“Trust the Story”: A Conversation with Sofia Samatar

I’ve been more or less obsessed with Sofia Samatar since I first read her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria (2013). Her work is gorgeous and innovative, breaking new ground while evoking the best of classic SFF. And I’m not the only one to think so; Sofia has recently been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award For Best New Writer.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her writing, below.

Language itself is a character in A Stranger in Olondria, particularly in the different ways its characters relate to oral versus written histories, and the way the act of reading figures so prominently into the book. Did you set out to explore the ways oral and written traditions inform our ways of being in the world, or is that something that evolved as you worked on the book?

It’s definitely something that evolved, as the whole book evolved! One thing about A Stranger in Olondria is that I spent over a decade writing it. I mean, I wrote the first draft in two years, but then I spent another 10 years on and off getting it into shape. That first draft was a monster. It was 220K words long—almost exactly twice as long as the published version. And that’s because my “writing process,” which I totally don’t recommend, involved having no outline, following the character around through tons of random cities, getting him into vague predicaments, getting him out again, introducing him to useless people, and deleting and deleting and deleting. I knew that there was a ghost, and that ghosts were illegal in Olondria, but that’s it. And through this arduous process of wandering through imagined country, I slowly brought in things I was experiencing at the time, and one of those was teaching English in South Sudan, where the mode of expression was primarily oral. I had a lot of ambivalence about that job, and the anxiety worked itself into the book. I wound up exploring how reading and writing, my favorite things in the world, things I’m used to thinking of as utterly good and right and true, are also tools of empire.

Sofia Samatar A Stranger in OlondriaRight, which is obviously very much a theme of the book as well. Did you realize when you started the book that that was part of what you were writing about?

Nope. It was something that emerged as the novel progressed. In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of anything that grand. I just wanted to create a book with characters who looked like me, write a fantasy in which language and story would be equally important, and, you know, transform the genre. That’s it.

You speak multiple languages yourself—do you think your ability to move between them informs the way you approach fiction? Or nonfiction? Or are those different places for you?

Well, I don’t know if this is going to answer your question exactly, but it reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague recently. He’d read A Stranger in Olondria, and he said that, as someone who doesn’t read fantasy or science fiction, he was pretty uncomfortable for the first few chapters. It was the names. The names were throwing him off. He was like, “I didn’t know whether I was supposed to memorize these names or whether they were important or what!” Eventually he realized that he could just go with the story and relax, and then he started enjoying it. That was so interesting to me, because I’ve never, ever been thrown off by weird names. You can give me the first page of a story that’s 50% bizarre names, and I’ll be like, “Cool.” I just read it as music, as atmosphere. I know that eventually the important stuff will float to the surface, and the less important stuff will sink. And it seems to me that that’s a valuable skill, to be able to keep your balance in uncertainty, and that in fact it’s what I ask from my students when I teach world literature. Don’t let foreign words or unfamiliar syntax throw you. Trust the story. It’s a language student’s skill too, because when you’re learning, you’re often terribly lost. So I do think there’s a connection between my love for languages and my love for speculative fiction. Both of them ask you to dwell in uncertainty. And I love that. Uncertainty is home for me. It’s the definitions that scare me.

You’re an academic and a fiction writer and a teacher and an essayist and a poet; as someone who moves a lot between kinds of writing myself, I’m always curious how other people approach that process. Do you see those different kinds of work as operating out of different parts of your head? How do you know when an idea is going to turn into a story, versus, say, an essay on Afrofuturism?

This genre thing is very mysterious, and the only thing I can say about it for sure is that I tend to write what I read. So if I read novels, I want to write novels, and if I read essays, I want to write essays, and the same goes for poetry and short fiction. But how do I know which subject is going to occur to me, when I feel like writing a poem? I don’t. The content doesn’t approach without the form—like I don’t have the idea “Afrofuturism” alone, it comes to me as “Afrofuturism essay,” while my poem “The Death of Araweilo” came as “The Death of Araweilo, Poem.” I did have an experience recently I’d never had before—I started writing an essay about Charlie Parker, and the next thing I knew, it was a story. So I finished it, and then I went back and wrote the essay. That was odd.

You and I have talked a little bit about the perils and advantages of entering into the world of “traditional” commercial publishing, and you received quite a bit of attention after A Stranger in Olondria won the Crawford award. What made you choose to stay the course with Small Beer? Are you working on another book with them?

I am working on the Olondria sequel, and I very much hope Small Beer will take it! I mean, Small Beer. Do we need to say more? How amazing are they? I love their whole catalog, their flavor, if you know what I mean—and what was so exciting to me when they accepted A Stranger in Olondria, besides the fact that I’m a huge Kelly Link fan so I had a whole breathless fangirl thing about that, is that publishing with Small Beer meant reaching readers who are looking for that flavor. I feel like I’m part of something with a definite sensibility. Gavin and Kelly are curators. I love that.

They are so wonderful; they are really two of the most excellent people on the planet. And yeah, Small Beer is so clearly curated; their taste is simultaneously so personal and so broad. Huzzah, Small Beer!

You have said that A Stranger in Olondria is a “book-lover’s book” (which is, I think, a wholly accurate assessment!). I was so struck by how incredibly immersive it is to read—the world is so complete and tangible and I would often forget where I was for long stretches while I was reading it. What books have offered that experience to you as a reader?

#1: Proust. I discovered Proust while I was in South Sudan, and it affected me so deeply that the best account I can give of the experience is A Stranger in Olondria itself. In other words, my novel explains it better than this interview will. What I can say is that Proust taught me about immersion in language, about infusing objects with feeling, and about light. Other writers who’ve drawn me in, who I was also reading in South Sudan, are Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Vikram Seth.

That’s so interesting to me, because when I was traveling abroad all I wanted to read was classic novels—Anna Karenina, all of Dickens, Moll Flanders, stuff like that, which is not the kind of thing I’m most likely to pick up in my normal life. (Partly because they were the cheapest English-language books I could find, but I got into the rhythm, too.) I think of Proust and Tolstoy and Eliot especially as being very much Of The Western Canon; was there something about being in South Sudan, do you think, that pushed you to those books?

Three things, one of which you’ve mentioned already: a) they were available; b) they were cheap; and c) they were big. We—my husband Keith and I—were only able to get books on our school breaks, when we’d go to Nairobi, Kenya to stay with family. We couldn’t get books in South Sudan at the time. So the situation was, you’d bring in books with you, and that was it, that was all the books you were going to get for three months. We did a lot of rereading, obviously, which is an excellent thing to do, but we also developed a passion for giant books. A big book is such a comfort. Proust—there’s so much of him!

There is, of course, a problem here, which is tied to the other problem I was thinking about during those years, the problem of teaching English abroad. Something’s wrong when Western classics are cheaper and easier to get in an African city than African novels. Those paperback Penguin Classics—I love them, but you could argue that they’re kind of a scourge.

Yes! Definitely. Which circles back, obviously, to some of the things you’re dealing with in A Stranger in Olondria: stories are as much a tool of empire as they are of the imagination.

You’ve cited the Earthsea books as an influence—are there other books that you feel were essential to the writer you ended up becoming?

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (the rather horrible English title of L’Amour, la fantasia). Marguerite Duras, The Lover. Elias Khoury, Little Mountain. Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast. My beloved Tolkien, of course. And Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North—I wrote my MA thesis on that book right before I wrote A Stranger in Olondria, and it was a huge influence. I’ve been teaching Salih’s book this year and every time I reread it I’m like wow, this is so much Olondria. I’m a thief.

How to Get Back to the Forest.” Oh my god. Just, oh my god. What sparked that story?

Hahaha! Anxiety, naturally! I wrote that story when I’d just accepted the job I now have, as an English prof. I’m 42, but this is my first “real job”—until now, I’ve always been a student or some kind of volunteer. And of course I was delighted and honestly relieved to have a job, but at the same time it was very scary, the idea of participating in an institution, like am I giving in, in some fundamental way, to capitalism, to the incarceration of knowledge, to the machine? And I was so worried about having to give people grades—I’d been a teaching assistant, but still, to be the prof, in charge of the final grades—it freaked me out, the idea of judging and disciplining people and making them toe the line. So, this idea of the camp in the story came up, with these loathsome perky counselors, because I was thinking, I’ve sold out, oh God, this is me! But also—and this is REALLY weird because you are the person interviewing me right now—I’d read three incredibly compelling essays about vomit, one of them being Kate Zambreno’s “Toilet Bowl,” which you published at Guillotine! So all the vomit stuff? Basically your fault.

Ha! Sorry. It’s compelling, though.

Absolutely. The link between “revolt” and “revolting” that Kate draws out—that was my inspiration right there.

Sarah McCarry (@therejectionist / www.therejectionist.com) is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings, and the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a chapbook series dedicated to revolutionary nonfiction.

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the 2014 Crawford Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Campbell, Nebula, Rhysling, and BSFA Awards. Her short fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, and Lightspeed. She is a co-editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. Visit her in California, or at www.sofiasamatar.com.


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