The Storytelling Power of Sofia Samatar


Sofia Samatar (photo by Adauto Araujo)

In his novel, Choke, Chuck Palahnuik writes, "We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it's our job to invent something better."

Every work of fiction is an attempt at inventing something better, something more textured and accommodating of the multiple possibilities of human experience than our present conditions allow. Sofia Samatar, the novelist behind one of the most beguiling and arresting literary debuts in recent years, A Stranger in Olondria, has upped the stakes of what is possible for the contemporary novel. Her book toys with language and collapses time and genres with a confidence that would make Proust proud. One of the beauties of Olondria is that it feels like it was written in one sitting, so I was surprised when Samatar said that she spent a decade writing the book.

I wrote A Stranger in Olondria as a wanderer, just roaming around in that world, experiencing everything through language, at the sentence level, as you say, but I didn't really make plans, and I wound up with a two-hundred-thousand-word monstrosity of a novel. Then I spent a decade revising it. I basically cut it in half. It was chop, chop, rewrite, chop, for years. I suppose the benefit of working at the sentence level is that the details are very strong, but you have to work hard to uncover the plot, and that can take ages. I can't say I recommend it.

The plot revolves around Jevick, a pepper merchant's son from the island of Tyom, who travels to Olondria, the fabled home of his tutor. Jevick is a voracious reader and has grown up hearing stories of Olondria, a place teeming with all kinds of possibilities. On his way to Olondria, he meets Jissavet, another islander, who is dying. When Jevick arrives in Olondria ready to greet his future, he becomes haunted by the ghost of Jissavet, now dead and buried, and realizes that in order for him to be free, he must also find a way to release her spirit. Olondria is a dense, deftly built world about identity and the redemptive thrill of storytelling.

For Samatar, the complex, multi-layered construction of Olondria was an act of pleasure.

I've got a pile of Olondrian sacred writings I never used, outlines of folktales, massive genealogies -- it was all so much fun, I don't regret spending time on this totally useless pursuit. I guess if there's a tricky part, it's making sure you refer to your notes, especially on climate and geography, so you don't mess up. I have lists of what someone might find in each part of the country, to stay organized. They'll say things like, "jasper, courtyards, sable geese, almond paste."

An American of Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite heritage, Samatar grew up around books.

My parents are both big readers and writers, the kind of people who keep notebooks on all sorts of things -- new words they've come across, books they've read, etc. In my house, growing up, there was nothing more normal you could do than write something down. My dad also published a book, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism, when I was a kid, and I remember looking at his photo on the jacket and thinking, "Okay, this is possible."

Over the past few years there has been a much needed public conversation around issues of representation and diversity within both mainstream and science fiction and fantasy publishing. Samatar's analysis on this matter is elegant and succinct.

She feels that the situation within the SFF community is similar to what you find in mainstream publishing in that "the barriers for marginalized people have been severe, and while things are changing, the process is neither quick nor painless. There is a lot of talk about diversity in fantasy and science fiction, and a lot of debates about exclusionary practices, from the harassment of women at science fiction conventions to the whitewashing of book covers. Listening in, you could think, wow, SFF is full of bigots! And you know, to be real, it's not that there aren't bigots, but a lot of the noise this community makes is actually conversation. We're talking about the issues, and that's important."

Samatar is now working on the sequel to A Stranger in Olondria called The Winged Histories as well as "a history/ novel hybrid" about "a group of Russian Mennonites who migrated to the Khanate of Khiva, which is in modern-day Uzbekistan, in the 1880s."

When asked what advice she would give to her thirteen-year-old self, Samatar remains characteristically charming. "I'd say, 'Look, stop trying to fit in. It's not worth it.' And my thirteen-year-old self would be like: 'What is this, an after-school special? Get lost.'"

Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press) is available to purchase on Amazon. You can connect with Sofia Samatar via her website and Twitter.