Interview: Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is a self–admitted study in contrast, “generally feeling torn between two things I love in equal measure.” As an academic she brings a keen insight into her work, distilling literature, art, history, and religion into a potent mixture of truth encased in beautiful prose. Sharply honed and confident, her World Fantasy Award–winning debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria sweeps the reader into an evocative world where the power of story is revealed. In “Those,” Samatar strips the veneer of complacency from cultural history, literary classics, and even the Book of Revelations, and challenges the reader to pull each of these things out from the shadows of received wisdom. A writer, poet, and editor, her work has appeared in numerous publications including Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and Lightspeed. Winner of the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Samatar is an important new literary voice whose works continue to be both thought–provoking and entertaining.

Uncanny Magazine: Those” is the type of story that creates a wonderful dilemma for the reader: The desire to race through to see how the story ends wars with the desire to slow down and savor language and poetic rhythm of the words. This is a complex story that touches on many themes including colonialism, racism, and religion. What was the spark for this story?  

Sofia Samatar: The spark for the story is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the many works inspired by it. I think of this body of work collectively, as a sort of Heart of Darkness machine. I’m especially influenced by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, whose novel Season of Migration to the North is a brilliant reverse Heart of Darkness, but of course there are tons of others, maybe most famously Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Francis Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. And then last year, you might remember, President Obama said in a speech “The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” And then I saw the movie Interstellar and there’s a part where they’re looking at something, probably a black hole, I forget, and somebody goes “There’s the heart of darkness!”

It’s just everywhere, this metaphor, despite Achebe’s critique of it decades ago in his essay “The Image of Africa”—the one where he calls Conrad a “bloody racist.” I mean, whatever you think of Conrad, it seems like we should pause over calling anything a “heart of darkness” considering the way Conrad’s metaphor brings together blackness, the landscape of the Congo, savagery, and inhumanity. But we don’t—that’s why I think of the metaphor as a machine. I wrote this story feeling like well, it’s here, inescapable, let’s address it. You can’t address it without taking part in it, so now I am part of the machine—just as the protagonist of my story, a young black woman, is the daughter of a white ex–colonial.

Uncanny Magazine: Your use of color in “Those” is fantastic. Phrases such as “he was so green he was almost silver” are incredibly evocative and linger in the reader’s mind. Are you a person for whom color is associated strongly with creativity? How does color affect your creative process?

Sofia Samatar: I’m definitely affected by color. I’m most interested in how color changes: skin color, for example, changes so much depending on the light, and also on emotions or other things happening in the body—in the example “he was so green he was almost silver,” the person is very ill. And of course a Heart of Darkness story is going to work with black and white! There’s black and white all through “Those.” The black woman, the white father. The black ants, the white maggots. The black bonnet, the white lilies. The black forest, the white fog.

I don’t usually think too much about these connections while I’m writing, but I notice them later, and I might emphasize them in revision. Very often a story or section of a novel develops its own palette. This can be really powerful, because color, like smell, goes straight to the emotions.

Uncanny Magazine: The religious imagery in this story made me catch my breath, particularly the scene where Sarah is weaving the twelve lilies into a crown. What makes using religious themes in your work compelling? Do you consider the emotional resonance of religion or do you see religious works and ideas as a rich form of literary text? Or is it, perhaps, a combination of the two?

Sofia Samatar: Hm! This is an interesting one. Do I consider the emotional resonance of religion, or see religious works and ideas as literary text? I think it has to be both. I don’t think I can separate religious–work–as–text from emotional–resonance–of–religion, because all texts, if they are worth anything, possess emotional resonance. As for what makes using these themes in my work compelling—I’m compelled to use them, compelled to think about religion, because I had a religious upbringing and I have a very religious family. And since there are different religions in my family (Islam and Christianity), I’m interested in how faith brings people together and how it separates them.

In “Those,” the religious element has a sadness about it, because Christianity is so entangled with the colonial project. It’s part of the main character’s mixed and fraught heritage. But it’s also a source of possibility. That’s how the “Free Church” in the story comes in, the Black church. It’s an alternative.

Uncanny Magazine: When reading “Those,” the narrative structure felt almost poetic, reminding me at times of such ballads as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. An old man’s recounting a long suppressed memory contrasting with Sarah’s stifling reality creates a wonderful dramatic tension. When crafting this story, what made you decide on this type of structure?

Sofia Samatar: Heart of Darkness again! Like Conrad’s novel, “Those” is a club story—with a difference. The typical club story, as defined by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, is told between men, because the club in question is an institution that doesn’t allow women. You know, it’s Victorian or Edwardian guys sitting around the fire with their brandies, talking quite literally man–to–man. A club story isn’t always told in a club—in Heart of Darkness they’re on a yacht—but it’s understood that women are out of the picture, which is crucial to Conrad’s text.

“Those” brings the structure of the club story into the domestic sphere. It’s a woman now, a daughter, who is listening. She’s also Black. I suppose I’m trying to ask—how does the story change depending on who’s listening?

Uncanny Magazine: This story is not only powerful and beautifully lyrical, it is also deeply layered. You recently wrote an essay in The Guardian in response to Ben Okri’s claim that a “tyranny of subject” is keeping Black writers from greatness. You challenged that Black literature didn’t need better writers it needs better readers. As a writer, what do you expect from your readers? Conversely, as an editor, (Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts) what do you expect from your writers when it comes to accessibility?

Sofia Samatar: The statement that “Black literature needs better readers” really needs to be understood in the context of my Guardian piece, because I’m talking, first, about a specific type of Black literature, the kind that’s successful with a white–dominated literary establishment, and second, about the professional readers who make up that establishment: mainstream publishers, critics, teachers, and so on. Those particular people do indeed need to step up their reading game when it comes to Black writing. But I’m not sitting here with a checklist of things my readers need to do. Of course I hope they’ll give my work the kind of attention they give to any other work, attention to form as well as content.

As for Interfictions—the great thing about it is that our submissions are totally unpredictable. I never have any idea what’s going to show up in the pool. People send so many wonderful weird things, it’s hard to imagine developing any kind of expectations! But to answer the question about my expectations in terms of accessibility, I have none. I mean, the work has to be accessible to the editors, I guess, or we wouldn’t be attracted to it and want to publish it, but beyond that? It’s just not something I’m really interested in. When I read a piece I don’t ask myself if it’s accessible. I ask if it’s powerful, moving, innovative, necessary.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing these insights about your work with us!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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