Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sofia Samatar: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

For this discussion, we were joined by award-winning author Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria.

Sofia described her work as embracing genre and not feeling tied down by where it has gone before. I mentioned that she has been remarked on for the richness of her world, and she says that is not necessarily new, since there are worlds that include huge vocabularies and even whole languages. She said that Gormenghast by Mervin Peak and Tolkien's worlds were inspiration for her. She took her time to create the world featured in A Stranger in Olondria, and a new book, The Winged Histories, will also take place in that world. It is due out in March 2016.

When I asked her about the inspiration for this world, and how she created it, she said, "I created it by wandering around in it." Apparently the first drafts of these books were "huge enormous drafts": the initial draft of Stranger was twice as long, and the initial draft of Histories three or four times longer than the final drafts.

She says she writes scenes that don't need to be there, "but I needed to write them." Writing these scenes helped her to learn more about the world and the atmosphere. She told us about a part of the capital of Olondria which is very old, which she explored in depth. Only one or two things from it might end up in the book, but the understanding of this area, its history, and the debates that occurred there seeps into the feel of the book.

I pointed out that our understanding of a context often seeps into our use of language without us realizing it, and that this might be one way a deeper knowledge of the world might become evident to a reader.

Sofia described her writing as "not self-aware," and told us that she taught herself to write by writing A Stranger in Olondria.

Jevik, the hero of Stranger, comes from a non-literate culture, but Olondria itself is highly literate. When he goes there, he becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman of his own culture. She said it was important to put those two ways of knowing - literate and non-literate - side by side, and have them equally well known.

Though The Winged Histories is also set in Olondria, it is a stand-alone book. Jevik is mentioned in one sentence in the memory of someone else - a priest's daughter who appeared in Stranger, and who has become a main character. Chronologically, the events occur directly after those of Stranger. There are four points of view, all of them Olondrian women: a soldier, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite. The story deals with a religious and ethnic war connected to the events that occurred in the earlier novel. It is a complicated conflict, because Olondria is an empire. Its central valley is ostensibly one of the provinces, but in fact that province took over the others either through war or economics. That means there are different political interests and movements within it. People are dedicated to different gods, but the main goddess of the region called Kestenyi has been outlawed and replaced by an Olondrian goddess. A new cult has also appeared, trying to overcome the past. These religions are linked to cosmologies and in some cases to ethnicities.

I asked her about the time she spent in Africa, and how this related to the books. She said her time there was a direct source of ideas. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria while teaching High School English in the Sudan. This experience really made the distinction between oral and written traditions very present to her. She was there to help people make the transition from oral to literate, but she came to question what she was participating in. The common idea is that by teaching literacy, we are solving a problem, but it also leads to language and cultural loss.

The Winged Histories, Sofia says, is more concerned with gender than was A Stranger in Olondria. It examines what happens in societies with strict gender roles, where men and women live separately, and questions the relationship with militarism. Separation supports specific types of violence. She took inspiration here from Sudan and Somalia.

We asked about her use of point of view in the two novels. In Stranger, there are two points of view, but the second is there only because Jevik is taking dictation from the ghost and recording things in her voice. In Histories, there are four points of view in four sections that flow chronologically, though the 3rd and 4th parts happen at the same time. Point of view is an excellent tool to take a look at different things happening based on which character was present to witness them.

I asked whether disease was a part of book 2, because a genetic disease was described in book 1. She replied that both books are about identity, culture, memory, and history - and that genetics is a form of history.

There is also a cultural difference between the points of view. Two of the women are sisters, within the culture of the royal family. Others are from different provinces: one from the Olondrian core province, and the other from the most resistant province. This can create a contrast of values, since what is good for unification may be negative socially.

Glenda asked whether the Roman empire served as an inspiration. Sofia said yes, in terms of creating the pantheon. She also was inspired by Egyptian mythology. Glenda further asked whether there was a parallel between the new religion of Olondria and Christianity. Sofia said there was none intended, but "you hear it and you say... maybe." The new cult of Olondria is severe, conservative, against drinking wine, passionate about the written word, and desires to stamp out oral systems. There is a further parallel to Greece in that as Olondria expanded, it incorporated new deities into its pantheon.

Sofia, thank you so much for joining us and giving us insight into your work! Thanks also to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion.

Today's hangout will be at 3pm Pacific and we will discuss mourning practices. Our guest for September will be Henry Lien, who will be with us at 3pm Pacific on Wednesday, September 16th.

Here's the video of our chat with Sofia Samatar, for those of you interested in further detail:


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