Sofia Samatar is a writer of great vision, enchantment, and exhilaration. Author of the linked novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, as well as a collection of short stories called Tender, Samatar’s newest book is Monster Portraits (out February 22 with Rose Metal Press), a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Monster Portraits is in itself a beautiful study of what is possible in writing, partly in that it takes up what we might normally keep separate—fairytale, philosophy, notebook, catalogue, nightmare, memoir—and works through them together, at the same time that it is a study of monsters and monstrousness, and of living, and of humanity, with its richnesses and its shortcomings. Del’s drawings of monsters are endlessly fascinating, intricate, and detailed, and they deepen and enliven the reader’s passage through the book.
Some of my most meaningful conversations about writing and reading have been with Sofia, and it was a true pleasure to be able to spend some time emailing back and forth with her about Monster Portraits, and about talismans, “going too far in writing,” longing, intensity, and refusal.
Amina Cain: I often see the space of writing as an expansive field. For me, the field of fiction, where anything is possible, including other kinds of writing. Coincidentally, the first piece in your new book Monster Portraits is called “The Field.” For you, what does the space of writing look like—if you even see it like that—especially as you first step into it?
Sofia Samatar: I love this image. I would like to see writing as an expansive field. Unfortunately, I only tend to see it that way in brief flashes—usually toward the beginning of a project. As the work takes shape, more and more directions become impossible, and so the field contracts. I often think about how to preserve that sense of openness. How long can you make it last? For me, with Monster Portraits, it lasted longer than usual, because of all the different narratives—there was always room to grow a new tooth or wing. And the notebook form, too, helped to hold it open. The feeling of scribbling in a journal creates an immediacy, a sense that anything might happen.
Ultimately, though, “The Field” in Monster Portraits is a field of study, a field of teratological data collection. The narrator is a researcher doing fieldwork. So her writing is linked to academic discourses and institutions—fields I find very closed. I think that’s part of the book’s melancholy. There’s the desire to stay open, elastic, to make space for all the monsters, all the ways of being. And then there’s the codifying, restrictive language I’m using, the form of a catalog, images marked “Figure 1,” “Figure 2,” etc. Although I’m deforming scholarship, making it strange, it retains its sadness.
In related news, I wrote my final academic essay this year. I’ve sworn never to write another.
AC: I’ve mostly stayed away from reading academic essays because I’ve sometimes perceived them as dead, which is why I get excited when they do feel alive. It makes sense, if you’re giving that kind of writing up, that it might still appear—in the way that Hannah Arendt talks about appearances in The Life of the Mind—in your work, as it does in Monster Portraits, which, as a reader, I receive not as melancholy—or if melancholy, I enjoy it—but as a presence.
In “The Field” of Monster Portraits, the narrator goes out into the world with pens in her bag, pockets, and hair. She gets on a train. Yet she has already been in this world her entire life. Separately, her brother sets off as well. He will draw the portraits of monsters. The notion of sides and other sides and passing through them stayed with me as I read the book. You write: “Dawn breaking on the other side. On their side.” You write of “plumb[ing] a vertical field.” Later, in Notebook (III), we learn that your narrator passes through light.
SS: I wanted, from the beginning, to write a monstrous book. Something small yet forceful, like a talisman. I mean the kind of thing someone would put in their backpack and carry around for weeks without even reading it, as I’ve done with certain books—Bhanu Kapil’s Incubation: A Space for Monsters (a major influence), and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, and Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks which I haven’t even read yet! I guess if I had to define my problem with academic writing, it’s that I’ve never been tempted to carry an issue of PMLA around reverently in my backpack. I don’t want to knock that kind of writing just for the sake of it, but I do long for work that is both scholarly and luminous, a book like K, Roberto Calasso’s book on Kafka, for example.
I remember when I was in a grad school, one of my professors gave us an essay of hers to read, which had appeared in a prestigious academic journal, and it was just gorgeous. Lyrical, digressive, provocative, enchanting. And everybody in the seminar was flabbergasted. We all said: We want to write papers like this! And the professor said: No. She laughed and said, absolutely not, not for decades, not until your position is established. She was trying to help us succeed professionally, and she was right. And if you look at it from the outside, there’s really no problem with paying your dues and writing sensible papers that follow the genre’s conventions until you’ve proven you have something to say. But if you look at it from the inside, from inside your life, it’s appalling. To wait 30 years!
I often think of Clarice Lispector’s words (and she’s another key influence on Monster Portraits, of course, with her “Am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”—one of the best things anyone has ever said about monsters—she says: “As in everything, so in writing I am almost afraid of going too far. What can this be? Why? I restrain myself, as if I were tugging at the reins of a horse which might suddenly bolt and drag me who knows where. I protect myself. Why? For what? For what purpose am I saving myself?” I ask myself that so often! Why don’t I do what I want in writing, right now? What am I waiting for? And lately, I find that the form of the academic essay is not helping me—rather it encourages me to restrain myself. But this doesn’t mean I don’t want to write about literature, or that the methods and language of scholarship won’t always remain in my work, as you say, as a ghostly presence. It’s more that I want to explore different ways of thinking and writing. This longing runs through Monster Portraits: the desire to go, in a sense, where I am, like the narrator departing for the world of beloved, terrifying creatures that have been with her since childhood. I want strange, searching, glittering writing, like your own essay, “Something Has Brought Me Here,” which I really love.
Are you writing more essays? Or did I make that up in a bout of wishful thinking?
AC: My version of carrying around a book for weeks is letting it sit for a long time on my desk so that it’s with me while I write. Bhanu’s Incubation: A Space for Monsters has certainly lingered on my desk; each of her books has.
You write: “Here, then: monsters combine things that ought not to go together.” What if combining them is part of what makes them luminous? In writing and in life.
Writing that goes too far, I think that is all I want to read. As writers, we should go where the horse drags us. Luckily, I think that Lispector did. And if she didn’t, can you imagine what that would have looked like? Do you know what that looks like for you? For your own writing, I mean?
I am still writing those essays, each of them revolving around reading and writing fiction, trying to approach what is most compelling to me about the space of it. I can only write about literature in this way, with a kind of longing, a word you just used, with the desire to get close to something. In his luminous The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk talks about a novel’s center, deeply embedded, and sometimes secret. It is one of the only books on writing I have truly enjoyed. I would like to write about fiction in that kind of way, with that kind of fascination.
SS: What does my writing look like if I don’t let go? I can tell you that. It looks like two separate genres: academic articles and fantasy novels. I’m often told that this is a weird pair of things—despite the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien, who stands at the root of modern fantasy, was an academic! In fact his oeuvre is a great example of the monstrous beast you get by mixing these elements. Regardless, people generally see them as incompatible, as having totally different audiences and aims, basically because fantasy is considered very childish and scholarship very adult. I am interested in the place where those things meet: that’s luminous to me. The ridiculously bookish child, the passionate scholar surrounded by objects of affection. It’s not really about play—the word “play” is too light—even though lots of people have tried to prove play is very serious, that word doesn’t have the right resonance for me. The right word is obsession.
So not letting go is keeping these things separate, living separate writing lives. This is really what I’ve decided to stop doing. And Monster Portraits, I see now, is part of that decision, a step on the path that makes that decision unavoidable. I certainly didn’t know that when I was writing it! I just wanted to do a project with my brother, because he’s such a brilliant artist. I chose monsters because we both love them, and then, slowly, I began to examine that love.
AC: It’s interesting that keeping things separate can in itself be a restraint and it certainly seems as though you are letting go of that in Monster Portraits, where different modes of writing exist together in a satisfying way, from fairytale to notebook to philosophy to catalogue to memoir, and then there are the drawings themselves. As you were writing, do you think that the drawings affected at all this growing sense you’d had of restraint and separateness and your removal of them?
When I let go as a writer, it’s almost without choice. I’ll be rewriting a scene in my novel, and a new kind of image or sentence or line of dialogue will occur to me, with a new kind of feeling, and finally I’ve gone much farther in that scene than I had. Sometimes the change is subtle, but it opens something crucial. I don’t want to hold back in my writing, I never consciously think I’m doing so, and yet, I obviously am, all of the time. My growth as a writer seems to be tied to these moments of letting go. For me, this is connected to something Elena Ferrante said in a Vanity Fair interview about truth and whether or not she knows what shape a text will take. She writes, “If, even for a few passages, the tone becomes false—that is, too studied, too limpid, too regimented, too well-phrased—I am obliged to stop and to figure out where I started to go wrong. If I can’t, I throw everything away.” I think that going farther into writing means going as far away as possible from what is false, to letting a work become what it was truly meant to be.
SS: I’ve just been reading about how Kafka wrote “The Judgment”—in one sitting, from 10pm to 6am. He said: “Writing is only possible thus, with that continuity, with that complete opening of body and soul.” For him, writing could not happen “in little bits”—it had to come in a rush, in a wild all-night writing session, which reminds me so much of Lispector’s runaway horse. As if he’s urging this horse of writing to go on, far, farther, without restraint, without considering the consequences, like how debilitated he will feel the next day. And it’s connected, too, to what you say about discovering a new kind of feeling, and how writing is tied to these “moments” when you let go. They are moments, they are time, and it takes time to get to them, sometimes an excruciatingly long time of writing nothing, or false things, obviously hollow and worthless things that you have to throw away. This is why writers are always desperate for more time, even the ones who seem to have plenty of it. There’s never plenty of time for writing, because you have to waste so much. There can’t be plenty of time for something that takes forever.
Like most of us, Kafka was often obliged to write in little bits. It made him desperate. Monster Portraits is, in one sense, an attempt to embrace the little bits of writing: to escape the necessary evil of truncation by turning it into a virtue. Because the pieces are short, I was able to write each one in a rush. I loved writing to the pictures. I concentrated on each one in a trancelike way. I compared them to icons, and I focused on them in that way, meditatively but not calmly—my goal was to work myself up to the highest pitch. To the highest pitch of what, I don’t know! But that phrase was in my head a lot. In fact I would often mutter it, which was probably disconcerting for my students. To the highest pitch! I think of Octavia Butler writing to herself so deliberately, in different colors, her pledge: that she must strive in all ways, at all times, for intensity. Cold or hot, hard or soft, gut-wrenching or deeply stilling, utter intensity!
AC: I’ve actually never experienced a wild all-night writing session and now I’m sure my writing must be suffering because of it! But I’m also not opposed to the little bits of writing we are sometimes forced into. I think of it as the eternal return, that the bits are part of one continuous movement. There are ways to carry our writing with us into the world, like carrying a talisman in a backpack.
I’m a mutterer too; while working it helps me to mutter certain lines or phrases. I love that you muttered “to the highest pitch!” and that your goal as you concentrated on the drawings was to work yourself up to this kind of intensity. It reminds me of when your narrator yells “EVIL EXISTS,” which for me is one of the most intense moments of the book. Can you say something about that moment, perhaps about how it relates to “The Abyss,” or to “the right to opacity for everyone,” the fact that we are all obscure, impossible to place and define, even if society tries to inscribe some of us otherwise, based on skin color or race?
SS: Throughout the book, I kept turning the idea of the monster around. I thought of the monster as a prism, with all these different facets, and I kept turning it to see how it refracted light. In that piece, “The Abyss,” I was looking at facets of monstrous identity, and one of these facets is the reality of evil. Because when you try to redeem the idea of the monster, to embrace that identity—well, evil still exists. The evil which has been symbolically attached to the monster, and which is detached when you empathize, and even more, identify with the monstrous being—that evil remains, but now it has no image, so it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to suppose that evil itself is being redeemed and reimagined. So when, on the bridge above the abyss, the narrator shouts “EVIL EXISTS,” it’s a reminder of this, a guard against the extreme kind of relativism that says: “Everything is okay if you look at it the right way.” No.
As for the “right to opacity,” that wonderful line of Édouard Glissant’s—I invoked it to cast off the fear of identifying with monsters as a person of color. Identifying with the nonhuman is kind of a risky project, if you belong to a group that has been regarded as less than human, or more than one such group. The Glissant phrase was another turn of the prism, and it was another instant of saying no. No, in this case, to what Saidiya Hartman calls the hypervisibility of race. No to this visual code, no to explanations based on skin and hair, no to quick conclusions about the meaning of the body, no to being exposed on a table, no to transparency, no to allegory, no to anthropology, no to the gaze.
Every time the prism shifts, there’s a new angle of glare. I didn’t think about this until just now, but the researcher in Monster Portraits has a lot of problems with light. She has to pass through light, as you mentioned earlier, and at one point she’s pursued by panes of light. It gets so bad she has to see a doctor. For this researcher, illumination—knowledge—is an illness, a curse. She suffers it.
AC: The monster as a prism is so striking, as is the new angle of glare each time the prism is turned, and the idea that what is evil can lose its image when one identifies with the monster, which seems quite dangerous, that evil might seem to dissolve, when it in fact doesn’t. This allows me to understand in a deeper way how the monster can be so many things at once, the different ways the monster can appear/disappear, and also the relationship or distinction between the monster and the monstrous, which you explore in the book.
I love that line of Glissant’s and how it speaks to your narrator’s refusal of the hypervisibility of race. The no. The monstrousness of living by this visual code, of giving it such power, and the way it allows for blindness, seeing nothing but the code. The code is not human. The act of seeing—or not seeing—and of being seen—or not being seen—has such bearing in Monster Portraits and so it makes sense that the book exists through language as well as drawing.
Sofia, what is next? What are you working on now?
SS: I’m working on a book I call a pilgrimage. It’s based on a 19th-century migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to Central Asia. It’s partly a memoir, partly a history, and partly a meditation—in other words, a fairly monstrous text.