A Moment with Sofia Samatar

Interview by Z.M. Quỳnh

When I first met Sofia Samatar, I felt transported to another world simply by being in her presence. She marked an undefined era of graceless eloquence, where life with all its pains and celebrations could be etched with complex yet humble brushstrokes. At that time, I had no idea about “A Stranger in Olondria” or any of Sofia’s work. She was simply someone who welcomed me with my newbie eyes to my first SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend.

That same weekend, I had cozied myself in the Con Suite to read the short stories that had been nominated for the 2014 Nebula Awards. Her short story, ‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” was up for a Nebula. I read the crazy imaginative story that touched upon love and loss with an unerring lightness that made the story both captivating and thought-provoking.  At that time I had not yet linked the immense talent and brilliance of the story to the humble person that had greeted me to the weekends’ festivities only hours earlier.

It was not until I heard her read later that weekend at Writers With Drinks that I began to feel the power of her story telling. I was mesmerized by her words. Her writing is so richly detailed and sensual. I can feel the prose possessing me. I asked Sofia with some veiled envy, “Does your pen naturally flow like this or do you take a great deal of care and time to craft each sentence you write?” Sofia Samatar

Thank you! I tend to write very fast–sometimes too fast–and then cut half of what I’ve written. I’ve taught myself to stop thinking of this as wasteful, since it’s really not: the process of writing each word is necessary, even if, in the end, many of those words are superfluous. I write for stretches without stopping, because I’m possessed by the language myself, immersed in it. If that comes through to readers, I’m very happy.

The story that unfolded in Sofia’s short reading in the five minutes or so that she was on stage suited my first impression of her — worldly — or rather, one who has been to and experienced different lands, different people, different lives in our world. People such as this have a combination of a twinkle and yet a tear in their eyes. There is memory there, a wish for things to be … not so hard, not so complex for those that struggle among us — or is that just me projecting? Curious and sharing somewhat of a nomadic tendency, I asked her what inspired her to create Olondria.

Olondria is a combination of places I visited or lived in around the time I wrote the novel: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt. Jevick’s home, the Tea Islands, draws heavily on the light and landscape of South Sudan, where I wrote the first draft of the book. And then there’s another equally important influence: the books I was reading, and the places in them. Tayeb Salih’s Wad Hamid, Marguerite Duras’ Sadec, Peake’s Gormenghast, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Proust’s Combray.

Her story also brought beauty and magic to that with which we use to record our lives — our existence — words and books. These symbols and items are the etchings and scribbles that narrate our lives and histories – often reflecting the slant of the author’s pen.

Not surprisingly, “A Stranger in Olondria” made its way onto my bookshelf where it collected my stained fingerprints in restless nights when I only had time to read because the word drew me out of sleep. Though the story started off slow to me as I struggled to find a connection with the main character, Jevick, a pepper merchant’s son — two things which are quite far from my own identity, I fell in love with the story the moment Jevick discovered the written word. I wondered if Sofia too felt challenged to create a voice different from her own (I’m just assuming that its different of course).

Looking back, I see two main reasons why I chose a male protagonist. One of them is simply the dominance of male characters and their stories. As a young writer inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and the Ursula Le Guin of the Earthsea books, the tale of a young man taking off on an adventure seemed “natural.” This is super sad, and when I return to Stranger now, I see the ghost’s voice, the voice of this dead, silenced girl, and her demands, and her rage, as expressive of a tension I was working through without knowing it, and the pressure of a developing female voice.

The other reason a wealthy male protagonist worked for me is that I was wrestling with questions of neocolonialism at the time, as a US citizen teaching English in South Sudan. Those concerns are all over the book, especially in the central conflict between oral and written cultures. As a foreign English teacher, I inhabited an enormously privileged position, and so it wasn’t hard to get into the head of my elite young traveler, Jevick. I never felt like I had to struggle to understand him. I don’t know whether he’s a convincing male character or not. I think he’s a convincing young person, and a convincing student.

Coming from Tyom where, I imagined, the culture of the people was defined by oral tradition, my own fingers tingled as if I, a shadow to Jevick, observed him discover the magic of words. After listening to his tutor explain to him that the “row of graceful figures he had written” was actually Jevick’s name, he concludes, “only when he had described all the signs several times, repeating my name, did I understand with a shock that I was in the presence of sorcery: that the signs were not numbers at all, but could speak, like the single-stringed Tyomish harp, which can mimic the human voice…”

By then, I fell and fell hard, understanding with intimacy the powerful invisible world Jevick had discovered. The world of words, language, story — and the fact that words flow differently through your ears than they would through anyone else’s – simply because we are each unique.

Even moreso, I was fascinated with Jevick’s relationship with Jissavet, an islander girl who had died and whose ghost was haunting Jevick. If, for no other reason than sensationalistic morbid curiosity, I asked Sofia if she has had any supernatural experiences with ghosts or spirits.

I have not. (I do teach at a university that’s supposed to be haunted…) The relationship between Jevick and Jissavet is inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, especially The Duino Elegies. The combination of beauty and terror represented by Jissavet, who is sometimes called a ghost and sometimes an angel, comes straight out of Rilke. In the “First Elegy,” for example, he writes: “Every angel is terrifying.”

Sofia had unfolded so fluidly and languidly in her debut novel, as if gently whispering in a lover’s ear, the world of Olondria, which, with every turn of the page, increasingly grew more complex in its cultural, folkloric, religious, and supernatural customs.

Small wonder that it took her a decade to coalesce her thoughts into a novel. When you live with a story for such a long period of time, how much of it becomes you, is you, I wondered? Sofia has created an entire world for herself within this span of time. She has in her possession sacred Olondrian writings, for example, and outlines of Olondrian folktales that did not end up in the final novel. I wanted to know if she found that the act of creating these items added to her creative or personal grown in some way.

What does playing add to a child’s life or personal growth? I think that’s another way of putting the question. I don’t know the answer, though I think a psychologist might. I wanted to create a world, so I did, and it was marvelously fulfilling and fun. I kept asking myself: why doesn’t everybody do this? Which is yet another way of putting the question, I guess! Why isn’t everybody creating an alternate world and all its folklore and sacred texts? What is the matter with people?

To give a more serious answer–I do think the desire to create another world is connected to a sense of not belonging in this one. I think a lot of fantasy and science fiction writers feel that way, on some level. And of course there are lots of different reasons for that feeling. In my case, being mixed, Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite, I have actually had people ask my ethnicity and then, when I tell them, say: “No!” Just “No!” right to my face. When that kind of experience is repeated often enough, you really wind up feeling like an alien. In Olondria, on the other hand, I fit in perfectly. I look like a native. I know all the dances. I’ve read all the books.

I mistakenly believed that Sofia’s published poetry and short stories (found on her website: www.sofiasamatar.com) were created at the same time she was writing “A Stranger in Olondria.” The push and tug of writing short stories versus a novel is a difficult beast for me — and perhaps other writers. I asked her what it was about “A Stranger in Olondria” that kept pulling her back during her writing process.

First, a tiny correction: I didn’t start writing poetry, short stories, or nonfiction until A Stranger in Olondria had found a publisher! While I was revising it, I wrote four other novels that are really terrible. I think one reason they’re so bad is that I wasn’t committed to them, in love with them, the way I was with Stranger. They are hopeless books, written during a period of constant rejection, produced by a feeling that since the world didn’t want what I really loved, I’d have to try something else. So rather than A Stranger in Olondria pulling me back, it was more that I never left, I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t abandon this book into which I’d put everything I had. And although it seemed like I’d never get it published, I couldn’t rid myself of the conviction that it was worth something.

What — wait a minute — you mean to tell me she struggled as much as I do on a regular basis — that there is hope out there for struggling writers? What is that old saying, something about sweat and talent; success is 90% sweat, 10% talent? Sofia too, like many of us, struggles to create a consistent flow in her creative process.

This definitely applies to my life now, as I’m currently working on a new book, as well as revising the sequel to Stranger and writing three essays, a short story, and the answers to this interview! How do I create a consistent flow? I don’t think I do! I’ll flow with one thing for a couple of days, then switch to another. It often feels chaotic, but it also gives each piece a chance to “rest,” and I return to it with fresh energy and a sharper eye. I mean, that’s what I tell myself. But a lot of the time it’s a huge mess. I’m surrounded by random little notebooks and scrawls on napkins and receipts. My computer freezes because I have too many windows open. 

And with a fury too — after finding a publisher, Sofia went on to publish around 30 or so poems and short fiction between 2012 and 2014!

Indeed, those among us whose tongues are tied up in prose may have a thing or two to learn from Sofia’s journey. She has managed to, in a sense, at least to me, break ground in this genre bringing us speculative fiction that flows evenly between literary fiction and fantasy. I guess if you are in my shoes, if critiques to your work vary from “this is too literary for my tastes” to “there’s too much sci-fi in this story,” you may just have to rely on faith and belief in your own work.

Well, if that’s what people are telling you, then you know all about it! I got those same comments from agent after agent during the five years I spent looking for one. “How lovely this is! I cannot sell it ever.” And in the end I sold the book myself, without an agent, by walking up to Gavin Grant at the Small Beer table at WisCon, introducing myself, and saying “I’ve written a book.” I wish I had some great advice here, but that’s really all I’ve got. If you can’t find an agent, try to make do without one. If you can somehow get your work out there, and people enjoy it, then the agents will come to you. I did finally sign with an agent–just last week!

Something else that comes up quite often in “A Stranger in Olondria” is language and the way in which words (and thoughts?) are pronounced. Language is something that is a personal passion and guilt of mine. The constant chasing of my own mother tongue, Vietnamese, which I have been divorced from for more than 30 years, speaking only the Americanized version of the language – looms over me constantly as if shaking its head in dismay. It’s a longing that won’t go away. The desire to reach the type of fluency that allows one an intimacy with a language that cannot be learned through Rosetta Stone or workbooks.  I marveled at Sofia’s fluency with multiple languages.

I’m only fluent in two languages: English and Arabic. At different times in my life, I’ve had fluent French and Kiswahili, and decent Zande (I’ve dreamt in all of them), but those are really rusty now! I love studying languages and always want to pick up a new one, but Arabic is the only language, other than my native one, that I “feel” in the way I think you mean. This intimacy with Arabic is one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in life. It’s all over the place in my writing: in my poems, in Jevick’s experience of learning to read–which was lifted directly from my own experience of learning to read Arabic–in the cadence of certain stories and passages, and in the role epic poetry plays in the Olondria sequel, The Winged Histories.

After a decade of pouring herself into the mold of “A Stranger in Olondria,” Sofia swept a series of awards for her work winning the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Crawford Award for Best Fantasy Debut, and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award). She also won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  She was also a finalist for either “A Strange in Olondria” and her short story “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” or both for multiple other awards: the Nebula, the Hugo, the Locus Award, and the Rhysling Award among others.

Now that’s what I call a warm reception.

Thank you for joining me in sharing this moment in time with author, Sofia Samatar.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *