Fiction, Theory, Memoir: Sofia Samatar’s “Request for an Extension on the Clarity”

I cannot get Sofia Samatar's short story collection Tender out of my head. I first read it in June 2017 and immediately decided that I would include it in my Fall 2017 African American Literature course and that I would write about it. I have done so in a personal essay and in the Epilogue to my forthcoming book, but I still cannot stop thinking about it.[1]

Samatar and I have become friends over the past few years, and it is enjoyable trying to discover where she puts herself in her fiction. There are autobiographical elements everywhere in Tender. They include the narrator's part "African," part "German" ancestry in "Walkdog"[2] (which Samatar calls "basically an ode to my hometown, South Orange, N[ew] J[ersey]"[3]), a character in "An Account of the Land of Witches" who is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as Samatar was, and the Mennonites in "Fallow," Samatar's only piece of explicitly Mennonite fiction.[4]"Fallow" asks what Mennonitism would look like if Mennonites could actually leave the world and establish their own colony in space away from worldly influences, a theme that, as I discuss below, is also found elsewhere in Samatar's autobiographical work.

In a 2018 "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session on the social media website Reddit, Samatar speaks about how her personal life intersects with her fiction, making statements which show that seeking the autobiographical elements of the stories is an appropriate critical task. She explains that the "inspir[ation]" for her fiction is "pretty equally split between reading and life experience." Samatar also notes that she had "been moving [toward autobiography] already" in some of the stories from Tender, but writing the fiction in her 2018 book, Monster Portraits, helped her to "actually start to see [her]self as a memoirist."[5]While Samatar is currently working on an actual memoir, The White Mosque,[6]it is significant that her experiences writing fiction are what help her to claim an identity as a life writer. Her statement implies that the lines between these genres are more permeable than institutional literary studies would have us believe. Elsewhere in the AMA, Samatar says that she likes to read "literary criticism disguised as fiction, fiction disguised as literary criticism," making her genre bending preferences explicit.[7]Samatar also speaks about the importance of hybridity for her thinking in an interview with Alicia Cole, declaring that she is "always trying to merge things, rather than balance them. I want to create new things that are mixtures of genres or categories I've been told are incompatible."[8]

Samatar's advocacy of genre hybridity is part of a larger scholarly trend, especially in queer theory, a field that advocates for radical social change in all areas of life, not only in the sexual realm. Queer literary critic Christopher Castiglia asserts that imagining new forms as Samatar does is necessary because "[i]magination is what makes idealism a social practice[….] there is no significant social change without imagination."[9]Samatar's choice to write speculative fiction, which she asserts is "writing queerly,"[10]and which is a field that resists genre boundaries through its inclusiveness of multiple subgenres (science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, and so on), emphasizes the need for imaginative openness. In an essay investigating the need for new intersectional methodologies that epitomizes Castiglia's call for imaginative thinking, Alison Reed argues for conceptualizing "literature as theory" because literature itself can help to cause societal "transform[ation]."[11]Literature can explain the messiness of life and offer solutions to life's oppressive aspects the way theory does. This function is important because literature is generally much more accessible to the public than academic theory both in terms of its ideas and its physical availability. Frankly, it is easier to find ourselves reflected in literature than in formal theory. Speculative fiction is the perfect genre for examining literature as theory because it makes space for various lives and experiences through its depictions of different worlds. See all pages

When we combine Reed's genre bending with Samatar's, we get a mix between literature (in Samatar's case, fiction, though the model could work with poetry or drama as well), theory, literary criticism, and memoir where the four bleed into each other, becoming something new. We can illustrate this connectivity spatially as a square with each genre at one of the corners connecting to the other three via sides and diagonals (Figure 1).

The four elements remain visible as themselves while also being inextricably connected to the others. The inner area of the square is where transformative hybridity happens, making space for new queer writing endeavors such as Samatar's.

I apply this model here to my reading experience of another of Samatar's autobiographical stories, "Request for an Extension on the Clarity," the story from Tender that I find hardest to shake. I do so to show how literature can work as theory, how literary criticism can work as memoir, and how this interpretive process can offer a model for living in transformative ways. I thus write from an unorthodox position as a critic. I approach the work via the author's life rather than directly approaching the work itself: while the story is aesthetically beautiful, I am interested in writing about it because of how it works as memoir, not just as fiction. This is a strategy which is tolerated more now by literary critics than in the past but is by no means universally accepted, and which has had to defend its legitimacy since the rise of the anti-biographical New Criticism after World War I. In some ways it feels unfair to focus on the biographical here because I write from a position of privilege as both a fellow Mennonite and as a friend of Samatar's. There are more tools available for me to use when interpreting her work than there are for most other critics. But I believe that societal change can only happen through community, and thus I draw on my communal ties with Samatar here.

"Request" takes the form of a letter from the narrator, the one-person crew of the space station Clarity, to the head of the space program requesting a highly unusual twenty-year extension of her already thirteen-year-old posting. The story is science fiction because of these space elements, but it focuses less on the speculative or fantastic than most of the other stories in Tender. It is one of the most accessible stories in the collection because it is simply good writing. I can hear the narrator's cats meowing, I can taste the key lime pie that the narrator's mother throws away when she finds out the narrator wants to stay in space, and I can feel the tattered pages of the narrator's books as she describes their "gray and musty" texture (180, 185, 181). It is also accessible for readers unfamiliar with the genre because it reveals its speculative elements immediately and then mostly sets them to the side, focusing on the narrator's very real-world problem of needing to find refuge in an oppressive society instead. This problem dates back to the narrator's college days at a school that is a thinly-veiled Goshen College, Samatar's alma mater.[12]Goshen is also my alma mater,[13]and this is why the story sticks with me, because it feels like in some ways it writes my experiences, too. Therefore, for me to write about it is to write literary criticism and memoir simultaneously.

I am intrigued by the story's status as a Mennonite thought experiment akin to that in "Fallow," the attempt to imagine what it would be like if, instead of needing to be "in the world but not of it," Mennonites could actually leave the world behind. Would such a journey result in the peaceful quietude Mennonites have been seeking throughout our history? "Request" gives the answer "well, maybe, but probably not."[14]This negative answer results from the story's depiction of how Mennonites are actually part of the problem with the world because, rather than embracing fulfilling worldly values such as love of artistic beauty, the Mennonite community has assimilated negative worldly practices such as racism and sexism. The story thus urges readers to think of ways to fight such systemic violence in their communities.

I am especially drawn to the narrator's discussions of her college reading, which are part of how the story offers strategies for living in the world even though in the narrator's case they are what convince her to reject the world. She describes taking every course the college offers about Africa in order to better understand her African ancestry and discovering that they are not enough, that something is missing. She tries to remedy this lacuna through her reading, seeking out texts in marginalized spaces such as "junk shops," "old people's basements," and unsecured websites even though the texts are too eccentric, too queer to cite in her schoolwork (180-81). These books are necessary for the narrator despite their lack of academic canonicity because she recognizes that the official history she gets from her white anthropology professor is incomplete. But the unofficial history in the books gives her a conceptual home. Their "pages make a private space" where she feels safe (181). Mainstream discourse (including mainstream Mennonite discourse at Goshen) does not offer her space to exist freely. The community fails her. In light of this oppression it makes sense that she would want to be in space where she can live with books and cats rather than on Earth. The extreme nature of this desire heartrendingly illustrates just how much the oppression weighs on the narrator. If her preferred twenty-year extension is granted, it will bring her into her sixties and thus will quite possibly encompass the deaths of her parents and other loved ones. In other words, her attempt to gain the extension is an attempt to renounce the bit of human community she has left. The narrator's rejection of her people is in some ways essentially Mennonite, as she literally rejects the world in defense of her beliefs. She successfully finds a hybrid, queer, nonhuman community with her books, her cats, and the Clarity itself.[15]The station is a physical refuge that is similar to the emotional refuge she finds in her books.

The books continue to sustain the narrator after college, as she saves them and brings them into space (187). The decision to keep them with her might seem queer in the older sense of the word in that she has already read them and gleaned their knowledge, knowledge that is probably not helpful in space anyway because she only has cats for company; she does not have to spar with racist anthropologists. It would make more sense for her to bring well-written books that would stand up to re-reading better.[16]But it is a queer, radical act for her to bring her marginal texts along. Queer theorist Sara Ahmed argues that physical objects, whether books or other mementos, are an essential part of living a revolutionary life because they provide emotional as well as intellectual support. Objects can act as conceptual shields against oppression. Ahmed therefore writes of her books that "[w]herever I go, they go."[17]In light of Ahmed's assertions, the narrator's cultivation of her library makes complete sense. She is not engaging in a kind of conspicuous consumption or fetishization by keeping her books with her. Instead, the books about Africa's history give the narrator emotional support, support that she has not gotten from other humans.

The narrator's college book-seeking and curation of the texts she finds remind me of my own reading practices at Goshen. I did not realize that I was sexually queer until after I graduated, but I got an inkling while taking a Religion and Sexuality course my senior year. The subject matter was exciting, but at the same time frustrating because it seemed like something was missing, like it was only scratching the surface.[18]I began supplementing the course reading with my own, working my way steadily through the college library's HQ section, the Library of Congress heading for subjects relating to sexuality.[19]Like the narrator in "Request," I assumed there had to be a book out there that would magically give me the answers I required even though I was not yet quite sure of the questions I needed to ask.

I began to find some clues to the answers when I stumbled upon Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty's anthology Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Two essays stood out. One by Thomas Waugh asserted that sex writing is an "indispensable" part of "sexual liberation," which itself is necessary for "political liberation." This was the affirmation I needed that my reading about sexuality was not wrong and that I should continue to pursue it. Another essay by Nayland Blake about the gay visual artist Tom of Finland provided the first images of men that I can remember being sexually attracted to, although at the time I could not fully articulate why I found them attractive.[20]These essays stuck with me as I finished college and moved to New York City, and led me to keep searching for texts that my Mennonite upbringing had previously taught me to find scandalous. I found some of them, books that I cannot even give citations for because they were published by underground publishers who probably no longer exist and whose texts were not collected by libraries. Unfortunately, while I now have my own copy of Out in Culture, unlike Samatar's narrator I did not keep all of the books that helped me toward my liberation, though I desperately wish I had. I was able to conquer my Mennonite shame enough to read them, but not preserve them: they lived in a dresser drawer while I was working my way through them and went in the trash when I finished. I do not need the knowledge in them anymore because it is now a part of me, but I wish I had the emotional support of them on my bookshelves alongside all of the other queer texts I have collected since then. These works showed me what Samatar's narrator realizes: just like the last shall be first and the meek shall inherit the earth, texts on the margins are the ones that have the most power.

I learned about the power of stories from growing up Mennonite. My parents would read to my sister and me every night before bed, often from books about Anabaptist or Mennonite heroes published by Herald Press, the main denominational publisher, so I always knew that both the telling of and listening to stories is important, that they are how to learn about the world. This training is what helped me to realize that I needed to do my own research in college, and it is significant that the narrator already has this skill as well; perhaps she gains it in a similar fashion. But such training also taught me to sense when there are gaps in the narrative that will not be filled by the community, that need to be investigated clandestinely. My reading of "Request" tries to highlight these gaps by claiming their existence and illustrating a strategy for searching for them.

The narrator reveals part of this strategy. Just as she reads on the margins, she also writes on them. While the story is written as a formal document for the narrator's employer, the narrator uses this official space to tell a personal, otherwise-ignored story, giving much more information about herself than would presumably be necessary for institutional purposes. In doing so she offers a model for how to write in liberating, transformative ways by claiming narrative space wherever one may find it. Like the narrator's, Samatar's writing itself does this through its inhabitation of a marginalized genre and its publication by a small press.

"Request for an Extension on the Clarity" exemplifies literature as theory because it teaches us lessons about how to fight oppression. While, as a piece of fiction, its first loyalty is to aesthetic concerns, it also contains radical arguments for those willing to read it queerly as a genre hybrid. Like Tender as a whole, it highlights the importance of stories on the margins. It advocates for the archiving of these stories, whether explicitly in their retelling or implicitly in the need for institutions to pay more attention to them, to allow them space in academic canons. It asserts the necessity for communities, and especially the Mennonite community, to confront racism and sexism in their midst, positing that this is the responsibility of the entire community, not only the directly affected individuals.[21]

All of these messages stem from the story's real-life inspiration, from autobiography. Like Samatar, the narrator has to learn how to exist in a racist, sexist society. The narrator's answer to oppression is to remove herself from the world as completely as possible, which is a legitimate one for her in the context of "Request," but is an answer that is not available to readers. We have to live in the world somehow. Writing literary criticism as memoir about the story helps to illustrate how to do so by showing the story's real-life relevance. Tying it to my own narrative offers an example for how it can be applied as theory, for how it can get us talking about life and about what we as individuals and members of communities can do to live it more radically. It can inspire us to do the difficult work of resisting oppression when it tries to grind us down, and to instead keep searching for creative ways of addressing it. This message, despite the story's bleakness at times, is what ultimately makes "Request" a hopeful, transformative, queer story.


Adler, Melissa. Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

Blake, Nayland. "Tom of Finland: An Appreciation." In Creekmur and Doty, Out in Culture, 343-53.

Castiglia, Christopher. The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Cheney, Matthew, Carmen Maria Machado, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, and Sofia Samatar. "Why Adding Monsters and Fairies to a Memoir Can Make It Even More Real." Electric Literature, 22 February 2018. https://electricliterature.com/why-adding-monsters-and- fairies-to-a-memoir-can-make-it-even-more-real-736fb3125e3a.

Creekmur, Corey K., and Alexander Doty, ed. Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Cruz, Daniel Shank. "On Postcolonial Mennonite Writing: Theorizing a Queer Latinx Mennonite Life." Journal of Mennonite Writing 9, no. 4 (2017): https://mennonitewriting.org/journal/9/4/postcolonial-mennonite-writing-theorizing-queer-la/#all.

---. Queering Mennonite Literature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, forthcoming.

Gundy, Jeff. "'There is no knife, but only flesh': Sofia Samatar and the Language of Other Worlds." In 11 Encounters with Mennonite Fiction, edited by Hildi Froese Tiessen, 69- 85. Winnipeg: Mennonite Literary Society, 2017.

Samatar, Del, and Sofia Samatar. Monster Portraits. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2018.

Samatar, Sofia. "A Conversation with Sofia Samatar." By Alicia Cole. Black Fox Literary Magazine, 22 December 2014. http://www.blackfoxlitmag.com/2014/12/22/a- conversation-with-sofia-samatar/.

---. "From The White Mosque." Journal of Mennonite Writing 10, no. 4 (2018): https://mennonitewriting.org/journal/10/4/white-mosque/#all.

---. "Hi, I'm Sofia Samatar, SF and Fantasy Writer. AMA!" Reddit. Accessed 24 May 2018. https://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/8lro18/hi_im_sofia_samatar_sf_and_fantasy _writer_ama/.

---. "[Interview] Sofia Samatar (English Version)." By Nicolas Winter. Just a Word, 19 June 2017. http://justaword.eklablog.com/interview-sofia-samatar-english-version- a130529340.

---. "The Scope of This Project." Journal of Mennonite Writing 9, no. 2 (2017): http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/9/2/scope-project/#all.

---. Tender: Stories. Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2017.

---. "Writing Queerly: Three Snapshots." Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2015. http://uncannymagazine.com/article/writing-queerly-three-snapshots/.

Reed, Alison. "The Whiter the Bread, the Quicker You're Dead: Spectacular Absence and Post- Racialized Blackness in (White) Queer Theory." In No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, edited by E. Patrick Johnson, 48-64. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

Waugh, Thomas. "Men's Pornography: Gay vs. Straight." In Creekmur and Doty, Out in Culture, 307-27.


[1] See Daniel Shank Cruz, "On Postcolonial Mennonite Writing: Theorizing a Queer Latinx Mennonite Life," Journal of Mennonite Writing 9, no. 4 (2017): https://mennonitewriting.org/journal/9/4/postcolonial-mennonite-writing-theorizing-queer-la/#all; and Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, forthcoming).

[2] Sofia Samatar, Tender: Stories (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2017), 23. Further citations of this book are given in the text.

[3] Sofia Samatar, "Hi, I'm Sofia Samatar, SF and Fantasy Writer. AMA!," Reddit, 24 May 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/8lro18/hi_im_sofia_samatar_sf_and_fantasy_writer_ama/.

[4] While Mennonites are not mentioned elsewhere in Samatar's fiction, Jeff Gundy argues that Samatar's two novels are philosophically Mennonite in "'There is no knife, but only flesh': Sofia Samatar and the Language of Other Worlds," in 11 Encounters with Mennonite Fiction, ed. Hildi Froese Tiessen (Winnipeg: Mennonite Literary Society, 2017), 69-85.

[5] Samatar, "Hi." See Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar, Monster Portraits (Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2018). While I focus on Samatar's statements about life writing from the AMA here, she also discusses her impulse toward memoir and how it informs her fiction in Sofia Samatar, "[Interview] Sofia Samatar (English Version)" [sic], by Nicolas Winter, Just a Word, 19 June 2017, http://justaword.eklablog.com/interview-sofia-samatar-english-version-a130529340; and Matthew Cheney, Carmen Maria Machado, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, and Sofia Samatar, "Why Adding Monsters and Fairies to a Memoir Can Make It Even More Real," Electric Literature, 22 February 2018, https://electricliterature.com/why-adding-monsters-and-fairies-to-a-memoir-can-make-it-even-more-real-736fb3125e3a. In this conversation, Samatar calls Monster Portraits an "uncanny autobiography" even though the back cover labels it as "fiction," again emphasizing the genre bending in her work.

[6] See Sofia Samatar, "From The White Mosque," Journal of Mennonite Writing 10, no. 4 (2018): https://mennonitewriting.org/journal/10/4/white-mosque/#all, for an excerpt from this work in progress.

[7] Samatar, "Hi."

[8] Sofia Samatar, "A Conversation with Sofia Samatar," by Alicia Cole, Black Fox Literary Magazine, 22 December 2014, http://www.blackfoxlitmag.com/2014/12/22/a-conversation-with-sofia-samatar/.

[9] Christopher Castiglia, The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 3, his emphasis.

[10] Sofia Samatar, "Writing Queerly: Three Snapshots," Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2015, http://uncannymagazine.com/article/writing-queerly-three-snapshots/.

[11] Alison Reed, "The Whiter the Bread, the Quicker You're Dead: Spectacular Absence and Post-Racialized Blackness in (White) Queer Theory," in E. Patrick Johnson, ed., No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 61, her emphasis.

[12] However, it might only be obvious as Goshen to other Goshen alums. The clue that reveals it as Goshen for me is the narrator's interaction with a dead squirrel (183), an animal that is ubiquitous on campus. So once again my own life influences my interpretation: the memoir/literary criticism intersection.

[13] Samatar and I also went to the same high school, Lancaster Mennonite, though I graduated nine years after she did.

[14] For the record, "Fallow" gives the answer "most definitely not," but that is a story for another essay.

[15] While I do not engage in such a reading, I will note that this unorthodox community makes "Request" an excellent candidate for analysis from an animal studies perspective, perhaps using the work of Donna Haraway because of how it focuses on cyborgs and the posthuman as well.

[16] Incidentally, Samatar says in "Hi" that the three books she would bring to a deserted island are "the Bible, A Thousand and One Nights, and In Search of Lost Time," all of which fit this criterion.

[17] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 240-41.

[18] For the record, the course's limitations came from its institutional Mennonite context, not from the professor as in "Request." My professor was supportive of my extracurricular investigations.

[19] For a discussion of how this heading is oppressive because it silences the experiences of women and queers see Melissa Adler's fascinating book Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).

[20] Thomas Waugh, "Men's Pornography: Gay vs. Straight," in Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 309; Nayland Blake, "Tom of Finland: An Appreciation," in Creekmur and Doty, Out in Culture, 348-349. An online search of Goshen's Good Library on 1 July 2018 revealed that this book is still available on the second floor, call number HQ76.2.U5 O98 1995.

[21] See also Samatar's essay "The Scope of This Project," Journal of Mennonite Writing 9, no. 2 (2017): http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/9/2/scope-project/#all, some of the implications of which I discuss in "On Postcolonial Mennonite Writing."

About the Author

Daniel Shank Cruz

Daniel Shank Cruz grew up in New York City and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Goshen College (B.A.) and Northern Illinois University (M.A., Ph.D.). Cruz is the author of Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (Penn State University Press, 2019), and he has published writing in a variety of venues such as Crítica Hispánica, Mennonite Quarterly Review, the New York Times, and several book collections. His research interests include the intersections between ethnic minority literatures (especially Mennonite literature and Latinx literature) and queer literatures, archiving, and the role of geographical space in literature. He is an Associate Professor of English at Utica College in upstate New York.