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Q&A Sofia Samatar on the many influences on her fantasy novel, 'The Winged Histories'

Wednesday March 16, 2016

Sofia Samatar, author of "The Winged Histories" from Small Beer Press. (Peter Duffy / Small Beer Press)

Sofia Samatar was born to a Somali father and Swiss German Mennonite mother in a small town in northern Indiana. Passionate about languages, Samatar moved to South Sudan and later to Egypt during her twenties to teach English and learn Arabic with her husband author Keith Miller.

Now, with a doctorate in African languages and literature, she lives in Ventura and brings a dynamic set of cultural and linguistic influences to her fiction.

It was 2013 when Samatar published her debut novel, “A Stranger in Olondria,” with Small Beer Press, the Massachusetts-based fantasy imprint run by Kelly Link and her husband, Gavin Grant. In rich, poetic prose and employing lavish imagination, “A Stranger in Olondria” introduced this remarkable country where ghosts, religious fanatics and warring factions converged.

The book won a British Fantasy Award for best novel.

I spoke with Samatar about strong female characters and violence, how “One Thousand and One Nights” was an inspiration, and what it’s like to work as an assistant professor of English at UC Channel Islands. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I read that you first drafted this imaginary world while teaching English in South Sudan. Can you talk about your experience in creating this world?

It started out really simply: I just wanted to write the book that I wanted to read. I’ve always been a huge fan of epic fantasy, but I often enjoyed the concept more than the actual books in that genre.

What I wanted was, first of all, to create a world where everybody looks like me. Everybody in Olondria and in the Tea Islands, which I write about in “A Stranger in Olondria,” if they showed up in our world they would be considered ethnically ambiguous. They all look like some version of a mixed person. The other thing I wanted to do was to write fantasy in which language was very important.

Your novel follows four characters of very different socio-economic circumstances and jumping from first person to letters and documentation to third person to show how the war affects each of them. What compelled you to follow this structure?

I’ve always been really interested in what I think of as the texture in writing, the different textures within the same text. I love embedded narratives. I have an obsession with “One Thousand and One Nights.”

“One Thousand and One Nights” is a work that includes a lot of poetry and prose, rhyming prose that is between the two. It has first-person narratives. It has third-person narratives. “One Thousand and One Nights,” in a lot of ways, was a major inspiration for the way that I approached the structure of the book.

Let’s talk about Tav, who begins the novel. She is a noblewoman who runs away from her family to enlist in a war.

There is a lot of talk in fantasy and science fiction in general about strong female characters. We need strong female characters. How do we write them? Tav’s goal is to be this strong character. She thinks, as I think many of us do, power is something that you experience through violence. In order to be a strong character you must be violent.

Her first move is to be a sword maiden, the woman warrior. She joins the army, switches sides. She’s a military leader, but that eventually gets called into question. The character of Tav is sort of a psychological journey of the idea that being a strong woman requires embracing masculinist violence and militarism and realizing the emptiness of that approach.

Why are the fathers in this novel so quick to sacrifice their daughters?

I belong to two intensely major patriarchal worldviews: U.S. American and Somali. They are also both militaristic societies that have a lot of struggles with the equation of masculinity and violence. The fathers, in some ways, are a figure for this whole worldview in which they [the daughters] are abandoned. They are not supposed to be main characters as far as the father is concerned. The sons are the main characters.

You write poetry. How does poetry inform your fiction?

I love forms that are on the border, so I like prose poems for example. I love novels in poetry. I’m thinking of Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red.” As a reader and certainly as a critic, as someone who writes about literature, I’m super-interested in genre.

And I can talk about genre whether it’s speculative or literary fiction or whether it’s between poem or novel, I can talk about that all day. When I’m doing it, all of that discussion is completely forgotten. I’m immersed in language. I’m under language. I go where it’s leading me.

You’re assistant professor of English at UC Channel Islands. I read your essay “Skin Feeling” published in September 2015 in the New Inquiry where you state: “As a black academic, part of a tiny minority, I often feel hypervisible, exposed.”

There’s a real push for diversity in higher education, which on the one hand is great. However, to do that kind of work in an institution, [it] is just really easy to do nothing.

The institution that you are within makes it easier to have a bunch of diversity discussions -- Black History Month we are going to do this thing, Women’s History Month we are going to do this thing -- and not actually change anything in terms of who has access to these spaces and in terms of what is the experience of people who are from historically underrepresented groups when they are in those academic spaces. So there’s a real frustration that I’ve experienced in terms of on the one hand being invited to every diversity thing and being placed on every diversity committee and also feeling that I’m spending a lot of my time supposedly involved in this kind of diversity work, I’m not able to see that it’s doing anything.

What are you working on next?

The new book is a hybrid text: history, fiction, criticism and memoir. It is built around a historical event, which is the migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what’s now Uzbekistan. It is a departure but it’s kind of a fantastical story. It sounds like science fiction. I am Mennonite myself and my family is Mennonite [on one side] and Muslim on the other. So this story of these Mennonites in Uzbekistan is kind of an early Muslim interaction. I’m entering that story as a doorway to my own experience. Along the way, I’m researching and discovering all kinds of things. I’m writing about identity, about Mennonites’ writing and Mennonite literature. It is kind of like a compendium of my strangeness.

Samatar returns to Olondria with “The Winged Histories,” out Tuesday from Small Beer Press. This time, readers follow the paths of four women — a soldier, poet, socialite and scholar — whose lives are undervalued in Olondria, and who must face the ravages of a war.


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