[Interview] Sofia Samatar (English Version)
Interview performing during Le Festival des Imaginales 2017
Available in Audio on YouTube or for the readers on this page
Thanks a lot to Sofia Samatar, a wonderfully brilliant and elegant writer, to Erwann Perchoc who helped me to correct and customize this interview and to Le Festival des Imaginales.
Hello Sofia, for french readers who don’t know you, could you introduce yourself?
Sure. I am a writer of science-fiction and fantasy; recently I also started writing some memoirs. I am a futurist, a fabulist and a memoirist: I think that’s the best way to describe myself. I’ve been writing for a long time, but my work only started to be published about five or six years ago. I’ve written two novels, both set in the same fantasy world, an alternate world that I created, called Olondria. The first book is A Stranger in Olondria, available in French, and the second one is The Winged Histories, which came out in 2016. Just recently, in April 2017, my short story collection, called Tender, came out.
Before you began as a writer, you were a teacher in Sudan, in Egypt and after that in California. Why this choice of job in first place and what are the benefits for you when you decide to write fictions?
Teaching is my profession and I’m still a teacher. After South Sudan, Egypt and California, I now live in Virginia and I’m an English professor at James Madison University. I sort of have a double career, and I like it that way. It makes me very busy, but it also means that my writing—which I’ve always done, in fact I was writing before I was teaching—isn’t necessary to pay the bills. I always have a teaching job so that I can live; that also means I’m very free with my writing: I can write anything I want, without worrying about whether it’s gonna sell or not, and I don’t have to change anything about it in order to make it sell. That’s very important to me.
I think there is always a relationship between those different parts of my life. They’re very connected. For example, I travelled for my teaching, as you mentioned, to South Sudan where I lived for three years and Egypt where I lived for nine years, and the atmosphere of those places really informed the fantasy world that I created. My teaching itself also appears, especially in the short stories. In Tender, there is a story called “How to Get back to the Forest” which is a kind of near future dystopia where the young people are separated from their parents and kept in this terrible camp/school that was supposed to be fun but, as the story goes on, you realize they are really more prisoners than students. This story is about my anxiety about being a teacher, because I love teaching university students, but, at the same time, I worry sometimes as I’m correcting their papers. You know, I’m making them write in the correct way that’s somehow…you know there is something oppressive about teaching sometimes… I’m trying not to make it that way but sometimes it feels that way. Another example is “Walkdog”, a story also in Tender, which is written in the form of a student’s paper with all of the spelling mistakes and everything. The student is writing a paper and then, in the footnotes, she’s telling the truth about her life. So there is also an interaction between my teaching and my writing.
You’ve started publishing in 2012 with short stories…
I think (actually, I’ve more or less forgotten) it was in late 2011 that I published poetry in Stone Telling magazine, two poems (“The Sand Diviner” and “Girl Hours”). I believe that was my first kind of creative work to appear. But then, as far as fiction, it was 2012.
And why the short form in the first place?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m a natural novelist so, for me, to write a novel feels very comfortable. I started writing short stories for two reasons: first, I was at the time at graduate school, doing a doctorate in African Languages and Literatures, specifically Arabic literature, studying Arabic literature of Africa. I had to write a dissertation and papers for class, I was working on this big project. So for my creative work then, I started to do the shorter form because it was very hard for me to do a long form, a novel at the same time as my dissertation.
The second reason is that I had sold my novel A Stranger in Olondria, which was written before, to Small Beer Press in 2010 or 2011. I knew that my novel was going to be published but I was completely unknown to readers. I didn’t even have a blog, I was invisible in a way. And I thought that, if I had a novel coming up, maybe it would be a good idea to become a little more visible, and if I wrote short stories and could get them published, then people would know my name before the novel came out.
From the very beginning, you used folktales and mythological creatures in your stories. Why this choice in particular?
This choice is made from love. I think many people who are interested in fantasy have a real love for mythology and folklore. Actually, you find many of us who have studied this area and who are really deep students of mythology and folklore. I would like to be able to say why we love these stories, but it’s such a big question and it’s very difficult to explain, because it’s so natural for me to be drawn to fairytales and folk culture that I just wonder: who are the people who don’t like it and why would anyone not like it ? It’s hard to explain where it comes from. However I think part of it, it is a sense of interaction with the past. As much as we think about the future, as humans we need to remember the past; we have a need for some connection and interaction with what has gone before us. It’s very rich! Then, there is a sense of depth in interacting with something that you didn’t make up… I mean, partly, it’s your imagination but also it’s the imagination of others from the past that you’re drawing on, and I think that creates a certain richness.
Your first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, was published in 2013. You choose a fantasy world but a very uncommon one because you have a very intimate perspective on it with your main character. Jevick is not a warrior, he is just a merchant. Why did you want this kind of hero for your story?
I think partly because of the matter of the novel. The novel is about travel, exile, nostalgia and very complex feelings of how much we love home, how much we miss it if we lose it, but then also our problems with home. How much we can be critical of home as well. So, I was going to have a character who was on a journey. It was very important for me to really create a world that felt almost three-dimensional. A world that felt real, that you could visualize very clearly: you could sense the air, sense the smell and so on. My traveler was going to be somebody who would notice what was around him. And so I needed him to be a merchant, but that was just his job and how he would get there. But he’s really a student. He is a student, not from Olondria: he studies Olondria’s language and culture. And this is a very different perspective from a warrior. If I had made him a warrior, he would have a certain purpose: to conquer, not to look, to notice and to immerse himself in this other culture. So, it’s this student perspective that I wanted in order to bring the reader into Olondria in a way that would encourage the reader also to recognize the place and to really feel it.
In the same way, you don’t use many fantasy creatures. In fact, you mainly use an angel. Can we say that your novel is a light fantasy world? And why don’t you choose to use more fantasy creatures in your novel?
When I set out to write the novel, I wanted to put in everything that I love about fantasy because I love this genre very much, including epic fantasy, but I wanted to leave out all the things that I don’t care about or that I find boring. Actually, what I love about fantasy is the idea of moving from place to place, of discovering new places, discovering new worlds. I love fantastical languages and I had a lot of fun because there are a couple of different languages in my novel: Jevick has his own language and in Olondria there is a different language and, Olondria being an Empire, there are even several languages inside it. I really enjoyed imagining these languages and how each one worked. But I’m always bored by the battles in fantasy novels. Every time I come to a battle, I start flipping the pages quickly… It feels very routine to me, it’s just a repetition of heads falling and rolling, which really doesn’t interest me. So, I left that part out. As far as magical creatures, I said actually yesterday “There are no dragons because I don’t care about that” and then, the interviewer read an excerpt from the novel in which actually dragons are mentioned, so there is within Olondria a mythology that includes dragons. I do actually like magical creatures. I must admit that in the second book there is a very magical creature on the cover, which depicts one of the characters from the novel riding on a giant bird with huge wings. There are more fantastical creatures in The Winged Histories but A Stranger in Olondria is really about travel, reading, writing, literature and the idea that literature gives us contact with the dead. That’s why there is this presence of this angel who we might call a ghost: someone who has died and who comes into contact with the hero.
You talk also a lot about religion in your book. What is your point of view about all this religious matter and are you a religious person yourself?
I am Mennonite which is a small Protestant group. Historically, it’s a peace church, a very anti-war church. This comes to me from my mother side: all of my mother’s side of my family is Mennonite. My father’s side—my father passed away two years ago—is Somali so all this side of my family is Muslim. In some way, I’m between these two world religions, Christianity and Islam. Though I am Mennonite myself, I have a lot of affection for both of these traditions. This position that I’ve been in during my whole life is what created my interest in how different religions exist in the same space, in A Stranger in Olondria. And of course as we know, they often find it difficult to coexist peacefully. It doesn’t mean that they never did, there are times historically when people of different faiths lived together without any problem. But there are also many places in which it’s a situation of conflict—this has been my experience during my lifetime. We see a lot of religious conflicts, and when I wrote the novel, I was interested in exploring a moment, almost a crisis in Olondria, between an older form of religion and a new one that has just arrived.
For all this work, this world, what was your inspiration?
I’m a reader first, as I think most writers are—if they’re not, they should be!—so my writing comes out of reading and the things that I love. There are a couple of different streams of inspiration that I draw from. One of them is classic: in fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien is a giant to me and a huge inspiration from when I was a kid, especially with the language because I studied linguistics. I loved his interest in philology and the way he created his languages. Ursula K. Le Guin is also a very important figure for me. And finally Mervyn Peake. Maybe he is not as well-known as the other two, but he wrote the Gormenghast Trilogy. What inspired me in Mervyn Peake is that he is a great example of a fantasy writer who really cares about language. He created this weird castle where these people are living. In fact, in Olondria, there is a giant castle, which is the palace where the king lives, but it’s also a city, exactly like Gormenghast: it’s one building, both a castle and a whole city. That was a very direct Mervyn Peake influence. But I also love the way he takes his time creating his characters in this immensely rich, very poetic language. He is not in a rush to get to the next point. So that was a big inspiration for me as well. That’s kind of the fantasy stream that goes into my writing. The other stream is just other work that I love, not classified as fantasy. When I was writing A Stranger in Olondria, I read—twice!—all of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and I loved it. Proust had an amazing ability to insert emotions into landscapes, and to draw emotions out of landscapes also. That was very inspiring to me. Like Marguerite Duras, another writer who I read again and again—especially when I was writing the part which is in the voice of the angel, that’s really like a Duras voice. And then Michael Ondaatje, a Canadian writer that I love a lot, who wrote The English Patient. All of those writers, in terms of their technique and the way that they use the language, were very important for me as well.
You have another publication in French, a short story called “Honey Bear”, published in Blind Spot (Angle Mort) n°11. This story is nominated for one of the greatest award in France, Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. It’s the same sort of story that you tell in A Stranger in Olondria, because it’s an unconventional extraterrestrial invasion. How did you find this idea?
How did I form the idea? It’s hard for me to remember where it came from but I would say that, when we have new and unconventional ideas, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s more like taking old ideas and then mixing and recombining them in a new way, so that we re-invent them. “Honey Bear” is indeed a story about extraterrestrials but it’s also a story about human beings who try to find a place, they try to insert this very new thing into their imagination in order to comprehend it, to understand it. They do this through a return to folklore. They imagine these completely alien beings, and they’re also trying to explain this to a child, and they do that through fairytales. I think that’s how human beings operate. There are periods when we are not used to the new, and we have to explain it in terms of the old. When the automobile was first invented, it looked like a horse carriage. It’s not nice and streamlined the way cars should be in order to deal with the wind and everything, it just looks like a horseless horse carriage… After that you can slowly adapt to the new.
It’s a way to understand, to have a better understanding of this invasion in fact?
It’s a way to prevent yourself from actually losing your mind in the face of something that’s so new. We can be completely overwhelmed, paralyzed by the shock of the new. So our brains quickly start inventing, asking “Okay, what categories do I have? Do I have any category that can admit this new thing?” Well, it’s an extraterrestrial being, it’s airborne, it has wings, so it’s a fairy.
You publish also poetry. What is the connection between your work in poetry and your work in fantasy and science-fiction?
I think the interesting question is the relationship between poetry and fiction, and why write both of them. It’s actually my dream someday to write a whole novel in poetry but I think this is very annoying to readers. I know some people have tried it, have done it, like Vikram Seth, his book called The Golden Gate. He wrote it in poetry, the whole thing, and even I can’t read it. But there are others, for instance the Canadian poet Anne Carson, one of my favorite poets. She has a wonderful book called Autobiography of Red in which she’s taking a character from Greek legend and imagining his life. It doesn’t rhyme—which is good for me—but it’s poetry, it’s a whole novel in poetry. I love this idea. So A Stranger in Olondria also has a lot of poetry in it. I like narrative poetry; I like the mixture of poetry and narrative, and poetry that tells a story. I never thought of myself as a poet until I discovered that there was such a thing as speculative poetry, which is science-fiction and fantasy poetry—I never heard of it until I discovered magazines like Stone Telling, which Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan, are running, this online poetry magazine. It’s wonderful! When I read it, I thought “Oh, maybe I do write poetry, this is what I write!” I think that’s because science-fiction and fantasy are very story-oriented genres, it does go back to these older forms of mythology and fairytales that tell stories. So, when you have poetry using science-fiction and fantasy, it is often narrative poetry, it’s poetry that also has a story to it. I really love working in that space.
A Stranger in Olondria won two major prizes. What do you feel when you receive it and how they affected your work in some way?
That was just so incredible for me. First of all to be published was incredible because I worked very hard to get published and I was unsuccessful for a long time. After I wrote A Stranger in Olondria, I tried to find an agent, which is what we have to do in America because you can’t contact publishers directly. I tried for five years unsuccessfully to get an agent. Finally, I connected with Small Beer Press and they were very happy with the book; that was very already very exciting. To have a debut novel from a small press, to really be recognized and nominated for awards, and win some of the awards, that was just amazing. As far as it’s affecting my work, one thing I was very happy about when I look back is that I did not begin seeking a publisher for A Stranger in Olondria until the first draft of The Winged Histories, the second book, was also written. I actually wrote it because I always imagined these two books that would go together, A Stranger in Olondria and this kind of companion. Not a big series but the two novels. I wrote both of the novels first completely, and then I began to revise them for many years—but I had the first draft before I started looking for publisher. That was good because when A Stranger in Olondria did so well and won these awards, it didn’t affect the writing of the second book because it was already written. So I didn’t have any temptation to try to do A Stranger in Olondria again or something like that, because I already had a different text that was written.
Can you tell us more about your second book?
Sure. When I said The Winged Histories is a companion to A Stranger in Olondria, it means it’s not exactly a direct sequel, so each book can be read individually; you don’t have to read both of them. But it also fills some of the gaps that are in A Stranger in Olondria. The first novel is written from a perspective of a stranger, who is not a native Olondrian. The second book is set completely in Olondria and all of the characters are Olondrian people. In the first book, you also have a male voice through most of the story, we meet some Olondrian women but the main female’s voice is the voice of the angel who is also not from Olondria. The second book tells the story of four Olondrian women. It’s divided is in four sections, each of them having a different main character; but they are all facets of the same story. One is a soldier, one is a poet, one is a scholar and the last one is a socialite of sorts, a noblewoman, and there are different relationships between them. Two of them are sisters, two of them are lovers, and a couple of them are on different sides of the war that’s taking place in Olondria. It’s called The Winged Histories because this is about history, memory, and especially about what happens to certain voices, especially the voices of women, because Olondria—like my own society—is a patriarchal society. What happens to the voices of women in times of conflict? Do their histories remain and become sort of canonized and get retold, or are they the kind of histories that fly away ?
For the end, a simple question: who are your favorite writers of the moment?
I can mention a couple of them.
One of them, who is actually here in Épinal, is Catherynne M. Valente. If I had to choose one person who is bringing the most life to the genre, I would pick Catherynne Valente. I think she has a wonderful use of language and just a joy, she has a real joy in invention, both in terms of plot and also in terms of language, she’s very inventive in both. My favorite book of hers—I asked some people and they told me it’s not available in French—but in English it’s called Palimpsest, and it’s a wonderful novel about a “sexually transmitted city”. Only when people have sex can they enter the city, and to go to the city you have to have sex with somebody who’s been to the city. It’s very original and very beautifully written, a very exciting novel. I love it.
Another writer I would mention is Jeff Vandermeer, who had actually a lot of success recently with his novels, especially The Southern Reach Trilogy; he has published another novel, Borne, which just came out this year. He has a great kind of ecological sensibility and he’s very observant, he is really good about writing environment and human interactions with it. I love one of his older works, City of Saints and Madmen. That’s a kind of compendium of texts from this strange city and it’s absolutely one of my favorites. Jeff and his wife Ann Vandermeer are also fantastic editors: they make great anthologies that are bringing a lot to the genre, in my opinion. They are some of the people who are doing a lot to bring in writers in translation. Their big anthology, The Weird, that I really love, contains a lot of translated works, and it was an introduction for a lot of American readers to many writers that they never knew before.
Last few words for your French readers?
I look forward to and I long for more interactions between literatures, between fantasy and science-fiction in English, and fantasy and science-fiction in French, especially more translations. I read French but very slowly, with a lot of difficulty, with my dictionary beside me. Being here, in Épinal, walking around in this big room full of books, full of writers—and I know they are wonderful because I see big lines of people are waiting to get these books in French—I wish that we could have these books in English. I don’t have a solution, I know the whole process of translation and publication is very complicated, but I think this is a place where writers who are working in English and writers who are working in French could somehow put our heads together and try to come up with some solutions to this problem. How can we get more translations and how can we make more of our works available to each other? Because one of the greatest things you can do to enrich your writing and to enrich your genre is to read works from other places and from others’ languages.
- Review of A Stranger in Olondria (French Version)
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Tags : Interview, Sofia Samatar, éditions de l'Instant, Small Beer Press, Imaginales 2017, Science-fiction, Fantasy
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