Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.
Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).
The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”
The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.
This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:
“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”
“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”
“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”
“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”
And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.