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Photo credit: Peter A. Duffy

This article was first published in a French version in Galaxies SF no 46 “Spécial SF Africaine.” The interview with Sofia Samatar took place in Ventura, California, USA in March 2016.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar looks like a generic fantasy from the West. It has a map in front, and like Tolkien it gives us quotes from the literature of its world. Indeed it seems to use literature rather like Tolkien uses his fictional languages—as a basis for speculation and world building.

The empire of Olondria, and its capital city Bain, bear little resemblance to Africa. When I interviewed Dr Samatar in March of 2016, I said I thought it resembled a Restoration world, rather like the London of Samuel Pepys, with its newspapers, coffee houses, and cigars.

Dr Samatar: “I think the Restoration is a good guess! I sort of had the Ottoman Empire in my head—the Ottoman Empire of the Tulip Era, if the printing press had taken off. But honestly, Olondria is a hodgepodge. It’s heavily influenced by a trip I took before writing the book: I spent a couple of months traveling in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. And it also draws significantly on Egypt, especially Alexandria, where I did most of the major revisions. The Tea Islands, where Jevick lives, are influenced by South Sudan, where I was living when I wrote the first draft.”

Africa sounds like just a flavor in the mix. Yet for all its success in a Western context—the novel was nominated for a Nebula Award and did win the World Fantasy Award—A Stranger in Olondria is a quintessentially African book.

By quintessential I mean it not only shares subjects and issues with a lot of African mainstream literary fiction, but synthesizes them, embodying them in the sprung metaphors of fantasy.

It could even be—though I can only suggest this—that the fantasy setting facilitates this cultural synthesis. This compendium of African concerns is not something that a realist novel could as comfortably contain. Certainly not many realist African novels pack as many resonances into one layered whole.

About the use of the word “African” here—in general I favour being more specific about countries or ethnic groups within and across borders. Often the word “African” is too broad to be meaningful, or it means different things to different people. However, the fantasy setting allows Dr Samatar to abstract aspects of the pan-African experience and display them outside any one context. As far as I can tell, she is dealing with themes and experiences that are relevant across the continent. And so I feel comfortable using the word “African” to describe her work.

What I can say with authority—about the only thing I can say with authority in this context—is that A Stranger in Olondria is my favorite fantasy novel with the possible exception of Alice in Wonderland. Why?

The novel is nobly written in a high style that I love. The prose continually surprises with its precision and beauty.

The novel starts out as an almost realist memoir but its narrator Jevick begins to quote from Olondrian literature in all its forms—lyric poetry, travel texts, literary criticism, prayer books, theology, and newspapers. Part of Dr Samatar’s remarkable achievement is that she is up to writing in all these forms. It is in these quoted texts that some of her most beautiful fantasy images reside.

Here is a quote from early in the memoir as Jevick the provincial first travels to Bain. It references Jevick’s favorite poetry and two Olondrian travel writers.

All through that journey I read sea poetry from the battered and precious copy of Olondrian Lyrics my master had sent with me. “Come with your horses of night, with your white sea-leopards, your temple of waves/now scatter upon the breast of the shore your banners of green fire.” I read constantly, by sunlight that dazzled my eyes, by moonlight that strained them, growing drunk on the music of northern words and the sea’s eternal distance, lonely and happy, longing for someone to whom I might divulge the thoughts of my heart, hoping to witness the pale-eyed sea fold driving their sheep. “For there is a world beneath the sea,” writes Elathuid the Voyager, “peopled and filled with animals and birds like the one above. In it there are beautiful maidens who have long transparent fins and who drive the white sheep endlessly from one end of the sea to the other …” Firdred of Bain himself, that most strictly factual of authors writes that in the Sea of Sound his ship was pursued by another: this ship was under the sea, gliding upon its other surface, so that Firdred saw only its dark underside: “Its sails were outside of this world.”

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 36, location 789

That “drunk on the music of northern words” echoes the conundrum facing African writers who find themselves loving the forms and language of an imperial literature. Among many other matters, this is a book about colonialism and the resulting diaspora.

For readers in Africa, the perils of diaspora might be more evident than for me. African readers might experience much more suspense for they will know more clearly than Western readers that Jevick is headed for a great fall. Some readers have criticized the book for being slow. A trap closes on Jevick roughly a quarter of the way through the book—but by then many readers have found its depiction of rural life laced with quotes a bit tame and book-bound. Can I reassure readers that the novel becomes suddenly almost unbearably tense?

One of the delights of reading Samatar on a Kindle is that you can follow the careers of great Olondrian writers through word search. My favourite is the great advocate of the goddess Avalei, a poet called Tala of Yenith. She is driven mad by the invention of printing:

I confess that I fell quite hopelessly in love with Tala of Yenith, who was already an old woman when the printing press was invented. When she heard of it she is said to have danced in ecstasy, crying out, “They have created it! They have created it!” until she fell down in a dead faint. Her biographer writes: “When she rose she began her rapturous dance again shouting ‘They have created it!’ until her strength was wholly exhausted. She continued like this, beyond the control of the people of her House who feared to subdue her with force for seven days, whereupon she died …”

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 20, location 485

Literature in Samatar’s work is never wholly a good thing. The novel communicates powerfully a love of literature, and an equally intense distrust of it.

Dr Samatar: “When I began, my goal was fairly simple: I wanted to create both a world and its libraries. The development of the library, of literary history, is partly how the world of Olondria was built. People are identified by the kinds of things they read—newspapers, prayer books, philosophy, romance. Books shape people.

“This applies to Olondria, of course, where there’s an intensely literary culture. So my book, full of the enchantment of the library, also became a book about literature as a tool of empire.

“Jevick is on the side of books, but even the worst people are on the side of books. I love literature more than anything else but writing and literature are tools of imperialism.”

The book starts out mimicking a memoir, Jevick’s rural childhood on a pepper farm in a marginalized corner of an empire. This will feel familiar to many readers of African mainstream fiction.

Jevick is the son of the second wife—the first could not bear children and is an envious enemy. This picture of rivalry in a polygamous household reminds me of the mainstream novels Lyrics Alley by Leila Abouela or The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin—it feels very much like Abouela in particular.

Portraits of rural childhoods are a feature of African fiction, where anxieties about rural provincialism and education provide tension.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is a realist novel that recreates the tensions of being a bright child working on a farm and yearning for education. The novel’s details of rural life chime with those in A Stranger in Olondria, but with the added challenges of being poor and being a girl.

Education means coming to terms with and being taught by a conquering other, the foreigner, the metropolitan culture which is not yours but which is held up as being elevated. Tambu, the heroine of Nervous Conditions does end up attending her uncle’s posh African school but only because her brother dies. She is inducted into Western modernity. For Jevick, the equivalent moment is the arrival of Lunre, an exiled Olondrian. For reasons of status, not love or a desire to educate his son, Jevick’s father has hired Lunre to be a tutor.

And as so often in African novels, education both entrances and estranges. Tambu encounters in the books she reads both oppression and liberation (the title comes from her reading of The Wretched of the Earth by Fanon).

Tambu befriends her cousin Nyasha, the headmaster’s daughter who grew up in England. The first meeting is fraught, the friendship a window into how being English and African can kill you. The two girls discuss why they didn’t click at first meeting.

“But I did not sneer at you,” I protested, speaking in Shona. Our conversation was labored and clumsy because when Nyasha spoke seriously, her thoughts came in English, whereas with me, the little English I had disappeared when I dropped my vigilance to speak of things that mattered….

“Actually,” confessed Nyasha with unusual diffidence so that if I had not heard her speak the day before I would have said she was shy, “actually we were frightened that day. And confused. You know, it’s easy to forget things when you are that young. We had forgotten what home was like. I mean really forgotten—what it looked like, what it smelled like, all the things to do and say and not to do and say….

“The parents ought to have packed us off home. They should have you know. Lots of people did that. Maybe that would have been best. For them at least, because now they’re stuck with hybrids for children. And they don’t like it….”

Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga, pages 78-79

A Stranger in Olondria is about education and diaspora, that movement to the cosmopole, going north to be enraptured by bookshops and decadence, lured by cultural artefacts, exotic sex, and drugs, only to run foul of the alien culture. And to come back a stranger. This is one of the most common themes in African fiction.

Jevick will end up declared insane and put in an asylum which is effectively political imprisonment. He then escapes only to be exploited by the rival faction. His visit to Olondria is a catastrophe.

Much African fiction deals with the experience of leaving Africa to work in the north and then coming home. NoViolet Bulaywo’s We Need New Names vividly recreates the experience of being a naughty child in Zimbabwe and then drags us down into a dreary escape to the USA marked not so much by catastrophe as low-level continual alienation.

Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician describes exiles from Zimbabwe living sociably together in Edinburgh, not realizing that one of them is an informer for Zimbabwean intelligence. In Nii Parkes A Tail of the Bluebird, a trained criminologist returns from the USA to Ghana only to find that he cannot cope with urban corruption or fit in with traditional village life.

Christophe Edimo provides the text for the grim realist graphic novel Melamine: un African a Paris in which an African philosopher ends up working in a health facility. Edimo also wrote the more humorous take on the diaspora, the graphic novel Le Retour au Pays d’Alphonse Madiba dit Daudet in which a failed scholar returns home to teach French in a rural village.

Both Dr Samatar’s MA and her later PhD focused on African Arabic literature and looked particularly at Season of Migration to the North by Tayed Salih. (Dr Samatar recommends the Johnson-Davies translation into English.)

Dr Samatar: “Jevick is not Olondrian: his own society is nonliterate. And so A Stranger in Olondria became an education story, deeply influenced by Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, on which I’d written my master’s thesis before starting my own novel. Salih’s novel, like mine, is about literature as disruption, as interference. Many questions hang over that book; one of them is:“What is the role of English literature in Sudan?” The book traces the lives of these men who studied literature in England, who then returned to Sudan. Literature plays a powerful role in it, an almost tyrannical role—you can really feel the ideology, the racial imagery, of works like Othello and Heart of Darkness. And of course when I wrote my own book I was teaching English in Sudan, in what’s now South Sudan. I was delivering English and literacy to a place where communication was almost entirely oral, almost entirely in languages other than English. And I became ambivalent about that whole project. More than ambivalent—fearful, dismayed.”

Jevick’s own language has no alphabet, no books. In order to write the book that we are reading, Jevick has to invent a way of writing his language Kideti using Olondrian script. (And of translating Olondrian literature into Kideti.) In so doing it initiates the transformation of what had been an oral culture into a written one. Imagine a Geoffrey Chaucer who undermines local culture rather more than giving it voice.

A Stranger in Olondria is in part mourning the loss of traditional culture and the oral literature that supported it. There are so many examples of African fiction that deal with traditional culture that traditional belief realism is a genre of its own. From The Famished Road by Ben Okri to the Etisalat Prize long-listed Nwelezelanga the Star Child by Unathi Magubeni.

A Stranger in Olondria shows us at first hand the destruction of an oral culture—or rather Jevick shows us this unwittingly.

The book we are holding is the primary agent of that destruction. A sense of literature destroying an invaluable oral culture comes from deep within Dr Samatar’s own family history.

Dr. Samatar’s father Said S. Samatar was an historian of African literature. His book Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad ‘Abdile Hassan (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, 1982) looks at the impact of oral culture in the history of the nationalist movement, particularly the oral political verse, the poetic rhetoric of a leader called by the British “The Mad Mullah.”

Dr. Samatar’s father had an archive of recorded Somali oral literature, which still exists. She grew up with sense of the value of oral literature.

Dr Samatar: “I knew as a kid that orature was as good if not better than written literature and was a cultural legacy to be extremely proud of.”

She went to Southern Sudan “to be good and to be helpful as people wanted me there, but the longer I stayed the more problematic what I was doing seemed.”

In her father’s words from his book, “Although with the exception of a few coastal areas, Somali was an unwritten language until 1972, it is a highly developed language with a rich oral literature.” (Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism, page 25) To the extent that Kideti becomes a written language in A Stranger in Olondria, it recapitulates this aspect of Somali history.

The theme of language, of the role of the colonialist languages, has recently taken on fresh urgency in Africa. The Jalada collective, an effort to get Africans imagining, writing and speaking in their own local languages rather than English. As part of that effort, they are translating a story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o into as many local languages as they can. At the time of writing, that was over 50 languages. (some of them like Russian, hardly local—imperialism can co-opt anything?)

At the Ake Festival in November 2016 Professor wa Thiong’o was the guest of honor—and as part of the events, the guests each read a paragraph of the story in a different local language—English taking respectful part as simply one of thousands of African languages. Part of the aim is to create communications between local languages without having to go through English.

Jalada’s choice of a story by wa Thiong’o is not accidental. Wa Thiong’o is probably the best known advocate of writing in local languages and only then translating into lingua franca. In choosing a story of his, the Jalada collective is knowingly reopening the debate that many thought had been won by advocates of writing in English for a broad audience. A Stranger in Olondria resonates alongside this debate.

At the very level of story, A Stranger in Olondria links literature with a particular and potent form of cultural disruption—the culture of death, mourning and afterlife.

When you disrupt a culture’s relationship with the dead, you disrupt its relationship with the past and its future. The disruption to African modes of death is a common theme in African contemporary literature.

Pettinah Gappah’s collection of short stories An Elegy for Easterly contains several stories about forms of death. “At the Sound of the Last Post” deals with a funeral divorced from African culture by European military forms. In another story in the collection, “Something Nice from London” a Zimbabwean family is trapped in an unending funeral waiting for the body of one of its sons to be returned from England. The relatives, particularly the most shiftless, don’t go home, and it is the tradition that mourners must be fed. The family is bankrupting itself providing for them. No one in Britain has either the money or the will to send the body home. The family wait at the airport regularly for his body to come home—finally to have an airline stewardess thrust a box of his ashes unceremoniously into their hands. Cremation is not their practice.

Another Zimbabwean, Masimba Musodza, in his as yet unpublished SFF novel called “Herbert Wants to Come Home” combines diasporan yearning for home with a sprung metaphor for disruption of death observances. A Zimbabwean family gather to perform the korova guva ceremony that evokes the spirit of their dead son to return home to join the ancestors. Herbert died of anaemia—and they have all unaware invited a vampire.

A Stranger in Olondria is as much about death and grief as it is about literature. On his voyage to Bain, Jevick meets Jissavet or Jissi, a fierce young woman dying young, who hears from him of books and reading.

Jissi comes back as a ghost (or perhaps Jevick is delusional—but more of that later). Jissi was taken to her parents to the cosmopole for a cure, but died far from home without traditional rites performed, including the burning of bones.

Jissi (or the hallucination of Jissi) haunts Jevick, demanding that he write her a vallon. This is simply the word in all the languages of this world for book. This version of Jissi believes she can rest if there is a book written about her life. She will then leave Jevick alone. An imperial form of mourning and remembrance is taking the place of a traditional rite.

SPOILER ALERT.

What happens is that Jissi dictates her own vallon. Jevick’s memoir includes an extended memoir of Jissi’s childhood in her voice (or is it? How much Jevick distorts the writing is another whole question that I don’t have space to discuss). We suddenly read about someone else’s life, in a sequence that mirrors the opening of the novel.

If having her vallon written down does free Jissi’s spirit—and the ghost does disappear—then twice over the mainspring of the plot of the story you are reading is the book you are holding.

The painful irony is that in writing her vallon, Jevick may have removed Jissi from the world. He has killed his lover a second time. Much of both word count and impact of the closing chapters of the novel come from mourning Jissi. The novel’s last words are: “I go on waiting for her. I look for her still.”

Until I spoke to Dr Samatar, I thought A Stranger in Olondria was one of the most convincing and interesting examples of metafiction that I had encountered—“heartfelt” is not a word I would use to describe most metafiction, but this book is heartfelt.

Metafiction is also a feature of African culture, not perhaps typical, but when done, is done superbly. The forthcoming Ugandan feature film Her Broken Shadow, written and directed by Dilman Dila, is about a woman in the near future, writing a novel about a woman in the far future who is writing a novel about the first woman—though both seem indisputably real to themselves. But it is ultimately a film about loneliness.

When I asked Dr Samatar about this metafictional aspect—that the writing of the vallon in this book laid the ghost to rest—she was uneasy about making any book that powerful, and said, “I wanted this victory of books to be uncertain. Books are not life.”

She reminded me that Jissi’s bones are actually found and that they are traditionally burnt and it is just as likely that this disperses Jissi’s ghost.

Dr Samatar: “Whether Jissavet finds peace through destruction or production—through being burned on a pyre, or through becoming the author of a book—well, in the end, what’s the difference? The book Jevick holds at the end is not Jissavet, though it’s the last evidence of her otherworldly presence. The idea that books are a path to immortality—that’s something my novel rejects. A book can’t replace a person. Jissavet doesn’t live forever because of her book. She disappears. And the book remains as the sign of her disappearance.”

It is not clear what disperses the ghost—tradition or literature. Both or neither might be true.

Jevick does not see Jissi until he is seduced into taking drugs during a Dionysian rite in Bain. He is diagnosed as being insane, and a new puritanical religion pretends that he is being incarcerated for his own safety. But in the old religion people who talk to Angels (Olondrian lacks a word for ghost) are used as soothsayers—and some of them might well have been frauds. Incarcerating Jevick is a way of enforcing the new religion.

It is entirely possible that Jevick is indeed deluded and that Jissi’s ghost is an illusion.

We are free to consider that drugs have left him subject to recurring hallucinations. It is quite easy to read the rest of the story in this light—nothing in the plot would change. In much African fiction and indeed African life, magic and tradition both are and are not real. Contradictory world views do not clash so much as coexist, and African fiction embodies this ambiguity.

Dr Samatar: “Books in my world are certainly magic, but I have not added this magic. The magic of books in Olondria is the same as the magic of books in our world. Nothing Jevick says about them is outside my experience. We do meet the dead in the pages of books, we do commune with them. Reading is utterly ghostly, and so is writing.”

Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi’s Kintu tells the story of a family curse, starting in pre-colonial times, and then leapfrogs over the colonial era until now. A woman keeps seeing the ghost of her dead twin sister; a family head is visited by visions that his rationalist self refuses to believe. Makumbi talking to me after an event in June 2016 confirmed that she wanted the curse to be readable as supernatural or inherited schizophrenia. It is up to the reader to decide if the curse is real or not.

I am told this ability to let contradictory belief systems coexist is a feature of African life. In 2015 as part of the African Futures events funded by the Goethe Institut, I made a video of a discussion with Tade Thompson, Biram Mboob, and Chikodili Emelumadu. Can we explain the rise of something like magic realism in Africa as dealing with the contradiction between traditional belief and modernity?

Tade Thompson, Nigerian by birth and author of fiction in SFF and many other genres says in the video, “Even the idea of tension is outside looking in. When you are living in Nigeria in Lagos, there is no tension. It is understood that these supernatural creatures are part of day-to-day living and have to be acknowledged. You don’t go to a gathering and not involve the spirits; they drink the alcohol with you. It’s like the air. There would be no discussion of the meaning of air, is there air?”

Chikodili Emelumadu: “In the class room you are taught without any irony CRK and also taught integrated science, so you enter your CRK class, god made heaven and earth blah blah blah and then you come out and to your science class and it’s the smallest part of the atom, the Big Bang blah blah blah and you’re supposed to…. It never occurred to me there was any difference until I came to this country that we’re supposed to be living either creationism or science not both. What? It’s just too much to have that dichotomy. Everything goes together.”

So Jevick is both haunted and delusional (or can be seen that way). There both is and is not magic at work—the two views coexist, rather than contradict.

This is something that differentiates African fantasy from Western fantasy.

Western fantasy only exists as a distinct genre because it purveys incidents that are unambiguously magical. No magic, no fantasy. It only exists as a contradiction to mainstream fiction. (Otherwise it would just be fiction, full stop.)

African writers are far less likely to identify as any one kind of writer and appear to write with ease across literature, fantasy, and crime. As Kiprop Kimutai summed up his interview with me in 100 African Writers of SFF, “Western fantasy is about that tension. Our fantasy is about the LACK of contradiction.”

A Stranger in Olondria ends however on a promise of conflict—a religious war.

Among the many beautiful fantasy ideas in the novel is that a stone has come to earth (a bit like a meteor) but covered in writing. It is a communication from the Nameless Gods. There are many of these Gods but since there is one truth and they know it, the Gods speak or write in unison “plural but with a single voice.” This plural voice writes in a new language that needs translation.

The result is a new religion, one that is logical, consistent, in love with literature, obsessed with issues of translation, accuracy, and purity, which makes it in fact a revolutionary power in Olondria—one that seeks to undo the power of the other gods.

When asked, Samatar agreed that the Stone has traces of Islam but said, “It is a religion of text, like all the Abrahamic religions”.

A Stranger in Olondria is NOT in any way about the rise of militant Islam. This religious war will be between text and voice—in effect between written and oral literature. The Stone favours text and the Priest of Avalei would claim their power comes from the people. Towards the end, Jevick confronts Auram, the priest of Avalei.

“I will tell you the truth,” I said, “and if you think me a wiser man than you and you listen to me, so be it, and if you do not, so be it. Your prince will be a tyrant. He will not hesitate to burn libraries or palaces or radhui. He will set Olondria aflame.”

Auram inclined his head slightly, a gesture of acceptance. “You may be right. But he will save a future, a way of life. For those who cannot read, he will save the world.”

I knew it was true. A certain world would be saved, but it would no longer contain the Olondria I knew.

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 280, location 6067

Binaries don’t function in Samatar’s world. There is no Dark Side of the Force. For Samatar evil “resides with these two priests who are willing to sacrifice people in order to win.”

The war will burn libraries. This awareness that despite its value, oral tradition too can do harm, is after all only a tool used by people for good or ill, is also part of Dr Samatar’s legacy. Her father’s study details the rhythmic and linguistic subtleties of Somali oral tradition—and also highlights how it can be used to inflame conflict, sparking clan wars.

The book ends with a certainty that Olondria is about to immolate itself. Tyom is Jevick’s island.

Perhaps the land named in the books is no longer real. Terrible rumours reach us from the north: libraries burning, devotees of the Stone dragged into the street. Perhaps one day Tyom will be the last refuge of books. I do not know. I read.

A Stranger in Olondria kindle page 298, location 6449

The irony of coming to love the cosmopole at the moment it declines—this echoes the experience of some Africans visiting the West now.

Dr Samatar and I disagree about the meaning of the ending.

People of the right ethnicity or class in Kideti culture are allowed an externalized soul, a kind of idol of the self, a depiction of the person’s spirit. This is called a jut meaning “soul.” The external depiction of the individual’s essence is sometimes called a janut, though it is simply the plural of the word jut.

The janut resemble little idols of the self. They are only for the privileged, and they are cremated along with the corpse of the dead, as the description of the funeral of Jevick’s father makes plain early in the novel. The poor, the ethnically undervalued, are not allowed them.

It is the ghost of the illiterate Jissi who understands best what books are—at least in her own cultural terms.

Jissavet’s fingers flared about the page. Later, when I was almost asleep, she spoke to me suddenly out of the dark.

“I know what the vallon is,” she said. “It’s a jut.”

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 265, location 5768

That line is the punchline for a whole section of the novel. It is followed by a recapitulation of Jissi’s life that expresses Jevick’s love. Just to make sure that we get the importance of the passage, Samatar repeats it later.

I remembered her telling me. I know what the vallon is. It’s jut. Now she had helped start a war in a far country to liberate those who could not read, the hotun of Olondria. I wondered for an unguarded moment, what she would have said. But I knew this was not her war. Nor was it mine.

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 281, location 6098

The coming war could be seen as a war over which kind of externalised soul is to be most valued.

Earlier in the book, Jevick describes the story of Kideti Masters of traditional and oral culture called tchavi.

In the islands the old word tchavi by which I always called my master originally referred to a teacher of ancient and cryptic lore.… They were strange, solitary, at home in the forests, speakers of double-voiced words, men without jut, for they cast their janut into the sea, a symbolic death.

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 22, location 534

SPOILER ALERT

At the end of the novel, almost as an aside, Jevick similarly throws his jut away. He dons a Kideti cloak, which might mean that he is seeing himself as Kideti. What is plain is that he has never valued his jut.

… I went to the altar and reached out for my jut. A shiver of dread went through me in the instant before I touched it, and I laughed because I have never cared for my jut, that little claw-footed shape with the jade handles. I had never oiled it, never prayed over it. “Come,” I told it, smiling and hefted it in one hand.

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 295, location 6375

Jevick doesn’t tell us what he was thinking or planning. His mother seems to think he is going away for good and he reassures her. It’s still not plain what he’s doing.

And I walked out with my jut under my cloak. I crossed the farm, greeting the labourers who waved to me from the fields. This happy land, I thought, this happy land. I passed the row of storage rooms secluded under calamander trees, their doors chained shut. I went on walking far from the village, out to the cliffs where I used to go with Lunre, the briny rocks like spines under my sandals. My jut fell soundlessly, the sea too far for the splash to reach me. About me palaces hung like mountains made of cloud.

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 295, location 6395

That’s it. For me it’s plain that this hybrid man has jettisoned his traditional self and replaced it with books. For this book is his own vallon as much as it is Jissi’s.

He ends his days teaching children his new Kideti writing, getting them to read his seminal book and getting them to read his Kideti translations of Olondrian literature. I find his attributions of all this to Jissi dishonest. To me, the man is also promoting himself through her memory while permanently hybridizing Kideti culture.

In the schoolroom they show me the words they have written during my absence, whole stories in Kideti, embryonic poems. The alphabet was developed in Olondria, I tell them but it is our own; it was used to pen the first work of written Kideti literature, The Anadnedet by Jissavet of Kiem. This is why we call it Jissavet’s Alphabet. At the end of each lesson, I read from this seminal work. And I introduce them to others, books I have translated from Olondrian in the most violent and sacrilegious form of reading.

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 298, location 6444

There is enough that I dislike about the narrator, except of course, his love of books and of Jissi. I remain free to read the novel in this way, but I have to point out that its author disagrees with me.

Dr Samatar: “Jut is soul, but in the sense of energy or a spirit shared by all human beings. Janut are physical manifestations of jut—objects that are kept in a special room in the house, what Jevick calls “external souls.” In fact, the word janut is simply the plural of jut. These soul-objects are the individual expressions of a common force. For Jevick, this becomes a way of thinking about books. They, too, are soul-objects.

“Of course it’s not true that jut is shared by all human beings: Jissavet belongs to an outcast group of people who have no jut. They are the poorest of the poor. And in Olondria, the land of books, there are people who have no access to those soul-objects either: poor people, peasants, colonized people, illiterate people.

“When Jevick throws his jut into the sea, it’s a gesture of hope. Is he a spiritual master? Other people certainly think so. But he doesn’t know. He’s not at a point in his life where he’s thinking about mastery. He’s thinking about become lighter, casting things off, including the soul-object that represents his link with a privileged class.”

Perhaps that’s how Jevick sees it. I can’t read this any other way than that he has at the very least chosen his new hybrid path over the traditional.

Like all great novels, A Stranger in Olondria expands its relevance beyond one continent. Literature, death, love, grief, childhood, education, politics, war—these are universal themes. A Stranger in Olondria looks at many forms of death beyond the physical—cultural death, spiritual death, social death (Jissi is excluded by her people because of her illness).

I have not been able to touch on so many moving incidents and stories in this book … how Jevick’s simple brother teaches Kideti words to the tutor Lunre; of Lunre’s love for the daughter of the priest of the Stone, Tialon; of Jessi’s relationship with her father. I’ve found no place in this short essay for Jevick’s friendship with a follower of Avalei, Miros. In the end its literary themes are universal are well—can you have culture without appropriation, transmission, translation? Can we the privileged ever write in the voice of the oppressed?

The ending rises to an overwhelming sense of loss. This sequence marries the themes of literature and death. “You” is for Jissi or any reader, and books are a metaphor for life—and death.

The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, toward the end. Still you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window, there were still a few pages under your thumb, still to be sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly?—No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining words! And there—the end of the book. The hard cover, which when you turn it gives you only this leather stamped with roses and shields.

Then the silence comes….

A Stranger in Olondria, kindle page 274, location 5951

Next: writers of Cape Town



Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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