This Kind of World Building :: An Interview with Sofia Samatar


Confession time: as much as I’d like to consider myself a well-rounded reader, I hardly ever read fantasy books that don’t contain “Harry Potter” in the title. It’s hard to find one I like. My brain can’t find a way to care about stories of troops of men trekking through dragon-filled lands to find a mysterious object. I can’t relate to a lot of the typical fantasy genre novels that come to mind.

Luckily, there are authors and books out there like Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories (the sequel to A Stranger in Olondria, though it can totally stand on its own, too), a fantastic tale of an ancient war and four women both brought together and torn apart by it’s horrors, all doing their very best to change my perception on the whole fantasy genre.

What’s different about this novel? Although it’s hard to put my finger on the *exact * reason, let me just spout off a few: Gorgeous, gorgeous poetic writing. An invented language that’s equivalent to botany on a page. A kickass leader of the troops named Tav, a woman who basically picks up the slack and outshines the male counterparts trying to follow in her warrior footsteps. Romantic, racial, religious storylines and struggles that a non-fantasy devotee can care about.

Not convinced? Read this interview with Sofia herself, and then go read The Winged Histories for yourself:

Kati Heng: One thing that always amazes me is when a writer is able to make up not just a story, but also an entire language behind it. Like all creative writing, there must be rules you set for its creation. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind Olondrian, and especially how the names of characters were created?

Sofia Samatar: Making up the languages was one of my favorite parts of creating the world of Olondria. The biggest influence on the Olondrian language is Arabic, which I had studied before writing A Stranger in Olondria, and was speaking daily while writing the book in South Sudan. I was inspired by Arabic plurals, for example, to devise a complicated system of plural patterns for Olondrian. Olondrian pronouns resemble Arabic pronouns as well. And, like Arabic, Olondrian has no P sound (any word with a P in it has been imported from another language).

The creation of the language was closely tied to the development of names. I don’t have anything close to a complete Olondrian vocabulary, but I do know what the names mean. “Vain” means forest, for example, so there are a bunch of “vains” on my map — Kelevain, Fanlevain, and so on. “Kele” means hunting. “Fanle” means apple.

To invent the names, I chose small chunks of sound that seemed pretty to me and played with combining them. Few activities can be more self-indulgent. It was wonderful.

KH: As with the language, I’m amazed at the way you’ve created and mapped out an entire kingdom. How does that process work — do you draw a map for your universe first and then write the story, write the story and make a map afterwards, or are they both created at the same time?

SS: I made the map first, but it was a rough version that changed as I worked on the book. I also wrote about a hundred pages of the Olondrian sacred text, the Vallafarsi, before I started the novel — origin myths and so on. I made charts of Olondrian deities and a family tree showing generations of kings and queens. All of these reference materials became resources I could draw on while writing. I probably spent about six months doing this kind of world-building work before starting the book.


KH: Many of the characters in The Winged Histories are travelers, whether it’s because they are running from (or in Tav’s case, towards) conflict, or are born with nomadic hearts and traditions. Do you consider yourself a traveler? How does someone such as yourself, who has moved countries and continents, define “home?”

SS: Well, yes, I have traveled quite a bit. I don’t consider myself a traveler, though! I always want to find a place to stay!

How do I define home? I’ve tried several definitions — where the heart is, where nostalgia pulls you most strongly, etc. At one point in my wandering existence, I realized that home for me meant “wherever I’m not.” So when I was living in Egypt, I would speak of going “home” to visit the U.S., and when I was in the U.S., I’d say “when I go home” to Egypt. This realization seemed to contain something profound, but also sad. Since then, I have been trying to make “home” be where I am. I can’t say I’ve succeeded, but I try.

KH: One of my favorite images in the novel is the idea of a sibling as the one against whom you measure your differences. Can you talk a little about the thinking behind this?

SS: The book is about conflict — ethnic, class, and gender conflict — what you might call a drama of Self and Other. And so the part you refer to, about the siblings — not only is it about siblings, it’s also a confession to a lover, it’s a moment when two people are talking, and talking about difference. And it pays homage to the fact that not every “Self vs. Other” drama is destructive. We construct ourselves with reference to others, in connection with others and also against them, against siblings and parents and lovers and friends. We have to. It’s how we become.

KH: Can you talk a little about the progress of “outside” perspectives in the fantasy genre, both as a woman and a person of color? Thanks to J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins, we have examples of women writing best-selling fantasy series, but yet…both these examples are white and their books have been relegated to the Young Adult section. And white-washing their characters continues (as we’ve seen by Jennifer Lawrence playing the “olive skinned” star of The Hunger Games and just…this)….This question is getting more depressing than I hoped, but do you see a bright future for fantasy writers and characters that don’t fit into the traditional English-white space?

SS: I do see a bright future, absolutely. I see it in the many brilliant writers working now — people like Alyssa Wong, Carmen Maria Machado, Kai Ashante Wilson, John Chu, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Isabel Yap, Shveta Thakrar, Celeste Rita Baker, Haris Durrani, Carlos Hernandez, Amal El-Mohtar–honestly, this list is really long! And the important thing is that these writers now — writers of color, women writers, women writers of color — we’re writing in a space that already exists, we’re not carving it out. This generation of writers can draw on the work of so many others. Not just Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, but Nalo Hopkinson, Angela Hairston, and then people who have published books just ahead of us (I never know where to draw generational lines — families are messy!) like N. K. Jemison, Hiromi Goto, and Nnedi Okorafor.

That’s the upside. The downside is that somehow these forerunners seem to fade from the public mind. I’m always appalled when I see an article that makes it look like women and/or people of color have just arrived on the scene of fantasy and science fiction, particularly when those articles forget to mention folks who have won major awards in the field. Isn’t that what awards are for? To create some kind of historical record? I don’t know. The amnesia is so hard to account for, I can’t help but see it as willful, a deliberate unseeing. And that’s a problem, because it means that no matter how much we write and publish and succeed, we will continue to be seen as “emerging” — that is, historically unimportant, marginal.

KH: Finally, tell me about your bookshelves. What room do you keep the most books in? How are they arranged? What books never stay on your shelves because you’re constantly re-reading them? What books have you had since you were 12? What books are on your nightstand?

SS: My books are mostly downstairs in the living room, but I also have tons in my office, and in piles on the bedroom floor. As I sit in bed typing on my laptop right now, I’m looking at those stacks — there must be a hundred books there.

Books that won’t stay on the shelves: Bhanu Kapil’s books Ban en BanlieueHumanimal, and Schizophrene — I’ve been carrying at least one of those around in my bag for years now. Bolaño’s Antwerp is another one I keep going back to. Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. I guess I carry a lot of poetry.

Since I was 12, I’ve had the Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin, the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time and a bunch of others. C. L. Moore: Jirel of Joiry, I love that book. Dickens: A Christmas Carol. Oh, other classics, I keep thinking of more: Little WomenJane Eyre, those books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My favorite of those is The Long Winter.

On my nightstand (a.k.a. the floor) I have The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka. Wow, if you could combine those with the books I mentioned earlier — I mean like a mashup of A Wrinkle in Time and Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature — wow, that’s a book I’d want to write!


Filed under Books + Literature, Interviews

4 Responses to This Kind of World Building :: An Interview with Sofia Samatar

  1. Wonderful interview. Both the questions and answers show a deep love, and understanding, of literary history and a delightful combination of texts. I was lucky enough to have Sofia as a student long ago. She taught me more than I taught her even then. I rejoice in her nimble mind and wide view of the world, including the new world(s) she creates.

    I’ve just returned from New Zealand where I visited Hobbiton, the site for the Hobbit movies. That which begins in the mind, when it is born of love, will find a home in this world too.

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 3/9/16 Pet Symmetry | File 770

  3. Pingback: Weekend Links: March 12, 2016 (Belated) | SF Bluestocking

  4. Pingback: Bookish People #71 – Bored to Death book club

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *