The elaborate landscapes of Sofia Samatar
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Sofia Samatar has spent a lifetime immersed in unfamiliar lands. As a child in New Jersey, she delved into Middle Earth, Narnia and Earthsea, as well as the landscapes of fairy tale and mythology. The Ventura-based writer has journeyed beyond the pages as well, traveling extensively and spending years at a time in foreign countries. With the soul of an explorer and a fabulist’s imagination, it’s little surprise that world building would be as essential to her craft as plot development.
And what a world she creates! Olondria, the backdrop to her debut fantasy novel A Stranger in Olondria and its companion, The Winged Histories, is filled with jewel-like cities, vast deserts, flinty stone-scapes, snowbound mountains and lush forests, all described in breathtakingly lyrical passages that read like poetry and sing like song. These places are populated by people as alive, flawed, fascinating and ravaged by their own history and soul-searching as, well, the humans of our own Planet Earth. “Any fantasy world is made of this world,” acknowledges Samatar, a professor of world literature at California State University, Channel Islands.
“The book is heavily influenced by South Sudan,” Samatar explains, referencing her three years spent teaching English in the northeastern African republic. This was followed by nine years in Egypt and extensive tours of Europe and the Levant. “Olondria is a combination of Southern Europe and the Middle East. It’s a very Mediterranean culture.” And in some ways Jevick, the protagonist of Stranger, is an avatar for Samatar herself. “It was based on my experiences as a student,” she says. “Jevick’s experience of learning Olondrian mirrored my experience learning Arabic.”
Formulating Olondria began with its origin story, which provided a framework upon which Samatar could build its history, cultures and conflicts. “Before sitting down to write [the novel], I wrote about 100 pages of Olondrian mythology. Kind of a creation story that was a good background,” she says. Olondrian languages were partially inspired by Arabic. “It’s not a complete language,” Samatar admits. “People can actually speak Elvish, and there are entire conventions in Klingon. But I have a lexicon and a vocabulary.”
Having that etymological background was as important to the story as its mythology: Oral history, the power of language, how war and colonization impact the way we speak are among the novels’ central themes. In these elements one senses the spirit of her father, the renowned Somali scholar and writer Said S. Samatar, who taught at Rutgers University and authored Oral History and Somali Nationalism. “My dad’s work was a huge influence,” Samatar says. “He put into my mind the idea that narrative and poetry are not just written. Throughout human history, a lot of our narrative experience is oral.”
Just as her father’s love of language weaves its way through the novels, so does her mother’s Mennonite faith. “There’s this new and small religious group, the Priest of the Stone,” Samatar explains. “They aren’t expressing something Mennonite, but they are expressing something monotheistic in a polytheistic culture. They’re also a persecuted religious minority.”
Although Stranger was published three years before The Winged Histories (which just came out in the spring), Samatar worked on both at the same time. Histories isn’t so much a sequel as a companion to Stranger. And where the first novel was told through the eyes of a young man, Histories is the story of four women: a warrior, a religious scholar, a poet and a noblewoman, all living through a violent rebellion. “In both literature and life we don’t have enough perspective from many people. Women, queer women, colonized people, refugees, small religious minorities. There are all these characters who are marginalized in some way,” Samatar says.
They also occupy different sides in the conflict, and their stories bear witness to the myriad ways that war affects everyone it touches. Olondria is a world as deep and wide as anything dreamt up by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin or C.S. Lewis, but her politics are much more sophisticated, multifaceted and sometimes ugly, giving Olondria and its inhabitants the weight of reality.
A Stranger in Olondria was nominated for both a Nebula Award and a Locus Award in 2013, marking Samatar as a vibrant and original voice in science fiction and fantasy literature. The highly anticipated The Winged Histories only further solidifies that reputation. Taken together, they are a masterful combination, powerful tales written with a rare beauty by a novelist with a lot to say . . . and an unforgettable world in which to say it.
A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories are both available on Amazon. For more information, visit www.sofiasamatar.com.