Sofia Samatar’s Arabian Fantasies Get Dosed In Reality

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Sofia Samatar’s story “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” which appears in her new book Tender, is inspired by stories from Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange, a compilation of ancient Arabian writings that were only recently translated into English.

“It’s a collection of tales that I believe were collected and written down in the medieval period, very similar in many ways to the famous stories of The Arabian Nights,” Samatar says in Episode 258 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They remind us a lot of Aladdin and Ali Baba, these great adventure stories.”

Such legends are invaluable as sources of wonder and inspiration, but they’ve proven to be problematic for the cultures that produced them. The idea of the East as a primitive land of enchantment is now so firmly fixed in people’s minds that it obscures the underlying reality, an idea explored by Edward Said in his classic book Orientalism.

“He’s really taking a very broad historical view, so he’s talking about centuries of conflict and conquest, where Western countries perceive these traditional, magical, Eastern places as incapable of any real modernity,” Samatar says. “And as incapable, therefore, of self-determination, and being nations in their own right.”

She tries to avoid perpetuating such notions by sprinkling her own Arabian fantasy with regular incursions of reality, but she admits that it’s a challenge. “At this point I would say I don’t have a solution to this issue,” she says. “But I do think it’s really important.”

One thing she’s sure of though is that writers shouldn’t just use the tropes of Arabian fantasy like toys in a toybox, completely detached from their cultural context. “If you do all of that without thinking about what is happening in those places now, and the relationship between the place you are in and what is happening in those places now, if you’re not doing that thinking and it’s nowhere visible in the work that you’re doing, I do think it’s kind of weak,” she says.

Listen to our complete interview with Sofia Samatar in Episode 258 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Sofia Samatar on danger:

“[My brother] was shot. He survived, but he was shot in the leg on a bus at about 7:30 in the morning. He was taking the bus from South Orange into Newark to go to Rutgers University—the Newark campus—which is where my dad was a professor for over 30 years, and my brother was going to school there at the time. There was a young man on the bus who was playing music really loud, and people asked him to turn it down—they’re going to work, it’s like 7am, and they didn’t want all this noise—and he opened fire on the bus. … My dad was really concerned that I was working in South Sudan, I was working in this war zone, and I was like, ‘Del’—that’s my brother—’Del’s the one who got shot, and he lives with you, dad.’”

Sofia Samatar on her story “Walkdog”:

“The story’s in the form of a school paper that is written by a girl who’s a high school student, and she’s writing to her teacher—really in the footnotes and kind of in the corners of this essay—and she’s saying, ‘You’re the grown-up. Why don’t you help us? High school is terrible and hard, and really awful things are happening, and you’re just up there teaching class like everything’s normal.’ And yeah, that’s a feeling that I often have as a teacher. It’s hard to balance ‘What’s the material that I need to cover and the stuff that I need to get through in order to do my job correctly?’ and then ‘When is it time to just drop that material because there’s something going on that my students want to talk about?’ There are things that are happening in life that are so much more important than me getting them to do this curriculum.”

Sofia Samatar on her story “Fallow”:

“[The story] is based on a long history in which Anabaptist groups of various kinds, because they don’t go to war, have been forced to move from place to place. They would move in order to live simply and in their own way, and preserving their own culture and language and education system and so on. And then very often what would happen, historically, is that they would be facing conscription, and that’s where they drew the line and said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do that. We’re leaving, we’re going to migrate somewhere else.’ And what’s happened in ‘Fallow’ is that they have run out of places on Earth where they are going to be able to preserve the right not to participate in warfare, so their only choice is to try outer space.”

Sofia Samatar on her story “An Account of the Land of Witches”:

“The fifth section of that story—the final section—was not part of my original idea for the story. That was actually a suggestion from my wonderful editor Kelly Link, who said that when the story was written with just the four sections, all the threads were tied up and it ended very neatly and tightly and it was really compact. Those are all good things in terms of short fiction, but Kelly, who is actually the genius of short fiction—so if she says something, you should listen to it—she said, ‘I want a sense that this is opening out again at the end. It’s too neat.’ And so I said, ‘OK,’ and then I wrote this really weird ending, and she said, ‘Wow, that was unexpected,’ and she liked it a lot.”

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