Recently, at WisCon 40 (a feminist sci-fi and fantasy convention in Madison, Wisconsin), we had the opportunity to sit down with the phenomenal Sofia Samatar. In addition to being a WisCon Guest of Honor, Sofia Samatar is the author of The Winged Histories and the World Fantasy Award-winning A Stranger in Olondria (both from Small Beer Press). Sofia Samatar talks the power of fantasy, rewriting tradition, and putting yourself out there in this interview.
CBSD: So why sci-fi/fantasy?
SS: I have asked this question a lot. I’ve tried to find various answers to it, and none of them have been satisfactory. In fact, I did a whole dissertation on fantasy in the work of Taib Saleh, who’s a Sudanese novelist, trying to see if I can get closer to that question, “why fantasy?” One way of answering the question might be “why not fantasy?” Fantasy is older than realism, has a much longer history in oral traditions. “Why realism?” might be the actual question we should ask people. But that’s not entirely satisfactory to me. You could also say, well, I’m this person from a mixed background, you know, Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite, that you don’t see a lot of, and that it maybe encourages me to imagine other ways of being. That’s another way of answering, and that also doesn’t satisfy me. So none of the answers are good enough.
CBSD: That’s an answer in and of itself. One goal you’ve talked about, specifically in The Winged Histories is to counteract the conventional war-mongering of fantasy that isn’t really questioned. Do you see sci-fi and fantasy moving in this direction?
SS: I think that there is a strong feminist tradition in fantasy and sci-fi, and there are a lot of women in the genre who have been questioning that war-mongering for a long time. They don’t tend to be as highly popular as the ones that are not trying to think about war in ways that challenge its primacy and challenge its necessity. The stories that challenge that narrative tend not to get as much attention. They might be there, and I might not know.
CBSD: How did you start working with Small Beer Press?
SS: When first I decided I wanted to start getting A Stranger in Olondria published, I started looking for an agent. And I kept trying for five years, and I couldn’t get one. I just wasn’t really that aware of the independent press world. . . [but] I loved the kind of books that Small Beer did, and I knew that our sensibilities were really similar. And so, at WisCon, I went to the Small Beer table in the dealers room and I spoke to Gavin Grant and I said, “Hey, I wrote this novel!” And he didn’t look thrilled. I think that’s probably not the only time he’s heard that! But he said, “Send me three chapters,” so I did, and then it went on from there. They were the first publisher that I talked to, because they were at the top of my list, and it worked out, and it has been great. They’re amazing.
CBSD: Can you give us any sneak-peeks into what you’re working on now?
SS: Sure! I’m working on a very different kind of book now. It is a hybrid text combining fiction, history, and memoir, based on a historical event: the migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what is now Uzbekistan in the 1880s. So, a little different, but still sort-of fantastical. It’s many of the same preoccupations of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories – about migration and borders and history and memory, but this time looking at them in a more recognizable world.
The Winged Histories is available now from City Lights Books. Find out where to purchase this, A Stranger in Olondria, and other titles here on the Consortium website.