Sofia Samatar is recently the author of A Stranger in Olondria, a warm and vivid debut fantasy novel just out from the fine folk at Small Beer Press. Locus has called Olondria “the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer”. We’re thrilled to have her with us. This interview was conducted by Erin Hoffman via email.
Ideomancer: Congratulations on the release of your debut, which so far is gathering wide acclaim! How do you feel having it complete and out in the world?
Sofia Samatar: So far, so good! I love getting feedback from readers. It’s heartening to feel I’ve written something that speaks to people, and to see reviews that really engage with my material coming from people like Gary K. Wolfe, Amal El-Mohtar, Nisi Shawl, and Craig Laurance Gidney.
I: How did your book come to be published by Small Beer, and how have you liked working with them?
SS: I have to answer the second part first because I love working with them! I love it so much. Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link do so much for the sf/f community, their books are beautiful, and they’ve been a dream to work with every step of the way, from edits to cover art to promotion. I’m honored to have a Small Beer book. I also need to take a moment for a shout-out to my cover artist, Kathleen Jennings, who is awesome.
How did it happen? Well, I hope Gavin doesn’t wind up hating me for saying this, but what happened is that I went to WisCon, walked up to the Small Beer table in the dealer’s room, bought some books, introduced myself, and said: “So I’ve written this novel…” He said, “Hmm, okay, send me three chapters.” And then it was “Send us the whole manuscript,” and then it was “We want to publish it.” Please, anyone who plans to corner Gavin at a con — at least buy some books!
I: They should buy books indeed. What inspired you to write the novel, and what was the writing of it like? Did anything surprise you?
SS: That’s an interesting question, because I spent so long working on the book. It took me two years to write the first draft, and another decade, on and off, to revise. So different things inspired me at different points along the way. First I was inspired by worldbuilding, especially inventing languages, and creating a place where everyone looked something like me. Then I was inspired by the idea of angels and ghosts being the same thing: beauty and terror in one. Then it was travel and exile. Then it was the struggle between oral and written forms of knowledge. Then it was imperialism. Not necessarily in that order, but you know, those are some of the things that came out as I was working.
It surprised me at one point to discover I’d written a book that is quite political. I didn’t intend to do that when I started — I just wanted to have a good time with maps and ghosts and things. It was meant to be a totally self-indulgent project. I suppose when I started I didn’t believe politics and self-indulgence could go together, and then later I realized that in some ways they have to, because your politics involves what you believe about yourself and what you think is best for the world. So to find I’d written a book addressing the suppression of oral cultures by literate ones was surprising, and then not, if that makes sense!
I: These things tend to emerge in fascinating ways. Books and the effect of literacy are also obviously very important. What do you think about the appearance of that suppression, how it fits into the rest of the emergent politics, and what does it mean that the oppression comes from Olondria?
SS: The oppression comes from Olondria because Olondria is an empire. Like any empire, it’s built on conquered peoples. Olondria is a beautiful place in many ways — Jevick, the main character, loves it, and I would love to visit it myself, but there’s no escaping the fact that its history is bloody. What’s happening in the book is that those in power are trying to strengthen their hold on Olondria, and that means stamping out old gods and old forms of expression. Literacy is being pushed in order to stifle oral culture. And there’s money involved, of course. It’s a struggle for both resources and cultural dominance.
I: I was going to ask about your worldbuilding, because it is subtle and lovely, very un-pretentious and yet completely vivid. What worlds inspired you, and how did you decide to emphasize books and trading?
SS: The biggest worldbuilding influence is probably Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy — his world is so richly developed, almost too much, a little out of control, and he just doesn’t care, he keeps on adding stuff, more descriptions, more weird nooks and crannies. It’s never too much for him. I love that.
Books and trading — books because they’re central to the story, and trading because, well, I’m really not sure. I had visited a tea farm in Kenya around the time I started writing. And I had read Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s gorgeous memoir, in which there are tropical farms. I feel like these things were floating around in my head, and by the time I put pen to paper, my main character lived on a pepper farm.
I: Was there anything that emerged through the writing that you explicitly didn’t like, or revealed thought processes you didn’t realize you’d internalized and were coming through in the fiction?
SS: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there was necessarily anything I didn’t like, but there were difficult things — things I can’t really discuss without spoilers! There are omissions, I feel — unanswered questions about what life is like for Olondrian women, for example. That one gets tackled in the sequel!
I: Do you have a favorite moment or character from the book (that isn’t a spoiler )?
SS: I love the moment when Jevick learns to read. He just throws himself into books and lives there — which is very much the way I read myself. And I love his tutor, Lunre, who has left his own country forever. Lunre is a very melancholy character, and also a person of great integrity who is starting his life over from scratch.
I: Your passion for that moment comes through. If we may quote:
I, too, soon after I read my first book, Nardien’s Tales for the Tender, succumbed to the magic voices that called to me from their houses of vellum. It was a great wonder to me to come so close to these foreign spirits, to see with the eyes and hear with the ears of those I had never known, to communicate with the dead, to feel that I knew them intimately, and that they knew me more completely than any person I knew in the flesh.
– A Stranger in Olondria, ch. 3
I: There’s a lot of love evident in Lunre, too. The dynamic between him and Jevick’s father is fascinating. There’s something going on there about the way one generation wants to overcome the other, but there being tension between the two — I get the impression that on the one hand Jevick’s father wants him to become great, but not too great, if that makes sense. Would you agree, or how would you describe the dynamic between them, and the way Jevick’s father strains between the past and the future, his own world and the world outside?
SS: I think you’ve just described the dynamic really well. Jevick’s father wants Jevick to have what he never did — access to a foreign language and culture. But then he realizes — too late — that learning these things is going to make his son a different person, someone the father can’t understand anymore. I wouldn’t say Jevick’s father is a particularly sympathetic character, but I do sympathize with his problem. He thinks a foreign language can act as a simple tool, specifically as a tool for making money. He doesn’t realize what learning a language does. It changes you.
I: Who, or what, inspires you?
SS: Books and more books. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mervyn Peake, Michael Ondaatje, Carole Maso, Miral al-Tahawy, Claudia Rankine, and the list goes on.
I: Favorite titles from any or each of those that come to mind?
SS: Oh, wow. In order: The Lord of the Rings; The Tombs of Atuan; Gormenghast (the middle one); The English Patient; AVA; The Tent; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
I: What brought you to fantasy, and how long have you been writing it?
SS: I’ve loved fantasy as long as I can remember — even when I could only read picture books, I wanted some kind of departure from realism, like “Bread and Jam for Frances” was cool because Frances was a badger. I’ve also almost always written fantasy. I had a brief period in high school where I got disgusted with the genre and thought it was horrible because I’d exhausted the local Waldenbooks and library, and I thought that was all there was. So then I had a realist phase. I wrote a Hemingwayesque novel about a pair of card sharps. AWFUL.
I: The awful always seems a necessary step toward the not-awful. How, if at all, has your family background influenced your work?
SS: Oh, quite a lot, I think. My dad is from Somalia, and my mom is a Swiss-German Mennonite from North Dakota. This makes me interested in African and African diasporic experiences, mixed identities, marginalized communities, religion, deserts, oral poetry, and hymns — to name just a few things!
I: Your debut is about an outsider – what draws you to outsiders, and was the choice deliberate?
SS: See the above answer! I’ve spent my life having people ask me about my ethnic background, usually very shortly after meeting me. This doesn’t exactly bother me — I get that people want to know, and it can be a way of making connections — but it’s a reminder that I’m different, that I can’t automatically be received as a “in-group” person. And then when I explain my background, I often get a reaction like “WHO? WHAT? HOW?!?” And that does bother me, because what it means is: “No way! You did not just exist! You are impossible!” It used to really frustrate me when I was younger. Now it’s easier to take it in stride, partly because I’ve learned there are actually tons of people like me. I don’t mean tons of people with my exact background, but when you consider all the mixed people in the world, all the children of immigrants, and then people with different types of nonconforming identities, queer identities, etc. — there’s a lot of support. It feels good.
I: Wow. Yes, you could say hybrids are on the rise. Do you think that there’s still pressure for you to identify with one background or the other, and how do you think this comes across in your fiction?
SS: Well, yes: people find it much easier to see me as Somali or African-American than Mennonite. They also want to see me as Arab and Muslim, because I study Arabic literature! I’ve treated this stuff in my fiction in some ways, especially in my story “A Brief History of Nonduality Studies,” and in the sequel to Olondria I’m working on now. “Brief History” is in part a call to dissolve false borders, especially the ones between north and sub-Saharan Africa, but really borders of all kinds. And in the Olondria sequel I deal pretty directly with mixed race issues.
I: Exciting. Since words, names, and books have such importance in Olondria, I have to wonder: do you think the dynamic you describe above would differ if you’d inherited a surname from your mother rather than your father? Names have such odd power.
SS: I think it would be different — at least for people reading my name, without meeting me. But things tend to change when you get to know a person. Whatever associations you’ve attached to their name have to shift to make room for that person’s actual history. Names have power, but they can also develop new meanings.
I: You have a lovely poem in this issue of Ideomancer. How do you choose whether an idea becomes a poem or part of a larger piece?
SS: Thank you! About form: I usually don’t have to decide. The piece decides for me. It comes like that. It’s funny, but the one piece I remember not being that way is my Ideomancer story, “The Nazir,” which started out as a novel.
I: I well remember that story! It had a world-vividness that is novel-like. The natural question follows: what’s next for you?
SS: Revising the sequel to Olondria! A task by turns delightful and horrid!
I: That it is. Best of luck with it! Any closing thoughts?
SS: Thank you for the conversation, and thanks to the Ideomancer staff for their interest in my work and for keeping this space alive with stories!
We’d like to thank Sofia for joining us for this interview, and for contributing her fine poem to this issue. You can read more about A Stranger in Olondria at the Small Beer website, read an excerpt at Tor.com, and order the book from your local indie bookstore.