The Literary Collages Of Sofia Samatar



Language becomes a gorgeously supple entity in Sofia Samatar's hands. Her prose is rich and liquid-silk smooth, her visions as tightly calibrated as a Swarovski-studded Beretta. In many senses, Sofia Samatar is one of our great stylists — but to deny the scope and range of her insights into literature, art, history, poetry and cultural criticism would be a collapse of the imagination.


Today we are celebrating Samatar's groundbreaking new memoir, The White Mosque, a layered and, paradoxically, gossamer-light act of memory-keeping. There are very few writers who get better and more daring with each book. For the longest time, my personal benchmarks were Edwidge Danticat, John R. Gordon, and the late Janet Malcolm. We can now add Sofia Samatar and the great Canadian-Ugandan poet Otoniya J. Okot Bitek to this list.


What Samatar accomplishes with The White Mosque is its own standard, per Lauryn Hill, to reference an artist who has repeatedly made a case for individualistic magic-making in the face of market forces and capitalistic groupthink.


In many ways The White Mosque is a literary collage that successfully fuses all of Samatar's preoccupations: detailed reclamations of historical footnotes that are, for all their obscurity, the soil and sand of the marginalized and misrepresented. This is lensed with an originality of perception that joins the dots between the Mennonite community and its Muslim counterpoint, both cultures beautifully celebrated by Samatar and demonstrative of her joyously diverse heritage.


Because I'm a Luddite playacting at being a tech wizard, my interview with Samatar is a simple Q&A conducted via email as opposed to Zoom or even Google Docs. Her responses, as you will find, are generous and ebullient.


When asked about all the contradistinctive components that add to her writing, Samatar breaks it down like so:


'The eccentricities of others are often compelling,' she says, 'I love the quirks and unusual experiences that have shaped the writers I admire. But I also know that those things, when you live them, can cause pain or exhaustion, or just a sense of being alone and lost.'


'Recently I was talking to a friend who told me she’d read that mixed-race people can be ‘cognitively challenging’ for others. It made me laugh, but in a rueful way. I remember once a stranger asked me about my ethnic background, and when I told him, he said, ‘No!’ Being asked about my ethnicity is an everyday experience for me—it helps people get past the cognitive challenge. But this guy’s reaction stuck with me. How are you going to ask me a question, and when I politely answer, you shout ‘No!’ in my face? For this person, my existence was apparently impossible, even just at the level of genes, without adding that I lived in South Sudan and Egypt for twelve years or, oh, by the way, I made up an entire alternate universe in my spare time. When the simplest information causes a reaction like that, it feels like you’re so weird from the start, everything else about you will just compound it, so you’d better shut up before you’re exposed as a total alien. Writing The White Mosque was a way of contending with this, of meeting and transcending the cognitive challenge. To that stranger’s ‘No,’ this book is my yes.'


The structure of The White Mosque feels like a devotionally constructed temple. It feels so intimate and sacred. I was genuinely curious about the concept of structuring a narrative that successfully fused poetry and critical writing with reportage and inventive personal reflections on a life truly lived.


Samatar felt that structuring the book was a challenge at first.


'In the first several drafts,' she says, 'I was using the figure of the mosaic as an organizing principle, which made the text essentially a collage. I like this concept, in fact I love literary collage, but with this book, because of the many different subjects—Mennonites, doomsday cults, travel, missionaries, photography, martyrs, Central Asian cinema, Langston Hughes etc.! —it just felt too fragmented, too dizzying. Everyone who read those drafts got lost. And I myself felt, reading it, that it lacked drive. It was as if all the pieces were sitting there beside each other without moving.'


'Then one day I asked myself, in bewilderment and frustration: How can a story about a journey feel so static? At that point, one piece of the collage was the Mennonite journey to Central Asia, and another chapter recounted my own trip to Uzbekistan. I realized that I needed to restructure the book around the journey, to make the journey itself the form. I expanded the chapter about my trip and arranged all the other material inside it. So now, the book has the overarching structure of a journey, a quest. The architecture is a pilgrimage. This makes the story feel more grounded, rooted in a series of places, and at the same time renders it more active and mobile.'


The book took seven years to write, during which Samatar researched the Mennonite journey, Uzbek history and a variety of other topics, and took part in the Mennonite Heritage Tour of Uzbekistan that now forms the spine of the book.


'As for what made me decide to tell the story this way,' she tells me, ‘It’s a combination of accident and desire, like most things! I was inspired by a number of writers of passionate, innovative nonfiction and hybrid prose, like Kate Zambreno, Bhanu Kapil, Michael Ondaatje, and Tomas Espedal. These writers treat the material of everyday life as something enchanting, even sacred. Reading their work helped me find my way to the language of The White Mosque.’


‘That part of the process was motivated by desire. The rest was accident—and let me be clear that I take accidents very seriously! For me, writing means being open to chance: to the stray thought, the random phrase, the dream-image or subconscious impulse in language. I should add that The White Mosque really clarified the importance of accident for me, and made it much more central to my writing practice. With this book, I resolved to say yes—yes to whatever wished to enter, whether that was autobiography, poetry, history, or critique.'


For Sofia Samatar superfans, and there are plenty of us out there, worry not, she's currently writing two books, one fiction and one nonfiction. The fictional work is a novella about a university in space, called The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain. The nonfiction work is 'a small, strange book about writing, publishing, and literary community, called Opacities.'


Because I'm a frivolous creature, I asked her what she did to decompress in her spare time.


'I study foreign languages,' she says, 'It’s one of my passions. Since I work at a university, I can take classes for free. I’m currently learning Latin and reviving my college French.'


'At the moment, my favorite music is coming out of Nigeria, like CKay and Fireboy. My favorite TV shows are intense workplace dramas—Severance and Succession. I don’t know what this says about me!'


It simply says that Sofia Samatar is a badass. Who knows, maybe her next literary adventure might be a Latin novella set to Afrobeats or a characteristically kickass space opera that has the sting of Succession's most hardboiled moments.


Either way, we'll be there for the ride.


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SOFIA SAMATAR'S The White Mosque (Catapult) is available to order here.


Song of the moment: 'Glory' by FIREBOY DML.