Sofia Samatar has published speculative poetry and short fiction, and related criticism, in magazines including Apex, Clarkesworld, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling and Strange Horizons—we published her story "Selkie Stories are for Losers" at the start of the year, and you can find other work by her in our archives. Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, has just been published by Small Beer Press, and she is the nonfiction and poetry editor of the newly launched Interfictions Online. Sofia also recently completed a doctorate in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This interview was conducted by email in May and June 2013.
Nicola Clarke: Can you tell me a little about your background, particularly in terms of your academic work and how you came to write A Stranger in Olondria?
Sofia Samatar: Sure. I was born in a small town in northern Indiana, and lived in a string of places before I was ten: Illinois, Tanzania, England, Kentucky, New Jersey. Along with these different experiences, I had various cultural influences going on in my house: my dad is Somali and my mom is a Swiss-German Mennonite from North Dakota. I was always very much aware of subcultures: of how people define themselves through certain foods, beliefs and ways of using language. Of course I saw that elements from various cultures could be mixed together, and that they could coexist, but I also knew that certain ones were dominant. Others had to be hidden, depending on what you were doing. To survive middle school, you had to hide basically everything.
My Somali background gave me an interest in Africa, particularly East and North Africa. I did a Master's Degree in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Swahili as my major language, and after that I taught English in South Sudan for three years. That's where I wrote the first draft of A Stranger in Olondria. The book is a distillation of everything that had happened to me up to that point: childhood, travel, learning foreign languages, studying literature, teaching English abroad. I mean, I see that now, but it wasn't at all deliberate at the time. At the time I was creating a world for myself, my own place. And I also wanted to explore the potential of epic fantasy by focusing on the things I love about the genre: the sense of history, of movement through space, and of cultures in contact and conflict. I wanted to write the book I wanted.
NC: What is it about fantasy (or the fantastic) that lends itself to exploring those questions of movement and contact and history? For me, your protagonist, Jevick, is very much someone whose relationship to the world is mediated by imagination and the words of others and his need to make a leap of empathy.
SS: If we think about epic fantasy specifically—well, what's epic about it? I don't think we call it "epic" just because it's long. I read a book recently by Wai Chee Dimock (Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time), who describes the epic as the genre of contact. She's not talking about contemporary epic fantasy, but she could be. The travel motif that's such an important part of the genre sets up a situation where characters are always entering new regions, new towns, and coming across people with different customs and beliefs. That's a great framework for exploring cultural difference. Of course, in a lot of cases the point of that kind of story is that those cultural others have to be destroyed or absorbed somehow, so that the good guys can win. But you don't have to tell the story that way. That's where what you're saying about empathy becomes really important, I think. What if we would start thinking of epic fantasy as a genre of contact, but not conquest? The genre is sort of built around conflict, and that's why we don't see it being done very often. Conflict is such a part of the genre that you have to address it before shifting to contact.
NC: A central concern of A Stranger in Olondria is reading: its power to shape identity, feed imagination, and communicate ideas and emotions across space and time. What books (or poems) were particularly formative for you, growing up?
SS: Ooh, that's an interesting question. Well, as a kid, it was all about Earthsea and Middle Earth for me. Le Guin and Tolkien were the most important writers for me until I was 14 years old, and they've remained important. I also loved myths and fairy tales. I remember doing Greek and Roman mythology at school in 4th grade—that was so great. During that time, my mom was doing her MA in teaching ESL, and she studied Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, and I remember her telling the story of Beowulf to my brother and me. She also read us the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Chaucer's English—I loved that! And at the same time, my dad was sort of terrifying us with stories of Dhegdheer, the famous ogre of Somali folklore. My brother and I really got into all of that. We loved monsters, and we still do. In fact we're now creating a book about monsters together!
I like that you say (or poems). It makes me recognize that my feeling for poetry, which has been so central in my life, was developing along with my passion for fantasy. I love the poems and songs in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—when I was in about 6th grade I kept a notebook where I wrote them all down, and I used to make up (bad) music for them, or sing them to the tune of Scarborough Fair or something. I've heard people say "Tolkien was a bad writer." I totally disagree. Tolkien had both a great sense of story, and a wonderful ear for music.
NC: Do you approach your own poetry in that way, with an ear for music?
SS: I hope so! I love rhythm and rhyme, and I play with them quite a bit. A lot of people frown on rhymed poetry, as if it's somehow obsolete, but of course a lot of people think that about fantasy too. I don't believe any of them. It is true that something which is already stupid will sound even stupider in rhyme. This is, I think, why some people hate rhymed poetry, but it‘s not entirely rhyme's fault!
NC: How much has any of this come out in your writing, would you say—something like "The Nazir," for example? Have you ever been surprised by the way this formative material has reshaped itself and emerged in something you've written?
SS: Well, yes. I'm surprised right now, because you mentioned "The Nazir." I wouldn't have thought of that story in connection to stuff I read and heard as a kid, but of it course it is. The Nazir—the monster in the story—can see everything, and that's what makes it so scary: it sees you. Its name comes from the Arabic verb "to look." And in the Somali story, the ogre Dhegdheer is scary because she can hear you: her name means "Long-Ear." I'd say there's a definite connection there, especially because "The Nazir" is a story about kids.
Whatever your formative material is, I think it should always surprise you in some way when it shows up again. I've written a poem based on the Dhegdheer story that's forthcoming in Stone Telling, the poetry zine edited by Shweta Narayan and Rose Lemberg, and it's very far from the stories I was told as a kid. It surprised me every which way. That's part of what I'm looking for when I write.
SS: That's a tough one. Those stories came to me in flashes. "Selkie Stories" came a bit slower, but still fast for me. In fact—just thinking out loud here—there might be a connection between the lightning-flash emergence of those stories, and the contemporary settings, and the fact that these are short stories, not novels. There's an immediacy to them. It's like, "I feel something strongly about the way we live now and I want to say it NOW NOW NOW." Whereas Olondria is much more contemplative, more searching, and it unfolds more slowly. That's not to say that these things—message and setting and form—are always connected in that way. But they might be connected that way for me. Or at least for those stories!
NC: As you've developed a writer-self and an academic-self, has your relationship with reading changed?
SS: Luckily it hasn't changed much at all. I still tear through books, I still get totally absorbed in them, I'm still voracious and I'm still a loud, energetic fan of the things I like. It's just that "the things I like" is a much bigger group now. I love reading certain critics. Hélène Cixous. Wai Chee Dimock. Sara Ahmed. And especially, right at this moment, Jack Halberstam. I was not a fangirl of any critics before I went to grad school!
Of course, it's true that if you come to a book as a critic, you will look for different things than if you come as a reader, and you'll find them. As a critic, I would read a book I don't like. As a reader, I wouldn't. Actually, more and more, I try not to bother with things I dislike even as a critic. I don't have enough time.
NC: How important is reading critically?
SS: Do I like discussing books and teasing them apart? Yes. Does it teach me things about structure? Sure. Does it make me a better writer? No idea. Really—no idea. It might, but I can't feel it, if that makes sense. What I feel making me a better writer is actually uncritical reading: being absorbed and swept away by a story.
NC: To go back to Olondria, for a moment—it's a novel that explores connections between language, culture and self, between facility with language and status or confidence, both orally and in writing. I smiled in rueful recognition at Jevick's self-satisfaction on the journey to Olondria—how convinced he is that he knows this language, because he's learned it in a classroom—and the way it's soon punctured by stage-fright and mangled grammar when he first tries to speak Olondrian to an Olondrian. Can you talk a little bit about the portrayal of Jevick's process of language-learning, in the novel?
SS: That came directly out of my own experiences of studying first Swahili, and then Arabic, here in the U.S., and then spending time in places where those languages are spoken: Tanzania, Sudan, and Egypt. Really, the less you know, the more you think you know. Students are horribly arrogant! Gayatri Spivak said this thing I like, that it's important not to confuse "the limits of one's knowledge with the limits of what can be known." That's Jevick's problem. He goes to Olondria for the first time as a merchant , but he also considers himself something of an expert on the place, because he's learned the language and some of the literature from his Olondrian tutor. He's like an Olondrian Studies major! He thinks he knows everything that can be known about Olondria, because he has had one Olondrian friend in his life and read a bunch of books. What happens to him in the novel is a re-education: the world taking over where the books left off.
Of course, this re-education is only possible because he was interested in Olondria in the first place. As much as the book critiques the arrogance of students, it also celebrates their openness, their curiosity, their readiness to learn. In a way it's a call for all of us to be students, but good ones: to stay open, to remember we don't know it all.
NC: Does the same go for reading, in the book? Imagining versus experiencing? Are the authors he reads acting as filters?
SS: I suppose I see it as "experiencing versus experiencing," rather than "imagining versus experiencing." In the book, the experience of reading is taken very seriously, as a "real" experience. However, Jevick's story also shows that the experience of reading is different from the experiences we have outside of books, and the two should not be confused. That's why a book can't make anyone immortal. Preserving someone's words doesn't mean preserving that person. Books are extremely ghostly—perhaps more ghostly, in their own way, than the ghost who haunts Jevick.
NC: How did you approach language creation?
SS: Well, that's just good fun, isn't it? I entertained myself for hours with the languages in the book! I don't know Olondrian, it's not like I have an extensive dictionary or anything, but I certainly know what all the names mean, I know why sounds change in some compound words, I know which words and sounds are left over from an older language, and I am excellent at forming the plural.
NC: It strikes me that Olondria is completely alive for a love of words, perhaps even above and beyond reading. I was moved by the blossoming of Jevick's discovery of writing, and of his and other characters' desire to learn the world through learning vocabulary—other people's ways of giving sound to things. Is there a tension between oral and written knowledge/experience in the book, would you say?
SS: Absolutely. I'd say the tension between oral and written ways of knowing is a central theme in the book. In Olondria, as in the world we know, there is a power struggle between them, and the oral mode is on the losing side. Well, it's losing politically, because writing supports the bureaucracy and the military. But the oral mode is very much alive. It's the mode of the majority.
A love of words—yes! All kinds of words, both oral and written. There are poems and tales all through the novel. So as much as the book addresses the tension between the oral and the written, it also performs a sort of joyful melding of the two. It expresses a longing for a world in which that would be possible.
NC: Do you write in any language(s) other than English?
SS: No, no, NO! I could never write in a language other than English. I mean, never say never, but—NO. I have written poems that embrace a line or two of Arabic or Ibero-Romance, but in those cases, the poem reflects my reality: an English-language relationship with the world that is criss-crossed by other languages. I'm too aware of what I don't know to write in Arabic—creative writing, anyway. I might be able to manage an essay.
NC: Is this an issue of language, or of the context that goes around language, or both? I saw on your blog that you experimented with writing a qasīda in English, and you talked about the conventions of the qasīda: the importance of a strict rhyming structure, but also the tropes of expressing emotion (leaving the campsite, etc). Are there some themes that just don't translate well into other languages?
SS: I'm going to step out on a limb here and say—no. Since it is true that nothing translates perfectly, it is also true that nothing is totally untranslatable. It may take a lot of words, it may take gestures, it may take pictures, it may take a whole story to express one concept, but the concept can be expressed—imperfectly, of course! As soon as you accept that it's not going to be perfect, I think you become more open to figuring out how something could be communicated between different systems of thought. And we need that. As much as I respect the fact that a different worldview will never be totally understood by an outsider, I am also wary of the idea of the untranslatable. Too often, saying an idea is "untranslatable" becomes an excuse for ignoring or dismissing it.
It's true that you have to get really creative to build those bridges. Take something simple, like the Dhegdheer poem I mentioned earlier. Writing an English poem based on a story most English speakers aren't familiar with is so complicated, because you don't just want to retell the story, you want to engage with it and challenge it, and yet at the same time you have to provide your readers with some kind of context! There's an extra step that you don't have to worry about if you retell Cinderella.
What I'm after, I suppose, is to write things that are meaningful and enjoyable whether you have a lot of context, or a little, or none. Somebody who's familiar with the qasīda form will enjoy my qasīda in a particular way, because they'll appreciate how I'm sort of messing with the traditional form. But I hope that somebody who has never even heard of a qasīda will also get something out of the story in the poem, the sense of loss, and the sense of defiance. And the music!
NC: What would you say makes a good translation?
SS: I've never done translation work myself, so I'm speaking strictly as a reader here. What I'm looking for in a translation is really the same thing I'm looking for in any written work: something that is made of words, but goes beyond them, that creates a certain atmosphere. Some translations do that for me, and some don't. Example: Constance Garnett's translations from the Russian. I read her Anna Karenina and loved it, and then somebody told me the Maude translation was better, and so I read that, and I thought it was awful. It just seemed dead. How is atmosphere created? I wish I could explain it, but I can't. I can only do it, sometimes, in fiction.
Of course it's amazing when you come across a translation that creates atmosphere and also follows the source text very closely. Denys Johnson-Davies is my favorite Arabic-to-English translator. His translations of Tayeb Salih's work are brilliant. I wrote my dissertation on Salih, and I kept going back and forth between Salih's Arabic and Johnson-Davies' English like, how did he do that? And sure, I know people who nitpick and complain "Johnson-Davies changed the word order here," "he didn't translate this proverb," but look, this is why we have scholars. Scholars are interested in that stuff, and as a scholar, I find it interesting too. But what I want if I'm reading in English is a really good English book. This is not the place to get into the politics of translation, so I'll just end by saying that while I recognize the issues with the global dominance of English, I still believe literary translation is one of the best avenues for cross-cultural communication we have. It's enormously important. Translators should receive a great deal more admiration, and money, than they do.
NC: Are there trends you've noticed in terms of what sort of novels get translated from Arabic or Swahili into English? What about SF/fantasy?
SS: Alas, I am the wrong person to answer this question! I've been too busy with my dissertation to follow current trends. What I can do is recommend the blog "Arabic Literature (in English)", run by the excellent M. Lynx Qualey. She keeps very close tabs on what's happening in Arabic literature now, both in and out of translation.
I know there is a lot of translated SF, but there is certainly original work in Arabic too. I get the impression that in Egypt at least, it's getting some attention—I'm thinking of Ahmed Khalid Towfik's Utopia and Mustafa al-Husseini's 2025: Last Call, for example, which are both dystopian novels. But I'm not very in tune with what's happening now.
NC: Besides Salih, are there other writers you'd recommend to readers of Strange Horizons? Is there anyone you really wish could be translated?
SS: My favorite young writer is Miral al-Tahawy, and I strongly recommend her novel The Tent to SH readers. It's a fantastical story set in Egypt, and concerns a young girl whose inner life is much richer and more magical than her outer one. A lovely, painful book.
As for what I wish could be translated—I had an interesting exchange with the Emirati writer Noura al-Noman the other day. She is the author of the YA SF novel Ajwan, which came out last year, and she's just kindly sent me a copy of it. It's about a nineteen-year-old refugee from a destroyed water planet. It sounds pretty great, and I do wish for an English translation, but Noura said something very interesting about the subject, which she also talked about in her interview on the World SF Blog. She is a voracious reader of English-language SF, and she wrote Ajwan partly because she perceived a lack of that kind of literature in Arabic. Her concern is that if the book comes out in English right away, none of the kids will read the Arabic! I know I said I wasn't going to get into the politics of translation, and I just did, but it seems like an important thing to think about. I want an English translation of Ajwan so that everyone who reads SH can enjoy it, but if that means kids in the UAE don't read it in Arabic, then forget it.
NC: Finally, since Interfictions just re-launched, can you say a little about your goals for it, particularly in terms of how you view the place of non-fictional writing within conversation about and within genre?
SS: The first issue of Interfictions went up last month, and everybody should go read it! I'm the Nonfiction and Poetry Editor, and I'm passionate about both things: poetry, because anything that claims to encourage genre disruption and play (as Interfictions does) needs poetry, the ultimate genre bender; and nonfiction, because I love essays, and I'd like to read more nonfiction that does stuff with genre. I mean "genre" in two ways: I want essays that take what we call "genre fiction" seriously, and say interesting things about it; and I want essays that interact with genres like poetry and fiction, essays that take risks and mess around and maybe are just weird. So in the first issue, I have Brit Mandelo writing about gonzo journalism, and I have Dan Campbell meditating on Tolkien in a really beautiful and personal way, and I have Sunny Chan writing lists that travel into all kinds of territory, from the body to the history of the planet. It's just awesome, and I want more.
Now, as to the place of non-fictional writing within conversation about genre—that is an interesting one. I think we have lots of nonfiction going on. We have articles online, we have academic journals, we have blogs, we have reviews, and important conversations are happening in those places. But as to the role of the kind of nonfiction I want for Interfictions—I really think that remains to be seen. I have this vision of a space that can be personal and playful and innovative and fannish and critical all at once, with or without footnotes! A space for surprising ideas about what genre is, what it can do, and what it means to particular readers. My goal is to create that space, under the label of "nonfiction," and see what happens.