Born in a small town in northern Indiana in 1971, Sofia Samatar is the author of the forthcoming memoir The White Mosque (Catapult Books, 2022). Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, for which she received the World Fantasy Award, tells the story of Jevick, an itinerant language student beset by visions of an angel whose commands he must learn to face. Sofia’s work is highly original in the world of English-language fantasy––and not only because her influences include African and Arab cultures and literatures. To read her work across the many genres in which she writes—essays, scholarship, stories, poems, and novels—is to find that “fantasy” can be more than a genre label, that it can be a mode of storytelling that may approach broad and difficult questions of language, ecology, labor, memory, and empire. Sofia and I spoke about fantasy, poetry, and her forthcoming memoir over Zoom in early June, she from her office in Virginia and I from my home in Indiana. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Safwan Khatib (SK): You've described yourself as a fabulist, futurist, and memoirist. You're also a professor of African languages and literatures. I'd like to ask you about the language we turn to when reflecting on this pandemic year. We talk about “moving past” COVID-19 toward some kind of more “normal” world. Even if we don't use the word “normal,” our conversations often have to do with ways of recovering something that the pandemic took away. What are your thoughts about all this hunger for “normalcy”?
Sofia Samatar (SS): I am very much on the “What can we take with us?” side––not “How fast can we run away and get everything back to normal?” I'm more interested in what we want to keep, what we actually found during this time.
For example, think about institutions and how we talk about changing them. I teach at a university––James Madison University, a big state school––and, wow, the way the university was able to respond to this pandemic, to get things done and make a year of college happen, really underscored the fact that we should question the idea of institutional inertia. Sometimes, when academics talk about racial justice and other social issues, everybody says, well, the university is an institution, it’s big and cumbersome, it can’t change quickly. But look, American universities made extraordinary changes in the space of one year. So now I’m thinking: Rather than get back to normal, how can we use some of the things we learned?
SK: I first encountered your work in a recent issue of The White Review. In the essay “Standing at the Ruins,” you reflect on your decision to turn to the poetry of the past:
I went to the poetry of the past because I wanted to see how the world looked to poets who didn't make the weather. They had no climate optimism, no schemes for conquering the elements, no illusions of control. What they had was a relationship, maintained through and in spite of grief, to irretrievable things. They knew how to lose.
I was wondering if you could talk more about your experience of coming to the poetry of the past through foreign languages. What led you to stay in that world? Many people go there and then quickly run away.
SS: Honestly, I fell in love. When I went to graduate school, I wanted to study African literature. That desire came directly from my background: my dad was Somali, and I was very interested in East and North Africa because of my connections to Somalia. In my master’s program at UW-Madison, I started out as a Swahili major, and I got interested in classical Swahili poetry, which is written with the Arabic script. I thought, well, I’d better take some Arabic, just enough to learn the alphabet so I can read the Swahili poems. The plan was to study Arabic for a year.
I took that year of Arabic and was completely hooked. It blew my mind—the consistency of this language over time. You can learn this language, and you can go and read yesterday’s newspaper, and you can also go and read something from the early Middle Ages. It’s so different from English—you can't just pick up Beowulf and read it as a Modern English speaker. But with Arabic, although it's challenging, it can be done. I was entranced by this very long written history. So then I switched and became an Arabic major. That's what I wound up doing for my PhD.
I should also say that I took a long break between the MA and the PhD. I had a twelve-year career teaching English in South Sudan and Egypt. And then, when that started to become repetitive, I came back to the same program and got my PhD. So things seemed to happen almost by accident, without much of a plan, but in a way it wasn’t accidental at all. There was a coherence to my interests, that feeling you have when you recognize with absolute conviction: this is my thing.
SK: While reading your first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, I had the sense that this was a novel that was never quite at home in English. I felt at times that I was reading a novel in translation. There are moments, for instance, when you're inventing a language and then glossing it back into English, letting the strangeness linger.
I'd like to ask you about fantasy, both as a concept and as the genre of your two novels. What do you find in the history of fantasy that allows you to write toward the concerns that drive your work?
SS: I love that you felt like A Stranger in Olondria was a novel in translation! I know my English is inflected by other languages––I read a lot of translated literature, and I’m always reading a book in some foreign language, rotating between Arabic, French, and, most recently, German. I’m sure this influences me in ways I can’t fully recognize.
“For me, there's a sense in which all literature is fantasy.”
Studying someone's language purely for the love of it is one of the ways people meet across cultures in a positive way. It is truly, I think, a great gesture of respect. And it involves you in a different way of seeing things. When you are speaking another language, you are not in control, simply because you’re probably talking like a four-year-old. Of course, if you're a colonial administrator who talks like a four-year-old, it's more complicated than that. But generally speaking, I find a lot of value in that experience.
And this is also part of the experience of reading, even in your own language. To read a book is to enter a different world, one in which you will find someone else's sensibility, their concerns, their trauma, their joy. All of those things you must enter as a reader.
This is why, for me, there's a sense in which all literature is fantasy. And the fantasy genre is a mode that emphasizes and intensifies the feeling of strangeness you have when coming to any book. In a way, the genre encapsulates the possibility of transformation that draws me to travel, to language study, and to reading.
SK: One of the things you seem to be getting at is that age and difficulty can be a source of pleasure in any book, qualities to seek out and cherish rather than avoid.
In “Standing at the Ruins,” you are in conversation with two very old, very dense bodies of literature: Anglo-Saxon literature and Classical Arabic literature. But you insist that these works are not just arcane, inaccessible relics of the literary past. You argue that they offer ways to confront the most contemporary and urgent of catastrophes, like ecological ruin. Can you talk more about the way that certain forms of difficulty can nourish and aid the imagination?
SS: Yes, absolutely. There's nothing inaccessible about the poems I mention in “Standing at the Ruins”: the Muallaqa of Imru Al-Qays and The Wanderer. The images are so vivid. In the essay I refer to both poems as a “poetry of things.” They're about animals, rocks, rain, lightning, strong feelings. They’re very concrete, not filled with abstractions. Of course, they have layers. They reward study because you can always learn more about them, but you can also approach them knowing nothing about their history and still be amazed by these images: the seabirds and the ice, or the horse and the tumbling rocks.
I think there's something about that gap in time that freaks people out. Sometimes it's just the fact that they know how old the poem is, and suddenly they think, “No! I can't read that!” But it's often incredible how directly these poems speak to contemporary experience.
SK: In the essay you imply that this older poetry gives us a better representation of the full range of human emotions than contemporary theory and literature. Why do you think that is?
SS: Well, we can speculate. And I think that little excerpt of the essay that you quoted actually gets close to how I think about this. People who are living a comfortable, fossil fuel–based life arrive at a moment of ecological catastrophe and feel that everything is getting out of control, right? Like, “Oh no, it's gone too far!” And suddenly they’re terrified and helpless. But that contemporary sense of crisis comes from having felt, before, as though there was human control over the environment.
“As I turned this history around, it refracted light, and I followed the different rays.”
Now, the writers of these older poems never had that illusion. They were never fooled for a second into thinking they had control over the environment. That would have seemed ridiculous to them. They were surviving in extremely harsh conditions. Life was very, very precarious, as it is becoming for more and more people today.
I think that's part of the richness of these poems. As we’re living in this moment and thinking about a changing climate, it is useful to understand that these poems were composed without the toxic illusions many of us have been fed.
SK: Right––to understand that what is called “environmental crisis” is just as much a crisis of the imagination.
You've taught English to non-English speakers and Arabic to native English speakers. Do you focus on training the imaginations of your students when you teach language and literature? There is certainly the aspect of language study that is very basic––declining nouns and adjectives, conjugating verbs––but there is also, ideally, or at least in my experience, a kind of reshaping of the imagination that happens in the process. How do you approach that in your pedagogy?
SS: It can be really pleasurable, I think, to find that somebody thinks about something or pictures it in a completely different way. And whichever language I was teaching, I would highlight those differences for my students and often get a laugh. In Arabic, for instance, the “handle” of a teacup is referred to as the “ear.” For Anglophone American students, it's like, “What?”––and then you look at the handle and you're like, “It's an ear!” Once you see it, you can't unsee it. It's always going to be an ear.
This attention to difference can be taught at a very elementary level. You don't need a lot of language to have fun with it.
SK: What you’re saying reminds me of Tialon, a character in A Stranger in Olondria. She has a change of heart and decides to betray the legal order of her society in order to help Jevick, the protagonist. At one point in the book, Jevick mentions that Tialon was the only one in Olondria who was willing to actually pronounce his name correctly because she has, in his words, “the ear of a musician.” I thought that was so precise. I loved that.
In other words, it seems to me that what you're saying has to do with music, too. Anyone can be struck by song. In the same way, it is possible for a person of any background to be changed by what they encounter––even if it is difficult.
SS: Absolutely. There are all kinds of moments in that book that reflect my experience of living between cultures, between languages. For example, Jevick’s experience of learning to read is my memory of learning to read Arabic. I don't remember learning to read English—it was too early—but because I learned Arabic as an adult, I really felt that magic moment when you're like, oh, wow, I'm not just hacking and struggling and trying to make these lines into sound. These are actually words!
SK: Turning to memoir, the one thread in your writing we haven't really spoken about yet, could you tell us a little bit about your current book project?
SS: It's a memoir called The White Mosque, and it's coming out next fall. It centers around a historical event: a migration of German-speaking Mennonites from southern Russia, now Ukraine, into the Khanate of Khiva, which is now in Uzbekistan, in the 1880s. They were led there by a charismatic preacher who told them Christ was going to return and meet them in Central Asia. They undertook this incredibly difficult two-year journey and then, well, the prophesied day arrived, and Jesus didn't show up. They stayed there for fifty years. They were eventually forced out by the Bolsheviks because they wouldn’t collectivize; they wanted to remain a separate community.
SS: I found this story absolutely fascinating. I was especially drawn to it because it represents an early moment of Mennonite-Muslim interaction. That's because of my own family history: my father's side of the family is Muslim, while my mother’s side is Mennonite. So I wondered, “How did these people in the nineteenth century manage this kind of interaction, not at the level of a single family like mine, but on a larger scale?”
SK: How did you first come upon that story?
SS: My father-in-law, who is Mennonite as well, gave me a book called The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880–1882. It's a history. I was like, “What is this?” The story was just so interesting and wild. Then, years later, in 2016, I went on a Mennonite heritage tour of Uzbekistan, which followed the journey of these people. And The White Mosque is based on that journey.
The book is set in Uzbekistan and begins with me in Tashkent. I've just arrived, and I'm about to go on this trip and follow the trail of these people. And along the way, of course, I learn all kinds of interesting things about Uzbekistan and how Uzbek scholars and historians see this Mennonite story. What's their take on it? What happened to these random people who came and lived here for fifty years and then disappeared?
SK: How did you approach all the material you came across? How did you deal with all of it?
SS: I approached my material as a prism: as I turned this history around, it refracted light, and I followed the different rays. It's an approach that multiplies the material. Through this one story, I was able to consider so many ideas, so many related stories of people like Langston Hughes, for example. I didn’t know about his trip to Central Asia in the 1930s. But that became interesting to me, so I wrote about him.
I think this prismatic approach really speaks to the complexity of the human condition, of human history. It expresses how interconnected things are. “Standing at the Ruins” takes a similar approach. It asks: What are all the connections to be made? When I was working on the essay, I told people, well, I'm writing this essay about a classical Arabic poem and Frankenstein and Thomas Jefferson. And people were like, “What? How could those things ever be in the same essay?”
But how can any of us be in the world? How can any of us exist, being as weird as we are, and having as many influences as we do? We try to reduce ourselves, to simplify our identities, because it's actually too much. But it’s all there, and we can choose to face it.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection Tender, and Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her work has won several awards, including the World Fantasy Award. She teaches African literature, Arabic literature, and speculative fiction at James Madison University.