A Conversation with Sofia Samatar

Interview by Alicia Cole

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, the Hugo and Nebula nominated short story “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” and other works. She is the winner of the John W. Campbell Award, the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. She is a co-editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts, and teaches literature and writing at California State University Channel Islands.

Black Fox Literary Magazine: Your first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, has garnered quite a bit of attention and awards.  What has this process been like for you?

Sofia Samatar: Surreal. I spent ten years, on and off, working on the book. For five of those years, I was trying and failing to get an agent. People kept saying things like “I love the writing, but I can’t sell it. This is too literary for a fantasy novel, and too fantastical for a mainstream literary novel.” Stuff like that. So when I found the perfect publisher, Small Beer Press, my big fear was that I would bankrupt them with my non-selling clunker of a novel. To have the book get positive attention and awards is amazing!

BF: A Stranger in Olondria champions the cause of literacy.  How did you come to be passionate about this topic?

SS: This is a fascinating question, since I don’t really see the book as championing the cause of literacy. I mean, it’s very much a book-lover’s book, but the dilemma for the main character stems from the fact that reading and writing, his favorite activities, are also tools of empire. So while he continues to adore books, he also becomes increasingly aware of how much human life remains unwritten, and how writing is used to suppress and destroy primarily oral cultures.

His dilemma is also mine, of course. I love books so much, there’s a temptation to fetishize them. To forget that this whole writing thing is just a tiny blip in the history of narrative, and captures so few of the stories of any given moment. You can’t be sure that the best stories, the ones you need most, are written. Not at all. And I think if you’re going to take writing as your passion, then take all of it: revel in it, and remember how it’s also used to oppress those who don’t read and write, or who are only partially literate. It’s like that old saw about history being written by the winners, you know? We’re the winners.

BF: Talk a little bit about your upcoming book, Monster Portraits, which was a Calvino Prize finalist.  What can we expect? 

SS: Amazing drawings of monsters by my brother Del Samatar (you can see samples on his website, delsamatar.com), and prose poems by me which hopefully don’t ruin the effect of the pictures. You can expect to see these things a couple of years from now, published by some obscure little press you’ve never heard of. Maybe.

BF: What is interstitiality to you? How did you come to be fascinated by this medium?

SS: Interstitiality to me is the in-between. It’s a really broad category, because you can find it in the gap between any two opposing terms. So for example, it could exist between prose and poetry, or between what we call fantasy and what we call literary fiction.

BF: Speak about your editing work on Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts.  What works are you inspired to accept?

SS: Things with weight. Pieces whose experimentalism is a serious kind of play. Works that say something. I like cultural criticism and philosophy—I like it when I can see somebody thinking. I’m interested in personal experiences that resonate broadly. I like prose poems and lyrical essays. I like lists.

BF: Why are you so interested in dichotomy?

SS: Because it’s trying to kill me.

BF: How do you balance, within yourself and your writing, dichotomous concepts and forces such as bleakness/romance, fiction/non-fiction, and solitude/society?

SS: I’m always trying to merge things, rather than balance them. I want to create new things that are mixtures of genres or categories I’ve been told are incompatible. I hate separations and borders—I’m always trying to break them down. This has a lot to do with race, of course, with being a person of mixed race, and a person of two different cultures. In my position, you have to believe that boundaries can be broken down, that so-called opposites can merge. Otherwise, you can’t exist.

BF: Any last thoughts?  Perhaps some excellent dichotomous pairs for our readers to ponder? 

SS: Think about dissolving the borders between male and female, between the inside and the outside of a prison, between Mexico and the United States. That would be great for starters. Or (because I find myself moving away from this dichotomous thinking), picture a grab bag, grab a few things out of it, and put them together. In this bag you have autobiography, philosophy, video games, cooking, Halloween candy, Etruscan art, astronomy, and whales.

BF: Thank you so much for your time! 

To find out more about Sofia or her writing, please visit: www.sofiasamatar.com.

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