Sofia Samatar: Service for Culture

I treasure my copy of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria, not only because it is a brilliant achievement by a former student, but especially because of her inscription on the title page: "For Ervin, who introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez—a lifelong influence." She alludes to the International Literature class at Goshen College, which exposed her to the magic realism that blossomed into her achievement in fantasy fiction circles. She might also have cited Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, from that overstuffed course syllabus, which, as a Muslim successor to A Thousand and One Nights, seems even closer to her life experience and literary inspiration.

The Madison, Wisconsin, NPR website says that Sofia is a "Somali-American Mennonite Writer." Although she refers to "strangeness" in her identity, she wears hybridity with ease and confidence. All three cultural streams appear in her life and literary work.

Her American credentials are classic. Sofia was born two blocks west of Goshen College in 1971, when her father was a history major at the college. She graduated from GC with an English major in 1994. Her excellent undergraduate record earned her a full scholarship for graduate study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she earned a master's degree in African Languages and Literature. Sofia and her husband Keith Miller (GC '91) worked with the Mennonite Central Committee in northern Africa, first in South Sudan (1998-2000), later in Egypt (2001-2004; 2006-2009). Both taught English as a Second Language and also learned Arabic and absorbed Arabic cultures. Sofia's dissertation was on the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, whose novel Season of Migration to the North, an early canonical work from the postcolonial Arab world, may not be fantasy but is certainly phantasmagorical in its own way.

Sofia has never been to Somalia, because of the political collapse there since 1991. Her Somali credentials are less formal and more intimate. They come from her father, Said Sheikh Samatar (1943-2015), a Somali native from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. The "sheikh" in his name indicates that his father was a Muslim scholar.

Said was also a student in my International Literature course and I remember his rapt attention, especially as we studied early literature from postcolonial Africa—the first time he had found himself and his culture in literary texts. He was awed by Camara Laye's Dark Child, from Senegal, which depicts a Muslim boy in his tribal initiation as well as his initiation into western literate culture. It became Said's favorite book. Said often said that he was raised on camel's milk in nomadic culture. He barely knew his father, who had a number of wives and many children. He memorized many of the long epic historical and literary poems that his culture preserves orally. Said earned a PhD from Northwestern University and taught at Rutgers from 1981, where he established himself as the foremost scholar in Somali studies in the U.S.

Sofia's work experience in Arabic cultures and her family's Islamic inheritance obviously influence the "Olondria" books of fantasy fiction. Worked on since 1997 and published in 2013, A Stranger in Olondria won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Crawford Award, and Sofia won the John J. Campbell Award in 2014 as the "best new writer."

The novel depicts the coming-of-age of Jevick, who grew up speaking Kideti in the pre-literate culture of Tyom, was taught to read and write Olondrian, and then made his way through many challenges and perils on his journey-quest in the foreign country of Olondria. He becomes haunted by the ghost (or angel?) of the dying Jissavet of Kiem, who will not release him until he writes down her long personal story. Borges-like, the book is about books, containing stories within stories. Jevick at one point is prescribed the reading of books as therapy. After Jevick writes down Jissavet's story and cremates her bones, he is able to return to his home in Tyom.

The great achievement in his journey-quest is to have created an alphabet for his native language of Kideti and written its first book, Jissavet's The Anadnedet. The achievement becomes ambiguous when he finds that his tutor in Olondrian literacy has given up on books, and Jevick remembers that the land of Olondria that he has left behind is wracked by factions warring over literacy and orality. That massive cultural shift, of course, embodies the same ambiguity that Sofia and Keith faced in bringing literacy to their illiterate students, especially in the foreign language of English. And it is also the cultural conflict, and ambivalence, that Sofia's father experienced in moving from Somali oral culture to English literacy.

Like other fantasy fiction, the book creates a persuasive, imagined world—with fantastical geography, customs, religion, language, and literature. Sofia's special achievement in fantasy fiction is probably the poetic nature of her prose. As one GoodReads blogger says, Sofia "commits poetry in prose." The images in her descriptions sparkle with the sharp, sensuous language that one expects in poetry. The text quotes fragments of poetry from classic Olondrian literature and even long, whole poems. The Olondrian poems, fittingly, respect the once-oral literature of that culture, with formulaic, often rhymed structures. The longest Olondrian poem, "The Tale of the Angel Mirhavli," is a successful adaptation of traditional English and Scots ballad form, including archaic language.

Sofia's second book, The Winged Histories (Small Beer Press 2016), still in Olondria, goes beyond the familiar masculine archetypes of the first book by featuring four strong women—a soldier, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite—caught up in a violent rebellion. Like much science fiction, perhaps this fantasy fiction can be read as commenting on real, current global problems. The documentation of Olondria continues in this book, with 100 pages devoted to hitherto oral accounts of the origins of Olondria, as found in the sacred text Vallafarsi, as well as more of the Olondrian language and a full genealogy of Olondrian royalty.

The Olondrian books have made Sofia famous, but since 2012 she has also published 18 short stories and 15 poems in journals. In 2017 Rose Metal Press will publish Monster Portraits, a book of illustrated prose poems by Sofia and her brother Delmar.

Recently, Sofia has also embraced overtly in her writings the Mennonite identity that comes to her through her mother, the former Lydia Glick, a graduate of Eastern Mennonite College (now University). Lydia was teaching English to Somalis in Mogadishu under the Eastern Board of (Mennonite) Missions, and Said was her student. They married in 1970. Sofia says that she includes religion in her writing "because I had a religious upbringing and I have a very religious family," referring to both Muslim and Mennonite streams.

Since about 2013, Mennonite subjects have, more and more, entered into her academic work and writing. She read a paper at the Mennonite/s Writing conference in Fresno, California, in 2014. The address she gave for the 2016 Martin Luther King Study Day at Goshen College was published in the April 2016 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. In this April 2017 issue of the online Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, Sofia publishes an essay on the possibilities in postcolonial Mennonite writing and introduces the Somali-Canadian Mennonite poet, Mohamud Siad Togane.

In the summer of 2016, she joined a guided tour to the Central Asia republics, tracing the route that Mennonite visionaries and refugees from Ukraine followed to Uzbekistan. That experience will feed into her work-in-progress—a book which she describes as: "a hybrid text: history, fiction, criticism and memoir . . . built around . . . the migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what's now Uzbekistan. . . .it's kind of a fantastical story. . . a doorway to my own experience. . . I'm writing about identity, about Mennonites' writing and Mennonite literature. It's kind of a compendium of my strangeness." (Interview by Lilliam Rivera, Los Angeles Times 3-15-16).

To listen to Sofia in action, google the Madison, Wisconsin, National Public Radio site for the program "To the Best of Our Knowledge" on February 1, 2015. In "Somali-American Fantasy" Sofia reads from Olondria and responds to questions.

In the life and work of Sofia Samatar converge the distinctive elements of an education at Goshen College: intercultural, international, Mennonite, liberal arts. "Culture for Service," we say. In Sofia's case, it is also "Service for Culture."

Reprinted, with permission, from Freaky Squirrels: No Answers, Just Stories (2016), ed. Joe Kreider, et al., an occasional publication of the English Department of Goshen College.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.