MAY 9, 2017
THOUGH RELATIVELY NEW to fiction — her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, was published in 2013 — Sofia Samatar already stands as a formidable literary force. One has only to page through any of her works to see why: with prose that functions on multiple levels at once atop stories that do the same, Samatar’s fiction embodies a beauty and complexity reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin and Angela Carter. Similarly, she uses diverse genre elements — drawing upon science fiction, myth, and the fantastic — as a means to explore ideas and offer deeper layers of stylistic intricacy. In the year Olondria was released, it won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Crawford Award.
To her fiction, Samatar brings an academic background in African and Arabic languages and literature. Motifs of displacement, colonialism, and mythology are prevalent throughout. Because the stories are so layered with ideas, a close reading can be an intensely cerebral experience; to skim the surface is to miss the story. Scholarship itself is a foremost element in Tender, a collection spanning five years of short fiction: the narrators often have an intimate relationship with writing, stories, books, or correspondence. Samatar’s stories are always doing multiple things at once, and this persistent multiplicity is perhaps best articulated in the following passages from the title story, “Tender”:
Once upon a time, the story goes, some young men discovered an element. They soon realized it could produce an almost infinite amount of energy. The possibilities appeared endless, the future dazzling. There was only one problem: the element was toxic.
Once upon a time, goes another version, two young people fell in love. This love produced an almost infinite amount of energy. The possibilities appeared endless, the future dazzling. There was only one problem: one of the people was toxic.
The story goes on to interweave the science of radioactivity with the history of one woman’s relationship with her family; she is, in a sense, radioactive — toxic. Even the title, “Tender,” has a double meaning. On the one hand, the woman’s role is to be a tender in a radioactive facility — a job that involves the handling of nuclear materials. On the other hand, the story also concerns the most tender of subjects — love of one’s child, one’s spouse, and a loyal friend whose primary characteristic is that she was injured (she is consistently referred to as the “hurt friend”). People are rendered vulnerable by their need for love — an inherent tenderness. The protagonist, in her role as a tender, a role which makes her literally radioactive, lives behind glass to avoid hurting anyone ever again. This idea, however, doubles back on itself as a paradox: it means detaching from her daughter, and doesn’t that inflict injury of a different kind?
Samatar’s visions of the future, though diverse, are almost uniformly horrifying. Some stories are fleeting snapshots of the grimmest possible dystopias, often the result of climate change having wrought its worst, though wars unleash devastation as well. Sometimes the result is plague; other stories emphasize the destruction of natural beauty. “Honey Bear,” for example, tackles the central horror of climate change: the loss of any future at all. In the dystopian hellscape presented — where flowers have ceased to exist, and the oceans are polluted — the only hope of the future is in children. But in a twist, humans cannot become pregnant with their own children; they must be impregnated with children of the invaders who have conquered humanity and are toxic to the earth.
The story becomes a meditation on what hope would mean in such a world. The narrator of “Honey Bear” ruminates on people who have given up hope for the future and views them as having “said ‘No’ to life.” She muses,
I can’t help thinking the absence of children has something to do with this withering of the spirit — this pale new way of seeing the world. Children knew better. You always say yes […] You say yes to what comes, because you belong to the future, whatever it is, and you’re sure as hell not going to be left behind in the past. Do you hear the fairies sing? You always get up and open the door. You always answer. You always let them in.
Samatar’s fixations on dialectical doubleness and visions of the future come together in “Fallow,” one of the few stories to appear for the first time in Tender. (Most of these collected stories first appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Fireside Fiction, among others.) In “Fallow,” a colony of devoutly religious Christians keeps tabs on the destruction of Earth from afar. Persecuted for their beliefs, these colonists have tailored their centuries-old theology to life on another planet — a life which includes the conflicting sensations of longing, dissatisfaction, questioning, and fear found in any insular community. The protagonist, as is customary for Samatar, arrives at much of her thinking through writing as she works through these contradictions. It soon becomes apparent that these are the Mennonites, now masters of their own planet after being tortured on Earth for centuries. Yet even here, on the planet Fallow where they have built their castle, a lingering sense of displacement remains.
Perhaps most significantly, the persecuted here have become the persecutors: any arrivals from Earth are locked away or killed. The wandering farmers who once sought refuge in Europe, North America, and at last another planet, now have blood on their hands like everyone else.
This concept finds an echo in a very different sort of story, “Those,” whose subject is colonized Africa. The protagonist is a mixed-race woman — part African, part English — who must contend with the racial prejudice of Victorian England. Yet she is voiceless: the story is dominated by the voice of her English father, recounting the adventures of his youth that led him to meet her African mother. He has no awareness, as he tells the story, of the wounds he opens. To him, his exploitation of Africa was an adventure that resulted in a marriage; to his daughter Sarah, his story is an insight into horrors that are fundamental to her identity. She sees that the Africans her father encountered, even whipped and flogged, were not individuals to him, but a mass — inhuman.
Yet her father does have one unconscious insight. As he speaks of an archaeological find in the desert, he shares an oddity: the Kushites — conquered by Egypt — adopted the Egyptian painting style, and in doing so, they ended up depicting their enemies just as the Egyptians had once depicted the Kushites themselves. It is “as if the images have no character at all. As if they are vessels that can be filled again and again. Simply the enemy. And what is required of the enemy’s image? Only that the figures are identical, and that they are many.”
Colonialism is also the touchstone of another story, “Ogres of East Africa,” but this narrative is playful in a manner that may make some readers uncomfortable. The tale is, on the surface, a catalog of mythical monsters of East Africa, but it also functions as an African slave’s revenge plot against his master. The monsters are being cataloged by order of the master, who imagines he can conquer them. But they are more than mere creatures: they are the soul of the place, not easily tamed or destroyed.
Myth serves a vital function in Samatar’s stories. In “Ogres,” myths reflect the unquenchable yearnings of an enslaved people; in “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” a lush tapestry of myth is made flesh, contrasting the grandeur of myth with the turmoil of a contemporary city. What is eternal is “the animal,” a recurring thread in the story and the reason an immortal queen has relinquished her immortality for love. She refers to her own story as “a love story, an animal story. All these animals in love. I understand the White-Footed Gazelle’s desire for his beloved’s feet. There is a place where we are all animal, even you. We flicker in and out of it. We can be terribly hurt there, but also comforted.”
“Selkie Stories are For Losers,” a very different tale on its surface, is similar in theme to “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub.” Here, too, myth stands as a symbolic key to the map of love. Abandoned by her selkie mother, the narrator now grapples with the threat of a passionate unrequited love. The mother was forced to leave because, being inhuman, she did not belong on land. Now, similarly, the daughter feels alienated from her surroundings. But the selkie mother also represents a sense of belonging for which the narrator can only yearn. Her fixation on a co-worker who may or may not return her passion has everything to do with the mother who has gone away, and the narrator feels betrayed not only by her mother, but also by the dissolution of myth in acid reality. She discovers that what lies at the intersection of fairy tale and real life is heartbreak. “In selkie stories, kissing never solves anything. No transformation happens because of a kiss. No one loves you just because you love them. What kind of fairy tale is that?”
A relentless, challenging, and hypnotic collection, Sofia Samatar’s Tender transports the reader to myriad worlds, periods of history, and monstrous futures yet to be born. It can be a difficult text, demanding a high level of engagement with multiple layers and themes. At the same time, its subtle yet wrenching emotions have a way of getting under your skin.
Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, and Salon. Her debut novel, Last Song Before Night, was published in 2015 by Tor/Macmillan under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. Her forthcoming novel, Fire Dance, is slated for release in 2018.