The writings of Sofia Samatar occupy a fascinating literary space; there are few writers who are equally at home writing a detailed novel set in a fantasy world and delving into precise analysis of experimental fiction. Samatar’s novel A Stranger In Olondria evokes a world that is not our own with precise, lived-in details, all the while telling a compelling, mysterious, sometimes dreamlike story. (She’ll also have a story released in a chapbook through Guillotine later this year.) But her work in fantastic fiction is only one aspect of her work, and in this interview, I talked with her about her fiction, her criticism, and much more.
On your website, you write “I generally feel torn between two things I love in equal measure.” When did you first realize this about your own aesthetics?
I’m not really sure it was a realization about my aesthetics. I think it was more of a realization about what it means to create an author website: that people will come looking for a short, to-the-point summary of who you are. A completely daunting project. It reminded me of this exercise we had to do on the first day of my college American Literature class: a terrible icebreaker thing where you had to write two words–JUST TWO WORDS–describing yourself. I remember panicking as it became clear that everybody else had already written something and the professor was waiting for me. So I wrote the only thing I could, a contradiction: “shadowed sunlight.” Writing the blurb for my website was a similar process: putting together things that don’t work in the hope that something human might slip through. But I don’t naturally think in twos. I’m more of a grab bag.
After reading A Stranger in Olondria, I felt as though I had one window into your literary interests; reading your contributions to The Believer‘s discussion of Bhanu Kapil, I felt as though I had a very different one. How do you balance your interests in more traditionally-written books and more experimental literature?
I think of all the literature I love, all my passions, as experimental. Proust is experimental. So are the Brontës. Zora Neale Hurston, Tayeb Salih, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien created his own language! That’s a poet’s dream! I’m interested in all the ways language is created, smashed, exhausted, renewed.
I’d also say–and this is related–that I’m generally anti-realist. I’m transported by weird representations and representations of weirdness. I like it best when I can have them together, like with Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, or Angela Carter’s stories, or Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novels, or Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I love the work Miranda Mellis is doing, Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link. But I fall in love with the strange wherever I find it, whether the scale is large or small. The photograph in The Lover by Marguerite Duras–the one that was never taken, that haunts the whole novel–it haunts me too. The repetitions in Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain: “we knew it wasn’t a mountain and we called it Little Mountain.” To me that’s mesmerizing.
China Miéville said something a few years ago about the literature of estrangement, and how books like Jane Eyre and Moby-Dick have the feel of the fantastic despite not being classifiable as fantasy novels. That rings true for me. What I love is the feeling that reality is being challenged and so is the language we use to talk about it. So I wouldn’t say that I balance my interests in different types of literature, because I don’t need to. Everything I love is weird.
What was the impetus behind “The White Goddess,” which appeared earlier this year in Bluestockings?
I came to that poem from a couple of different directions. In 2013, I was thinking about Plath because of the conversations around the 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar. Lots of people were talking about the new book cover, but what preoccupied me was Plath’s legacy, the way it takes shape, who’s perceived as a Plath reader, who’s asked to write about her, etc. There’s a perception that “black girls don’t read Sylvia Plath”–Vanessa Willoughby wrote a great piece about this last year–and this idea persists despite the work of poets like Wanda Coleman and Elizabeth Alexander, who engage Plath’s work really deeply, who are part of her legacy. So I was thinking about that–both the reasons those engagements tend to get forgotten, and the reasons that Plath might actually not appeal to black girls.
Then I read Plath’s journals, which was an incredible experience. A lot of the imagery in the poem comes out of her journals: the baby with a nest in its nose, the rhododendron bush. And, of course, the “colored woman” shoveling snow. There’s a moment when Plath remembers passing this colored woman. And she writes “darkness,” she writes “silence.” That’s the gulf. It’s the 1950s. I mean, reading that as a black woman, you have to see that your intimate connection to Plath as a reader is built over the gulf between you. You wouldn’t have been best friends in real life. The poem is a gulf and a bridge at the same time. It’s about privileged white femininity, the myth of the strong black woman, tears, reading, desire, resentment, solidarity, mice, rage, snow. I think of it as a lovehate letter.
You’ve spoken in interviews about the sequel to A Stranger in Olondria–what interests you the most about returning to that world?
In The Winged Histories, I’m interested in exploring things I barely touched in Stranger, particularly the lives of Olondrian women. Also, the whole book is set in Olondria this time–there’s no outsider’s perspective–and that means I can have a lot of fun using Olondrian words simply, without translation. There’s a glossary in the back, but I’m hoping it won’t be necessary for most readers. If a character says she ate a honith too quickly and the cheese scalded the roof of her mouth–well, I think you can get a working notion of what a honith is. And at the same time, even if you look it up in the glossary and find out it’s a kind of pastry, there’s a remainder, something not covered by the definition: you don’t know how big it is, what shape, etc. This is something I love about fantasy: the way it keeps you a stranger, in a place where you can really sense the rift between words and things.
I’m also trying to push the language of fantasy even further in this book than I did in A Stranger in Olondria. I want the form to do justice to the strangeness of the content. And, finally, I’m saying some things about the “epic fantasy” or “heroic fantasy” genre: its conventional bloodthirstiness, its distorted masculinity, its tribalism. I feel this book is my last word on that subject.
How has working as an editor and a professor affected you as a writer?
It’s made me better at revising my own work, for which I am grateful.
Do you write with a specific reader in mind?
No, unless it’s myself. I think Gertrude Stein was right–that we write for ourselves and for strangers. This means writing with faith that the strangers are out there, the ones who need this work, and that they will find it.
You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a project with your brother. Has the idea of working together been one that’s been in the works for a while?
Yes! I think we started planning it three years ago. We have a great little chapbook now called Monster Portraits: my brother’s beautiful monster drawings accompanied by a sort of fabulist memoir written by me. We’re still exploring how and where to publish it.
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