Note: The Amalgamation Podcast does not (at present) exist, but if we wish hard enough, it may yet.
"Hopefully people now know how to pronounce my name," says Amal El-Mohtar, the host of the Amalgamation Podcast. It’s aptly titled, as not only is it a riff off her name, but a podcast that covers a variety of topics, from fiction to poetry to nonfiction. I’m glad El-Mohtar is finally hosting her own podcast, after listening to her brilliant insights in other podcasts like Down and Safe and Rocket Talk.
For me, what sets Amalgamation Podcast apart from other interview-centric podcasts, at least based on her inaugural episode, is that she is part of the conversation, rather than just flinging questions at the interviewee. Her guest for the first episode is the World Fantasy Award winner Sofia Samatar, and right from the get-go, there was much unabashed squeeing between the two.
"And you’re Sofia!"
"I can’t believe we’re finally having this conversation!"
What makes this podcast compelling to listen to is that the chemistry between El-Mohtar and Samatar is evident. It’s one of those circumstances where the banter makes for a great podcast, and would otherwise fall flat in a text interview. For example, we have precious gems like being mistaken for each other at conventions:
"Hopefully our listeners will now realize that Sofia and I are two entirely different people. We're podcasting in the same room!"
"I think we need to tweet a photo to go along with it, or else they won't believe us."
"I think we need to describe what we're wearing as well, or they won't be able to tell us apart otherwise."
"The caption: Samatar. El-Mohtar."
"Our names end in -tarrrrr! Which causes much confusion, apparently."
"Who would have thought reading name tags would be so hard? From a convention filled with readers and writers?"
The show actually starts out in a more formal manner, with El-Mohtar introducing Samatar’s credentials. But that quickly collapses as the two share their mutual love for each other’s work. The former praises the latter for a topic dear to her heart, women and poetry, as Samatar did some translations in Abdullah al-Udhari’s Classical Poems by Arab Women. Samatar retorts with El-Mohtar’s talent, citing "Lost" as one of her favorite poems, and compliments El-Mohtar’s vast repertoire like her dramatic reading of Samatar’s poem "Girl Hours." There will be much back and forth between the two, mentioning favorite short stories ("How to Get Back to the Forest" and "The Truth About Owls" respectively), favorite nonfiction ("Coleman, Alexander, Plath, & the poetics of rage"), and admiration for the other person’s work. It’s essentially a list of each one’s amazing work, and I’ve added some to my reading list.
A lot of artists are actually involved in academe, and it’s pleasant to hear El-Mohtar and Samatar bring up teaching and approach it not from an outsider’s point of view but as people who have firsthand experiences. Despite their similarities, they have entirely different accounts, and they compare notes about teaching: Samatar recounts her experiences teaching in South Sudan as well as in the U.S., while El-Mohtar considers both Canada and Scotland both her home, and discusses how that impacts her as an academic. Some interesting points are brought up, and Samatar starts talking about trigger warnings in the classroom setting. You have to listen to the show to hear both their insights on it.
The pair then transition to the U.S. foreign policy ("We can talk about politics, this is my show, dammit!" and "speculative fiction does not operate in a vacuum") and discuss how it’s personal to them, whether it’s issues surrounding Somalia or Palestine. El-Mohtar brings up the double standards in the reporting of the latter, while Samatar brings up how the U.S. is blocking remittances to the former. In a brilliant segue, Samatar broaches the topic of the remittance economy and how it affects literature.
The two then transition to more "light-hearted" topics, and talk about science fiction and fantasy. Samatar expresses what she looks for in a story, and her poetics both as an artist and an editor. El-Mohtar tackles things from the perspective of a reviewer, and recounts how her review will vary depending on venue and audience. The two eventually discuss the impact of reading works aloud, not just in fiction but poetry as well. We catch a minute or two of some live readings, and I have to say, El-Mohtar and Samatar are talented readers.
If there’s one criticism I have of the podcast, it’s that it ends too soon just as we’re about to get to the juicy stuff. El-Mohtar brings up their convention experiences, including Samatar’s World Fantasy speech, and the two end up discussing diasporic fiction and the prevalence of U.S.-centrism. Unfortunately, just as they’re about to discuss more heated topics ("I’m not fond of the word ‘diversity’ to describe my work"), El-Mohtar realizes they’re out of time ("We need to keep this under an hour or the silent producer will kill me!") and provides the listeners with resources on Samatar’s work.
This was really a great podcast to listen to, not just because both participants are articulate and know how to have fun ("Are we allowed to laugh? It’s supposed to be funny!"), but because they bring insights outside of the typical privileged white person that pervades the podcast scene. There’s a lot more I want to hear from the two, and their discussion could easily span three hours. I do hope El-Mohtar continues the podcast, and I wouldn’t mind Samatar guesting in every episode.
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, and the co-editor of Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 9. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction, and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi). He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Shirley Jackson Awards, Fantasy Magazine, The World SF Blog, and SF Signal. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker.