Sofia Samatar is a writer who consistently dazzles. Her first novel, the multiple award-winning A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press) possessed the intensity of drill-bit sharp poetry, and its follow-up, The Winged Histories, is no different. It’s a tightly calibrated meditation on the impact of war, colonization, the relationship between religion, romance, class and family, and the value of storytelling as a means of bearing witness. At the heart of The Winged Histories are four female characters - a swordsmaiden, a scholar, a poet and a socialite - all of whom are determined to tell their side of the story. In this interview with Diriye Osman, Samatar discusses the Olondrian universe, her appreciation for the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, what her writing process is like and what she’s working on next.
The Winged Histories is a great expansion of the Olondrian universe. I know from our previous conversation that A Stranger in Olondria took many years to create. Was The Winged Histories equally challenging to write? Yes, unfortunately! I wrote the first drafts of these books together, without pausing to revise A Stranger in Olondria. I’ve always thought of the two volumes as a single project, and I wrote them that way in order to maintain continuity and feeling. It was a good method in some ways, but the disadvantage was that I wrote the second book before I’d had the chance to learn from revising the first one. So then, after the long, arduous process of revising A Stranger in Olondria, I had to face the long, equally arduous process of revising The Winged Histories. The whole project has taken me eighteen years.
How much research went into creating the Olondrian universe?
Tons. Writing secondary-world fantasy is like writing historical fiction, except you have to make everything up. Or to put it another way, you get to make everything up! It’s a great pleasure, but if you want a rich, layered world you need a lot of background material: languages (not necessarily complete ones, but at least a lexicon for each), religions, landscapes, food, and so on. In my case, I’m really interested in literary history, so it was important to have a sense of genres and trends in Olondrian literature.
Of course, every fantasy world is made from the raw materials of this one, so it’s an exaggeration to say I made everything up. While I was working on The Winged Histories, I wrote a dissertation on Tayeb Salih for my PhD program in African literature, and quite a bit of that research appears in the novel, especially the work I did on the north African epic, Sirat Bani Hilal. Sirat Bani Hilal—a story of magic and conquest—helped me think about the nature of epics in general, including contemporary epic fantasy.
Will there be a follow up to The Winged Histories?
Right now, I have no plans to write another Olondria book. I consider the project complete. Never say never, of course, but if I return to Olondria the writing will have to take a different form. No more epic fantasy, no more quests.
What is your daily writing process like?
Recently, it changed dramatically! Although I’m naturally a night person, earlier this year I started getting up at 4:30 a.m. to write. I found I was too tired to write at night after work. Also, I teach at a university, and 5 a.m. is about the only time nobody schedules meetings.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a memoir that’s also a history. It’s built around a nineteenth-century migration of Russian Mennonites to Central Asia. I use this historical event, a moment of Mennonite-Muslim interaction, to meditate on my own history, and my Mennonite-Muslim family. Finally, a question that always generates interesting answers: what has made you happiest today?
I’m getting ready to move, so it made me happy to find a bunch of empty boxes in the recycling bin at work! Treasure!
Author photo courtesy of SOFIA SAMATAR.
Graphic illustration by DIRIYE OSMAN.
Song of the moment: 'Wild is the Wind' by LEDISI.