Sofia Samatar: In Egypt, ‘I got to experience Arabic as a living language’

Sunday 13/11/2016
Sofia Samatar (AFP)

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.”