Sofia Samatar: In Egypt, ‘I got to experience Arabic as a living language’
London - Somali-American writer Sofia Samatar is renowned for her rich language and complex world-building. She is known for her poetry and short stories but particularly for her fantasy fiction. A finalist for Nebula and Hugo awards and winner of the British Fantasy and World Fantasy awards, her novels look at how culture and language shape their bearers.
The daughter of a Somali father and Swiss-German Mennonite mother, Samatar lived in Egypt for nine years — three years in Cairo, three years in Alexandria and three years in Beni Suef. Her experiences in Egypt, particularly with the Arabic language, infuse her writing. The Winged Histories, published in February 2016 to critical acclaim, and its predecessor, A Stranger in Olondria, deal in difficult questions of identity and culture.
In an era in which fantasy novels have become more mainstream and millions are watching George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series on television, Samatar’s Olondria duology offers a nuanced take on the genre.
“In Egypt I got to experience Arabic as a living language,” Samatar told The Arab Weekly. “I became closer to its tones, its humour, its pathos. This powerful process of learning and then living a foreign language went into A Stranger in Olondria, where it informs the main character’s experience as a language student.”
The Winged Histories tells of four women — a soldier, a scholar, a poet and a socialite — caught up on different sides of a violent rebellion. Told in four different voices, it is an earthy and intriguing offering that looks at how history is written, or unwritten.
“My background has greatly influenced my work,” Samatar said. “I imagine this will always be so, though maybe it will happen in different ways. Right now, I’m sort of preoccupied with the idea of disappearance: How a person might cease to have a background or fade into a background completely so that there’s no longer a difference between background and foreground.”
Samatar’s novels deal with different cultures and how those cultures interact. The Winged Histories introduces readers to the feredhai, a nomadic culture with clear links to the Bedouin. “The feredhai are absolutely similar to the Bedouins and to Somali nomads as well. It’s a pastoral culture, a desert culture, with strictly defined gender roles. That influence is very important in the Olondria books,” she said.
“Other real-world elements that found their way into the books include ancient Greek culture, especially the religion; the landscape around Yambio, South Sudan; and the literary culture and atmosphere of Cairo, from medieval times to the present.”
Despite her interest in language and linguistics — she is an assistant professor of English at California State University Channel Islands — and her obvious love of words, Samatar said she does not describe herself as a translator.
“I find translation fascinating and have huge respect for translators, even when I disagree with them,” she said. “I’d love to translate something myself but it’s too intimidating.
“I’m too anxious about what the words mean, when the best translators, it seems to me, are translating mood and atmosphere rather than individual words. They’re like painters. I’d love to be like that but I’m just not. I have huge anxieties around language and this is probably why the theme of cross-cultural communication so preoccupies me…It makes sense to say: These novels are written by a failed translator.”
Samatar has said that The Winged Histories would be her last foray into fantasy fiction and that she intends to focus more on other endeavours.
As for what she is working on next, Samatar said: “I’m working on a very different book. It’s a hybrid text involving fiction, history and memoir based on a 19th-century migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what’s now Uzbekistan. It’s not a total departure, as my work, especially in the short stories, has gotten closer to essay writing over the last couple of years but it will be my first major nonfiction work.”