Q&A with Sofia Samatar, author of “An Account of the Land of Witches”

Sofia Samatar’s work, an excerpt from Tender: Stories (Small Beer Press 2017), was published in The Offing on April 3, 2017.

First available exclusively to Patrons, Q&A conducted by Allison Noelle Connor, Assistant Fiction Editor; Bix Gabriel, Fiction Editor; Jax NTP, Fiction Reader; and Megan Giddings, Fiction Editor.

Allison Noelle Conner: Such an enchanting and haunting story! How did this tale come to you? Could you sketch for us the journey from idea to finished form?

Sofia Samatar: The story began, like so many, as a morass of ideas with a bunch of obsessions and experiences floating inside it. There was my interest in ancient Kush, in borders, in families, in grad students, in academic writing, in the relationship between school and the rest of your life. There was my grad school friend who went home to Jordan, ran into visa problems, and got stuck for weeks. And there was Ibn Rushd, known in the west as Averroes, who wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in the twelfth century. This book was a response to al-Ghazzali, who wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which has nothing to do with my story, and in fact, Ibn Rushd has nothing to do with my story either, I just love his title, that retort to al-Ghazzali: The Incoherence of “The Incoherence”! I’ve always loved his cleverness, his audacity. It’s the reason I wrote “A Refutation of the Account of the Land of Witches” and then “A Refutation of the Refutation.”

I wrote four sections — the Account, the first Refutation, the second Refutation, and the Lexicon. At that point, I thought I was done. Then my wonderful editor, Kelly Link, told me she wished the ending was weirder — more estranged and deranged, she said. It narrowed at the end, like a cone, and she wished it would open out. She was right, of course. So I wrote the final section about the travelers, and she said it wasn’t at all what she’d expected, which was a good thing. And at that point the story was done.

Bix Gabriel: Sofia, this story has different narrators writing at different time periods, each with a different voice. How did you go about writing each of these voices? Did you shift back and forth between them, or write each separately, or…?

SS: I wrote each one separately and in order. For me, each narrative flowed into the next. The authors are writing at different time periods, yes, but in a story about the fluidity of time. In the Land of Witches, they drizzle time over the cakes. So time is malleable, which means it’s possible for these writers to belong together. Or, anyway, that’s the story’s desire, its dream. That we can reach across time, despite our tools, which often seem so poor — history books, research trips, archives.

ANC: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned your close affinity to Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. The embedded narratives in “Account of the Land of Witches” brings to mind the story within stories unwinding in Salih’s text. “Those” also pops up as an example of narratives nestling within. What attracts you to this mode of telling? Does writing in this way provide different ways of thinking about language, storytelling and their particular motions?

SS: I love embedded narratives, shifts in point of view, collage — anything that gives a sense of texture. I like juxtaposition, the feeling of different things bumping up against each other, the feeling of difference. As I child, I encountered this in Tolkien: all the poetry inserted into his novels, sometimes pages of it, fantastic! Later I found it in A Thousand and One Nights, and then all over modernist literature, and in writers like Tayeb Salih. I think there are a lot of obvious things you can say about this mode, like that it argues for the importance of varied perspectives, or the unknowable nature of reality. There are other ways of looking at it, too: that it’s a way of claiming authority, or showing your credentials, like when you quote proverbs or cite scholars, which is another kind of embedding. What attracts me to it is really the pleasure of difference, of the jolt. I like changes. And then when you look back, there’s a kind of layering. You experience the different stories, the different types of language, all at once. It feels expansive, like the world.

Jax NTP: Nature in this collection is lush, shifting, enigmatic. When thinking of landscapes, do you visualize or map locations for your stories before writing them? Or is it a more intuitive process refined during revision? Are there any visual artists or works you look towards for inspiration?

SS: Oh, I wish I was good at looking at pictures. Or listening to music. Unfortunately, I’m only good at words. I’ve actually been writing to pictures recently — I’ve done a book called Monster Portraits with my brother, Del Samatar, who is my favorite artist. It’s coming out next year from Rose Metal Press. Working on it has been so absorbing and exciting, but it’s also confirmed for me how poor I am at just looking at things, how everything has to come to me in words. It’s as if I don’t really see Del’s drawings until I write them, as if everything has to be processed as text. That seems melancholy to me, and possibly even bad. But in any case, my fictional landscapes are language. I don’t visualize them until they’re written. I experience them as I write.

So it’s an intuitive process, and it has everything to do with reading. If I use scenes I’ve experienced, it’s because I’ve recorded them in my journal. Most of the images in my landscapes come from other books — the ones I’m reading, the ones I’ve read, the ones I’ve forgotten. There’s a great line in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient where the patient has been telling the nurse about these gardens, and it turns out he heard about them from someone else, from a lover. He says: “Her gardens were the gardens I spoke of when I spoke to you of gardens.” That’s how my imagined landscapes feel, very second-hand, alive only because of the emotions I have while reading. They’re present, but latent. They have to be ignited, and that happens through reading, and especially through the most intense form of reading — which is writing.

Megan Giddings: One of the things I really admire about your writing is you’re so good at navigating many different tones in your work: you can go from funny to tense to heartbreaking all on one page. What advice would you give writers who can get, for lack of a better word for it, mood-locked in their stories (i.e. this story is about something sad, so everyone and everything in this story must be described in the saddest ways)?

SS: I feel like I get mood-locked all the time! So I don’t consider myself an authority on this. But I think we could go back to the notion of texture, of stories within stories, or shifts in narration, as a way of dealing with it. You could insert something in a different voice — something definitive, like a new section, or something very small, like a comment from a minor character. That voice might have something humorous about it, or change the mood in another way, or alter the pace. A new voice comes with its own way of speaking.

ANC: This is your third book published through Small Beer Press. How has it been to work with Kelly and Gavin?

SS: Absolutely wonderful. I’m very lucky.

ANC: I read that you’re working on a text combining history, memoir, fiction, and criticism, which revolves around “the nineteenth-century migration of Russian Mennonites to Central Asia.” Could you say a little more about this project?

SS: I can say a lot more about this project, but I will try not to. It’s called The White Mosque. It’s a departure for me, in that it’s history and not fantasy, so I’m doing masses of research, which is the scholar’s form of world-building. The event at its center is a moment of Muslim-Mennonite interaction, when these German-speaking Mennonites migrated to what’s now Uzbekistan. It compels me because this kind of encounter characterizes my own story, my family being Muslim on one side and Mennonite on the other. So my book is a history, but it’s also very personal. It’s about the present, and about writing, and about what we so blithely call “cross-cultural interactions” — as if these meetings were easy, as if every encounter with another were some kind of study abroad trip. And it’s also about religion, and religious conversion. And photography.

ANC: I’d love to ask you about your relationship to the work of Bhanu Kapil; in other features you’ve mentioned how you return to her books again and again. A conversation can be drawn between the tender bodies found in your collection and Kapil’s wolf-girls, cyborgs, and immigrants. Why does Kapil’s work excite you?

SS: I think her work is exciting in every way — in terms of subject, form, tone. Of course, she writes about things that are very dear to me, like immigrants and immigrants’ daughters and writers, or people who are trying to become writers. But it’s really her language I love, her utter boldness, her experimentalism, it’s radiant. One of my favorite things I’ve ever done is a conversation at The Believer with Amina Cain, Douglas A. Martin, Kate Zambreno, and Jenny Zhang, about Bhanu Kapil’s book, Ban en Banlieue. I think when you read that conversation, what you see is a bunch of writers who are really shaken by something, ecstatic. That’s what her language does.

Q&A with Paige Clark, author of She Is Haunted

Beautiful things take time. Don’t give in to internal or external pressures. Remind yourself every day that you are a writer even if nobody believes you yet, not even yourself.