As people clustered into Mainstage Theater on Thursday, the murmuring of the audience quieted as Sofia Samatar and her work were introduced. Then, Samatar, author and JMU professor, rose to read her writing. A mixture of faculty, staff, students, and community members listened intently as Samatar read excerpts of her work — a small portion of her 2013 book, “A Stranger in Olondria,” followed by a full short story, “The Red Thread” (found in her new book, “Tender”).
“The Red Thread” details through letters the story of a young woman (Sahra) writing to her friend, Fox (who does not initially appear to be answering her letters), about her travels moving around the world with her mother.
Samatar explained that she wrote the story for a contest in utopian fiction. As a fan of dystopian writing, she found it challenging to write such a piece, and ended up on a supposed utopia from the perspective of a girl who does not necessarily feel positively about the way her life is shaping up.
Sahra dislikes the constant moving around that her mother thrusts upon her, and feels nostalgia for the places she has felt were valuable but has been forced to leave. Her mother, on the other hand, does not seem to be remorseful for the places they have left behind and is not particularly pitying of Sahra’s perceived plight. Her mother has experienced the world before this, where travel was restricted and borders were copious and prohibitive, and she feels Sahra is unaware of how fortunate she is.
While Samatar did not read any of her new novella, “Fallow” (also found in “Tender”), it is a story which we have been analyzing in my “Ecology and Science Fiction” literature course. I feel it showcases her writing style well, and while I would say that the limited interaction I have had with her stories makes them appear congruent with each other in style, Samatar mentioned that she has submitted stories to review boards who have been unable to tell that they are by the same writer.
Based largely on “The Red Thread” and “Fallow” — and I have heard from other readers that her first book is different in this regard — I would describe Samatar’s writing as one that seeks to leave its reader hanging on for further detail about the setting of the story, and does not ever fully reward that desire. These stories focused on and accumulated attributes of the characters based on their experiences and interactions with the environment and others, but did not elaborate on the innovative scenarios the characters seemed to be embroiled in. My love of world-building was left somewhat unabated as she described an open-bordered utopia from the perspective of Sahra, who has lived in it, to Fox, who also seems to be fairly familiar with the system.
“Fallow” followed a similar pattern, where the main character, Agar, describes much of her surroundings as commonplace, even while we readers continually stop to ask questions about this Anabaptist space colony that are never fully answered. This tactic is one which allows for a great deal of interpretation and attracts a need to continue reading. However, it can leave some feeling less than satisfied in the arena of these universes of novelty. This said, the plot and descriptions of both stories as well as “A Stranger in Olondria” are beautifully written and feel simultaneously articulate and realistic for first-person accounts in these conceived, surrealist settings.
Samatar was pleasant and engaging as a reader (which I view as crucially important), and she came across as genial, humorous, and slightly sarcastic while speaking and answering audience questions. These were significantly positive aspects of the experience for me. Samatar’s wit and eloquence made her fascinating to listen to, and her skillful, expressive reading enunciated the value of the stories she read.