Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is a writer and an educator. Her most recent publication is “Hard Mary,” a novelette in Lightspeed.

It seems like you are often writing about the impossibility of the bourgeois family. There is in the background somehow a haunting triangulation of mother–father–child, a phantom of happiness. Am I imagining things or is there something to that?

I think there’s something to it. I’m very interested in the power of bad attachments — how what hurts us can come to feel like home. This certainly happens in families, where people can be deeply attached to those who treat them badly. And it happens on a larger, cultural level, too, where we can have longings for things that aren’t good for us or anyone else, like an expensive car or a particular size of body. Could the bourgeois family itself be one of those things that isn’t good for us, that we’ve become attached to over time? I think this is one of the questions in my work, and maybe it creates that sense of something haunting the characters, of an impossible happiness.

Space, fields, zones (of incandescence and otherwise) seem more important in your work than time or the tick-tick-tick of plot and narrative. Time, in so far as memory and anticipation are relevant, is important, but not as critical to framing your stories as space. Is this a fair statement?

Wow, I like it — which probably means it’s not entirely false! I definitely tend to get frustrated with plot, at least the way it’s usually approached in novels — what Virginia Woolf called “this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.” I believe in skipping events. If I’m reading a book, and the author leaps over plot points to get to the arresting moment or phrase, I’m so grateful. So, yeah, I guess I would say I work more in narrative space than regular, linear time.

However, I have to admit I’ve gotten more into plot lately, because I’m interested in pleasure, and let’s face it, a strong plot gives readers a great deal of pleasure. Recently I wrote a story called “Hard Mary,” published in Lightspeed, that makes more use of a swiftly-unfolding, linear plot than most of my stories, and I like that aspect of it (it’s about some Amish girls who find a robot).

I’m also curious about narratives that shatter plot and manage to maintain energy and drive. What is the plot of Bolaño’s Antwerp? I was talking to a writer friend recently who said that rather than plot, she tends to think about suspense. I really like that. Even in a story that emphasizes space over time, suspense is crucial.

Might you say a word or two about alienation or nostalgia in your work?

Both are so important. I think the sense of alienation is the reason I’m a fantasy writer. What is alienation but nostalgia for a place you’ve never been? So you write that non-existent place.

When I started writing, that was my main goal. It’s why I created Olondria: to have a place where nobody would ask me where I was from. It would be obvious I belonged. (I see we’re back to the notion of literature as space here...) At first, I thought of it almost as a cure, like once I’d done this, brought this realm to life, I’d have a permanent home. This didn’t work — though not for the obvious reason, not because literature can’t be life. Rather, it failed because I loved the project so much. I realized that alienation isn’t a disease to be cured; on the contrary, it’s a rich, even beautiful feeling. I wasn’t trying to get rid of my alienation at all, I was reveling in it. And I’m still doing that today.

Writing, alienation and pleasure. We haven’t talked much about politics. In a recent interview with Ahimaz Rajesh, he suggested that what is political can also be radically pleasurable. How does politics or ideology intersect with reveling in alienation? Is there a way of writing politics that is pure pleasure rather than something didactic?

Certainly. In fact you can argue (and many people have) that the political is most effective when it’s pleasurable. Then you can decide what to do with that argument! Are you into the cozy pleasures of heteronormative traditions imprinted onto a nation depicted as a big happy family, with a father at its head, intent on keeping out the “foreign intrusions” of immigration? Ok. But you could also embrace a pleasure that transgresses all that. The hallucinations of dreaming, where everything is unhinged, where the mind opens up. The joys an alien can take in feeling completely outside. The attraction of the monstrous. The cunning of tricksters. The secret, exciting alliances, like the ones between children and animals in fairytales.

How useful is the idea of genre to you in your writing? (Or is it at all?) And for that matter, how do you feel about genre as a social fact — an institution that shapes, organizes, markets and distributes words?

Here is a brief outline of my relationship to genre over time:

a) I love genre categories! Thanks to them, I can always find my stuff in the bookstore and that’s awesome because all I read is fantasy and science fiction.

b) I hate genre categories because people don’t put things on the right shelves. What is Borges doing over there in literary fiction? Bulgakov? Kathryn Davis? People are hiding things from me in the bookstore, refusing to put fantasy books in the Fantasy section. I have been betrayed.

c) Now that I’m a published writer, I realize that people look down on me for writing genre fiction. I find myself in a box, only welcome in places located inside that box, like conventions or panels on SFF. But my fiction owes as much to Proust as it does to Tolkien. Genre is bullshit. It’s not for readers and writers. It’s just for sales.

d) Although genre categories, as a marketing strategy, can’t entirely be trusted, these forms are more than just advertising. They’re also literary modes, codes, atmospheres, and communities. Pretending they don’t exist, and that all writing is Just Writing, is not only false, it’s boring. Genre is good to think with and fun to play with. I love genre categories!

How does the idea or experience of the divine or the sacred figure into your work? I was almost overwhelmed by the gods of Olondria.

Oh, thank you! I loved writing those gods. It was one of my first steps in making the world: creating the pantheon. So much grew out of those deities, as I shaped them — not just institutions and rituals, but place names, verbal expressions, and histories. Because I was world-building, I really got to thinking about geography and the sacred, and how the stories we tell transform space into place. Space is neutral; place is named. Myths and religious practices create holy places, breathing life into geography, entangling human identities with the physical features of the world around them. This is a wonderful process and deeply important. It has all kind of implications in terms of human relationships with the rest of nature. I often think about how to cultivate that kind of feeling so that it extends not just to particular places but to the planet as a whole, to every part of it. “Loose thy shoe from off thy foot, for thou standest in the weeds beside the highway.”

The flip side to this, of course, is that when places are made holy, they become battlegrounds. I thought a lot about that, too.

Finally, there’s the individual experience of the sacred, which is attached to the communal, place-making process, but not identical with it. In A Stranger in Olondria, the main character has a spiritual experience he almost can’t handle, can’t explain to anyone around him. It’s isolating, devastating. In The Winged Histories, too, there are supernatural trials and transformations people have to go through alone. For me, those experiences — so ecstatic and traumatic — are figures for art. That’s how I talk about writing.

It is interesting to think about the origins of the divine involved in the play of world-building And it is interesting to think about writing as play altogether — an antidote, perhaps, to the dead hand of professionalism. But that’s me projecting. For you, what is the relationship of play and trauma to professionalism and product? 

I like your projections! I mean, I really feel this. I’m always trying to figure out how to feel good and finish things at the same time. You know? Closing things off doesn’t feel good to me. Mastery feels awful. Professionalism makes me feel dead. Sometimes I’ll go for a long time producing nothing, because I want to write what feels urgent, intimate, alive, and of course that changes from day to day, so I’ll be working on eight or ten different projects nobody’s ever seen or heard of and finishing nothing. And then suddenly I’ll panic, thinking, this is chaos, I’m going to die without publishing another thing ever if I can’t buckle down and finish something! Or — I’ve got a deadline!! And then I’ll drive myself to finish. The back-and-forth between these two states is no fun, it really stresses me out, but I don’t know what to do about it. It seems to be how I work.

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