurative? What is the situation the narrator and her family find themselves in? Why do you think this is?

Now You Try

Write about a frustrating moment or time in your life. A moment that was not resolved. Use as much figurative language as you can. Write in poetry or prose.

Student Model


By Darby

Copycat, copycat, like a Xerox for personality. All of personality, too: the metaphors, the malaphors, the analogies, inside jokes, the hyperboles, the irrationality and then secrets.

Oh, the secrets.

It’s as though when I take a drag the smoke infects your lungs too, your heart beating a step behind me, the nicotine making my blood silver and turning yours to black.

You were already black on the inside, though. Whatever plant had grown inside you– that queer, delicate thing my mother used to call the soul and yours, according to you, did as well– died.

Whatever, as you would say, whatever that plant had once been had decayed into decadence with your lavish spending, trying to match petroleum to wine, turn your lead into my gold. Fungi grew in its place, toadstools that never grew to maturity but instead molted, shedding their skin, copping their glamour from the perfection of my own still-intact chrysanthemum. My marrow can withstand your teratogens, your carcinogens, your continuous assaults.

And now this, the party where the punch was diluted with blood.

You see, walking one step behind means you can’t see what’s ahead, means you can’t know what I know. Because there’s something you don’t know, no matter how much your mushrooms insist otherwise. You know what that is?

You’ve been un-in-vi-ted.

Waltz in right behind me, greet my friends as if you know them, take shots from my cup, say Arsenal is your favorite team because of the small badge you bought as a counterfeit to mine. Fine, fine.

Try and play along, try and push the buttons on my back.

You float as a gestalt of the poison rain, frozen fire, buckshot pellets and that whole bottle of lithium you took for my bipolarity. No, the swagger doesn’t fit your distended belly, an obesity brought on by bulimic regurgitation of the pride you pretend to swallow and– oh, do you have roundworms? Oh dear, that must be your ego.  You can steal my racing Marlboros and say you’re in Formula One, you can say those needles make the same scars as the razors that cross my arms, you can take that girl– snakes enjoy each other’s company, don’t they?

I’m sorry I was the one who had to tell it to you so, I’m sorry I’m the one who had to tell you your faking of my neuroses is shimmeringly disillusioned. I’m sorry it had to end this way. Perhaps I can help you find whatever pitiful disposition of your own you have. I’m so sorry I’ve had to let you go, had to watch you go cold as you crossed that line. It hurt me, too.

Yes– perhaps that’s the way to end it. A new beginning, as they say. Honey, don’t be so sad, if you’re really like me you’re a badger. Maybe we can make dues, maybe we can be honest, maybe I can give you another chance.

I’m so sorry it had to end this way.


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