A Chronicle of Ghosts -- Reading Sofia Samatar

There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand. -- Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

I. The Reader

When the invitation comes I am immediately uneasy about the request for a scholarly article. I am a reader and – perhaps somewhat defiantly – not an academic. While the theories and language of the academy inform and illuminate my understanding of literature, as a publisher, an editor, what I am most interested in is the immediate, visceral emotional response of the reader. And then, if the magic happens, the slow contemplation and rereading of a beloved text.

"Yes," I say, for I know right away which book I will choose. I want to write about Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. More than anything, I want an excuse to spend time – slow time – reading this book that has been by my desk for too long, waiting for an unlikely break in my schedule. So I agree. I know my sister is a friend of the author and I call to tell her the news. Oh, you'll like it, she says, even if you don't usually read fantasy. And, you know, she was a friend of Nhamu and Sammy at college.

So this will be a very personal reading. The degrees of separation – a shared alma mater, connections with my sister, our late brother and his best friend, our African heritage, publication in this journal – focus my attention as I work out how to approach this essay. I find myself wondering, as I assemble notebook and pencils, get comfortable in my reading chair, how these myriad links and connections, established before I even turn the first page, make this book the perfect opportunity to think more about the act of reading -- what it is, what it means, why it is essential.

I start with a little internetting to get a sense of the writer, and I find an essay published in the Guardian in 2014, in which she defends the range and artistic reach of fellow writers from the African continent and her diaspora. "Our literature," she says, "doesn't need better writers; it needs better readers."1

So this is the task. How, I ask myself, do I read Sofia Samatar?

II. The Narrator

As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.2

An early online review defines Sofia Samatar's multi-award-winning novel as "a secondary world fantasy and a travelogue."3 While I am fond of categories, I find myself puzzling over this one – a secondary world fantasy. I read in another interview4 that the writer is a fan of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and feel a faint clutch of anxiety. I have never done well with fantasy – the rules are too "floral" for me, and I recall now that while I loved the language of Peake's book, I balked at continuing with the others in the series, so lost and overwhelmed did I feel in its imagined world. Indeed, the question "What is this book?" whispers and rustles at the edges of my mind as I turn the pages. It will take me a while to be able to answer.

What is clear, from the very opening lines, is that this is a writer who pays meticulous attention. I see that the book was drafted while the author lived and worked in Yambio, South Sudan, and as this is a slow read, I allow myself distractions and take some time to look this place up. Dense, lush greenery, red dust roads, boys fishing in a river, women selling at an outdoor market … and some pictures of guns and aid organization 4x4s. I ignore the latter and instead imagine Sofia Samatar sitting at her desk, staring outside as she slowly begins to build the world which our narrator, Jevick of Tyom, inhabits. It is a world presented to the reader in language that is rich, at times lyrical, at times muscular and emotionally rending. And always there is the confidence of a writer secure in her craft. She has worked hard to make this world, a place not in our own time or space, credible – and I believe it.

Jevick is the son of a pepper merchant on the island of Tyom, a rural community steeped in tradition and an old-world spirituality. His household, for all we are told, is conventional. He is the son of a wealthy man, an important community leader. His mothers – the wife of his father and his birth mother, a nursemaid and then a second wife – and his brother Jom complete the family unit. In the early chapters we experience the not always benign authoritarian rule of the family patriarch, the insecurity of the childless senior wife, the humble attentiveness of the mother. Jevick is clearly a gifted boy, intelligent and quick, if, at least in his father's estimation, a little too eager to show off. I feel I know Jevick from the start, recognizing that eagerness, appreciating his care for his brother who is loving and content but clearly slow of wit and not quite of this world. This is not a household of learning. Instead, commerce and the age-old traditions of the community punctuate the days and seasons, as they have through generations.

On his return from a routine trip to sell pepper in the Northern cities, Jevick's father returns with a stranger who will change the young boy's world. With the arrival of the tutor, Lunre, comes the possibility of "more" for Jevick as the world is opened to him through the learning of a new language (Olondrian), new stories and customs.

And books. Lunre brings with him books. From the start, Jevick is in thrall. He learns the alphabet and marvels that "the signs were not numbers at all, but could speak."5 This is magic and he cannot get enough of it. "In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire," Jevick tells us. "Master Lunre had taught me his sorcery: I embraced it and swooned in its arms. The drudgery of the schoolroom, the endless copying of letters, the conjugation of verbs— 'ayein, kayein, bayeinan, bayeinun'— all of this led me at last through a curtain of flame into a world which was a new way of speaking and thinking, a new way of moving, a means of escape."6

Jevick's response to the brave new world he finds in the books his tutor shows him and the people he imagines in it is unequivocal. And it is here that I begin to have my uncertainties about the protagonist. How can he cast aside his own life, yearning towards Olondria with so little questioning? As he learns with a voracity that should be admirable but is instead, for me, unsettling, I feel a sliver of dread creeping in. His mother's disquiet (she refers to Olondria as "the Ghost Country"7) serves as one warning. This will not – it cannot – end well.

In these early days of Jevick's education he falls in love with the tales of Olondria. For Samatar has imagined for us not just a new world, with all its customs and costumes, but a language and its literature too. It is the latter – even more so than the former – that calls to Jevick of Tyom. With each story his tutor bequeaths him, the dream grows. Olondria, a place of wonder, of learning and sophistication, grows in his imagination, awaiting his discovery. But he will have to wait. His encounter with the place of his dreams will not come for a while. Under the tutorship of Lunre for nine years, the boy grows to be a young man. And then, when his father dies suddenly while out inspecting his crops, Jevick, the second son but the assigned heir, finds himself the head of the household. His father is barely mourned. "I realized that I had not wept, and recognized the strain in my heart as the secret elation of freedom,"8 he confesses as he begins, with unceremonious and unseemly haste, to plan his long-awaited voyage to Olondria.

As Jevick boards the boat that will take him and his men to Olondria, it is clear that this will be a tale about journeys. A story of a self forever changed – reshaped and remade – by an encounter with the other. And the narrator hints that it will be a long while before he comes home again and that when he does, he will not be the same person.

III. The Chronicle of Ghosts

From here the story turns and twists and our protagonist must face many perils before he finds his way home again. Make no mistake, this is no grand "boy's own" adventure – Jevick's sojourn in Olondria is ultimately a time of darkness and despair and he is forced to face his greatest fears, physical danger and spiritual turmoil before all is done. And there are twists to the tale that even the most gifted of readers will not guess. The plotting is intricate, the progression sophisticated and complex – all this could be enough to hold the reader's attention.

But even as I am caught up in Jevick's travails, his initial euphoria and then his mishaps and disappointments, I find myself consistently captivated by language, for it is in this regard especially that A Stranger in Olondria is a truly transnational work of imagination. The prose resonates with the literature of the Ancient world – I think of Odysseus and his own interminable, interrupted and story-filled trek home from the wars. There is too the unmistakable cadence of an African oral tradition in the way that the reader is invited to become a listener as characters interrupt action to tell stories within stories as they illuminate and guide.

Samatar's is a fluid, confident prose, language inflected throughout with the rhythm and careful structuring of poetry. And as with Richard Adam's Lappin in Watership Down or JRR Tolkein's Quenya and Sindarin, her meticulously generated Olondrian and Kideti are euphonious languages of such a sturdy internal logic and lexical consistency that the reader has no trouble crediting an entire culture and canon rising from their roots.

On arrival in the city of Bain (his tutor Lunre's original home) the first thing Jevick does is to visit a bookshop. It is this thirst for knowledge, the product of a questing personality as much as it is of his education under Lunre's tutorship, that proves Jevick's downfall and, perhaps, his ultimate salvation. As he arrives at his long dreamed of destination, he has already been seduced by the tales of Olondria and now finds himself enticed by the place itself.

Jevick is somewhat enamored of his own intelligence and daring, believing that his education – his reading – has prepared him to partake of the city in all its chaotic munificence. It is enough here to say that this makes him reckless, dismissive even of the advice of his knowledgeable steward Sten. He knows a little and that proves dangerous, for he does not take into account the possible dangers of his own ignorance.

This is where Samatar's true passion shows itself. A passion for words, for the power of language, of both the spoken and the written word. Inextricably linked, there is also an acknowledgement of the complexities of acquiring knowledge – once you know another's story and the tongue in which it was originally told, can you claim truly to know them? Further, is the development of a sophisticated language system only a precursor to the oppression of those who lack their own? In the battle that ensues between rival forces (those of the book – the written word – and the devotees of the older religion, the goddess) Jevick finds himself a pawn in a terrible war between the two.

It is about halfway through the book, at the point where Jevick's life is about to take a turn for the worse, that I start to think back to that definition that had me anxious as I began reading: "A second world fantasy." I realize now that it was not a lack of understanding of the curiously defined genre that bothered me, but the very fact that this book itself refuses to be bound by such classification. "Sofia Samatar is breaking boundaries for you with every word, every image," one reviewer says. "Those lines that we are told exist between this world and fantasy, prose and poetry, realism and fabulism, oral and written language, she dims, elides."9 In removing the reader far from all she knows of the real world, and in deftly scrambling the established rules and classifications of genre, Samatar's unconfinable creativity invites a flight of fancy and a deep exploration of the themes of her story.

Jevick finds himself swept away both literally and metaphorically in the energy and frenzy of the Feast of Birds, a carnival celebrating the goddess Avalei, lured by a girl to a darkened room, seemingly unable to resist: "My desire for her had no beginning; I felt it had always been there, blind and torrential like my desire for the city."10 He wakes in a darkened room, perhaps drugged and, to his horror and the reader's, afflicted with the unwanted state of being avneanyi, one who is possessed by the spirit of an angel or ghost. The sojourn in Olondria – the state of being an alien in a land of wonders – now becomes for the reader and the narrator an in-depth immersion, a contemplation and a bold interrogation that pushes both to address the base desires and motivations and the higher minded aspirations of us all as humans. What is learning for? Where do truth and freedom lie? Where – or what – is God? What is the purpose of belief?

IV. The Breath of Angels11

It will not spoil your own reading for me to tell you that the angel who haunts Jevick is the ghost of Jissavet, a young girl whom he meets on the boat that brings him to Olondria. By the time Jevick is caught up in the bacchanal of the Feast of Birds, Jissavet has succumbed to illness and dies in a Northern city, her body buried there and denied her people's traditional rites. Her spirit cannot rest. Over and over, in the main narrative and many supplementary tales, A Stranger in Olondria examines the complexities of the spiritual self. What I read here is more than "religion" alone defines, for Samatar allows for a multiplicity of belief systems, superstitions, traditions, cults and organized religions in her exploration of the nature and expression of faith.

While neither Jevick nor Jissavet, perhaps out of youthful ignorance, credit the spiritual beliefs of their own people, when faced with the cruel ultimatum of death on her part, and the terrifying evidence of an afterlife on his, they are forced to acknowledge and submit to the possibility of truths they had hitherto ignored. Jevick's ancestral gods are not the gods of Olondria, yet this does not stop him being afflicted when the angel chooses him. The divine, the afterlife, transcends the mortal's understanding of what awaits us, a power that may remain unknowable but cannot be ignored. "Darkness," he laments. "The darkness of the old gods, gods who though foreign are like my own: gods of discord, pathos, and revelation."12 Jissavet, the manifestation of that discord, is not a benign presence. Spoiled by a doting father and docile mother, entitled and furious at the hand fate has dealt her, she is a demanding, insistent and relentless "angel."

At first, Jevick seeks the help of the Olondrian priests to rid himself of this visitation. Jissavet will have none of it. She will not release her hold on Jevick. And then, finally, she makes a surprising request.

IV. A Divination

"Write me a vallon," she demands. "Put my voice inside it. Let me live … write me a vallon, Jevick. Like what you read to me on the ship that day. You said they last forever."13 Jevick goes on to explain, "The word for 'book' in all the known languages of the earth is vallon, 'chamber of words,' the Olondrian name for that tool of enchantment and art."14

Although illiterate in her short time as a mortal, Jissavet the angel is convinced that Jevick will keep her alive if he writes her life in a book. It is not so much the word becoming flesh as it is the word becoming memory. And though he has the means and the ability, by this time Jevick's experiences had taught him that knowledge is as much bondage as it is freedom.

I pause here and wonder what Samatar wants to tell me about knowledge, about education and the nature of its power to change. Was my unease about Jevick's enthusiasm based on the fear that he was abandoning his own traditions for the lure of the sophisticated, powerful Olondria? There is, of course, the temptation to focus on this as a text of "postcolonial" literature but, as with the confined definition of religion above, this does not seem enough to me. The telling of the angel's story, the act of writing it down, is about memory and preservation. She is known, she will be known, because her story is known. What has happened to Jevick, the fearless would-be sophisticate who left the pepper farm in Tyom with such confidence, that he so resists the opportunity to become one of the storytellers he has so admired?

"Write me a vallon, Jevick."

In the end, he relents and while there is no easy resolution in the writing of Jissavet's vallon, he finds, for the first time in what seems an age, some semblance of peace.

V. The Contents of a Soul15

"… being a person of mixed race, and a person of two different cultures. In my position, you have to believe that boundaries can be broken down, that so-called opposites can merge. Otherwise, you can't exist." —Sofia Samatar in an interview with Alicia Cole in Black Fox Literary Magazine16

Jevick writes the angel's story in Olondrian and Kideti, a parallel text that bridges two cultures and worlds17 And here too there is more. Jevick's education ultimately means he straddles two worlds and he is forced by traumatic circumstance to reconcile the two. When he becomes avneanyi, the angel's presence complicates and layers this sense of duality, and nothing he has learned, in books, in the classroom, through experience, is enough to explain what has happened to him. He loses his arrogance when faced with the truly unknown.

I cast about for an answer to my first question: How do I read Sofia Samatar? Am I looking for the "map of a heart"18 as Jevick claims to have gained from his years as Lunre's pupil? That seems to me too meek an ambition. Yes, there is the rich mine of her personal history – African, American, Mennonite, Muslim – the capacity for learning and creating languages, grace and wisdom (teamed with a deliciously biting intelligence that is not afraid to show its claws) evident in all the interviews I find.

This provides some information for my reading. There is evidence of a preoccupation with religion, the clash between conflicting civilizations, the trauma of the colonized mind. All that is here. But again, that by itself would provide too small a reading. Instead, with meek acknowledgement of the unlimited possibilities of her chosen genre, I put away A Stranger in Olondria but do not return it to the shelf. The magic has happened and I know I will need to come back to the story.

This is how I read Sofia Samatar. With wonder and appreciation. With questions followed by an interrogation of her answers. For this is what good fiction does. It presents a world, opens up possibilities, provides a period of escape and invites a lifetime of contemplation.

1 https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/dec/30/african-writers-instructions-ben-okri

2 Chapter 1, 'Childhood in Tyom'.

3 http://wrongquestions.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/a-stranger-in-olondria-by-sofia-samatar.html

4 http://lithub.com/on-the-13-words-that-made-me-a-writer/

5 page 18

6 (p. 19)

7 page 6

8 page 28

9 http://the-toast.net/2015/05/12/this-writers-on-fire-sofia-samatar/

10 page 65

11 reference here to the ultimate idea that the book is the soul (jut)

12 page 118

13 page 121

14 page 16

15 "I know what the vallon is," she said. "It's jut." (p. 265).

16 http://www.blackfoxlitmag.com/2014/12/22/a-conversation-with-sofia-samatar/

17 http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/a-stranger-in-olondria-by-sofia-samatar/

18 page 21

About the Author

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, is a London-based editor and critic. She was Visiting Professor and Global Intercultural Scholar at Goshen College, Indiana in 2016. She is on the judging panel for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award and was Guest Master for the 2016 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation fellowship in Colombia. A recent guest contributing editor for the 'Fear' issue of Transition magazine, she is the former deputy editor of Granta magazine and was senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House and assistant editor at Penguin. She served as a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. She sits on the selection panel for the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship and served as a literature selector for the Rolex 2014-15 Mentor & Protégée Initiative. Allfrey is series editor of the Kwani? Manuscript Project and the editor of Africa39 (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (Dundurn/Cassava Republic, 2016). She has also served as chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her journalism has appeared in the Spectator, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Observer and she has been a regular contributor to the book pages of NPR. Her broadcasting includes reviews for NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Archive on Four and Open Book and commissioned short stories for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has also chaired events at venues including the South Bank and at festivals including Hay Festival (Bangladesh and Colombia) and the Emirates Literary Festival. She sits on the boards of Art for Amnesty, the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Jalada Collective (Kenya) and the Writers Centre Norwich and is a patron of the Etisalat Literature Prize. Her introduction to Woman of the Aeroplanes by Kojo Laing was published by Pearson in 2012. In 2011 she was awarded an OBE for services to the publishing industry.