Self-Conscious Stories: Tender by Sofia Samatar

Tender is a book-length collection of short fiction from Sofia Samatar, a brilliant Somali-American writer whose work has been nominated for several genre awards over the past few years. Samatar is also the winner of both the John W. Campbell and Crawford Awards—so, suffice to say she is doing consistently fantastic work, and Tender gathers much of that work together in one place for the first time.

Divided into two sections, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” this collection includes two original stories as well as eighteen reprints. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Fallow” are the two fresh publications here, both in the landscapes section of the book. The reprints range from 2012 to now in terms of their initial appearances, and also span a wide range of publications.

I was immediately predisposed to Samatar’s collection, as it begins with “Selkie Stories are for Losers”—which, full disclosure, was one of the pieces published under my tenure as senior editor at Strange Horizons. On re-reading, around four years later, it’s still an emotional, intimate story, and it certainly sets the tone for the rest of the book. The through-lines that arc across this collection are all present in the first piece: a concern with gender, family, folk tales, race, history and the supernatural, as well as a certain frankness that’s hard to pin down but makes Samatar’s short fiction human even when it’s dealing with inhuman characters.

Samatar, though she employs artful and often poetic prose, is paradoxically direct in her approach. Whether she is marrying mythologies to modern scenarios (“How I Met the Ghoul”) or writing about a dystopian near-future (“How to Get Back to the Forest”), she renders her characters with an unvarnished honesty. She also illustrates her settings in broad sweeps of careful detail, giving the reader a solid and coherent sense of the world the tale takes place in without fail.

The only stories in this collection that do not work are the stories where this balance collapses and the direct gives way to the opaque. For example, “A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals”: this story has evocative moments, but as a whole is difficult to parse or feel through. The two narratives are clearly related, but the connection is insufficient and the imagery overtakes the flesh of the piece. In the end it lacks a sense of movement or form. Given that most of these stories function on a thematic or emotional arc rather than a straightforward plot, it’s especially important to maintain clarity.

However, the stories that do work—particularly the stories that work in conjunction with one another—far outweigh the ones that don’t.

The titular story, “Tender,” is an ideal example of the work this collection does over and over in a series of different ways. The protagonist lives as a tender, someone who looks after the toxic storage of depleted nuclear materials; she is trapped in her glass box, her closest contact coming through decontamination chambers. The narrative is structured through a series of brief observations or scenes; through them, we discover that she cheated on her husband repeatedly and eventually attempted suicide when he kicked her out, and she is now in some sense atoning for her toxicity.

This collage technique appears in several of the pieces collected in Tender, creating stories out of non-narrative content juxtaposed together to create a sense of unity or movement. “Ogres of East Africa,” previously discussed before here, uses the juxtaposed vignettes format to good effect—as do several other pieces, including but not limited to “Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold,” “Olimpia’s Ghost” and “The Red Thread.” Those last two fit under a specific subheading of the technique: they’re epistolary. Throughout her short fiction, Samatar pays a great deal of attention to prose and structure, making the way a story is told as important as the story: imitating a sloppy high school essay, like in “Walkdog,” for example.

I was also impressed with both of the pieces original to this collection. “An Account of the Land of Witches” has three threads: one involves the original narrative of the witches’ city told by both an escaped slave and her master, another the scholar who has become trapped due to Visa problems in the Middle East during wartime, and the last a brief foray with a fantastical group of explorers charting out the Dream Science based on those previous accounts. There are stories within stories, here, from beginning to end; the piece asks the reader to work to understand the implications and connections between the three arcs without offering a direct or obvious answer.

“Fallow” is the second original piece, a novella, and is by far the longest in the collection. It’s also the best novella I’ve read in quite some time: a told-tale, set on a colony (of sorts) in distant space occupied by a society of Christians who abandoned Earth when it was breaking down. The three parts of the novella focus, one each, on a person the protagonist has known and their particular story as it relates to the story of the colony and the protagonist herself. The first is a childhood teacher who eventually committed suicide; the second is “Brother Lookout,” who was a leader of a spiritual splinter group that advocated open relations with outsiders;  the third is her own sister, who ran away (or so we hope) with an Earthman whom she rescued from execution-as-isolationist-policy during her time working in the Castle.

The novella is a heady mix of science and grim hard-scrabble religious life in a dystopic and closeknit society. The characters are all immensely human and built of a thousand realistic details; therefore, the slow reveal of the politics and horrors of the colony is devastating. There is such an intensity in this piece, I find it difficult to describe, as it builds so slowly and carefully to its climax. That climax, too, is more a realization than a conflagration: just that the protagonist is surviving as best she can, recording the realities of her life and the lives of others where she must remain. Because, ultimately, there’s no way out—though we know, as she does, that there would be other places to go if she could leave.

Tender is full of intriguing prose experiments and self-conscious stories: stories that think about the meanings of categories like human and animal, history and culture, and do not offer the reader simple answers. Samatar explores the Middle East and Africa with care in this collection, and in doing so employs a wide range of mythologies and traditions while simultaneously respecting and demanding respect for their legitimacy in a predominantly white and Anglo-American genre. This attention to detail and frank, honest representation results in a compelling body of short fiction—though best read in chunks, in this case, so as not to overwhelm with similar notes that differ only fractionally in some cases. I’d strongly recommend giving the literary, clever, and productive art that Samatar has collected here a read. It’s as good as I’d hoped, and just as smart too.

Tender is available now from Small Beer Press.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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