The Big Idea: Sofia Samatar
In the novel A Stranger in Olondria, reading is the thing. But author Sofia Samatar asks: Is it the only thing? Here are her further thoughts about a life of letters (and beyond).
When I wrote A Stranger in Olondria, I wanted a whole world of my own, with all the details: hymns and hairstyles and dialects and desserts. Above all, I wanted books—and not just books, but literary history. I wanted to create both a world and its libraries.
The result is a novel about reading. Jevick, the main character, comes from a non-literate society, but his Olondrian tutor teaches him to read and write. After that, all Jevick wants is to travel to Olondria, the land of books. But when his dream comes true, his life starts falling apart: he becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young woman from his own country.
Jevick’s quest to get rid of his ghost brings up all sorts of issues he’s tried to suppress, such as his rejection of his homeland and his status as a wealthy merchant. It also throws him into a struggle he doesn’t understand, a violent conflict between rival Olondrian cults. His dilemma allowed me to explore not only the contradictions of self-imposed exile, but also the question of how well one can ever “know” a foreign culture. Jevick thinks he knows Olondria because he’s read about it, and because he possesses a single Olondrian friend, his tutor. He quickly realizes how much is missing from his view of this foreign country, including things his tutor has deliberately hidden from him.
He also begins to question the meaning of reading. Jevick lives to read, but he must come to terms with a world in which not everyone is literate, in which certain things are lost in the transition from an oral to a literate condition, and in which literacy is linked to oppressive power.
I wrote A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, South Sudan, where I taught high school English: that is, I was working between languages, and between oral and written traditions. The experience brought home to me the links between reading and writing, my favorite activities, and the history of colonialism. This was an awareness I’d grown up with, as my father, a Somali academic, wrote a book about Somali oral poetry and the anti-colonial struggle, and dedicated it to my brother and me. It was in Sudan, though, that these issues crystallized for me, leading to a book that celebrates reading, while also expressing some anxiety about it.
Without giving too much away, I can say that Jevick’s choices reflect his growing awareness that reading, while wonderful, isn’t everything. It isn’t the story. Most stories, in both Jevick’s world and ours, can’t be read. These are the stories of those who do not or cannot write, or of those whose writings are destroyed, deprived of interpreters, illegible or lost.
Ultimately, A Stranger in Olondria is a book-lover’s book, one that takes reading seriously, in all its beauty and terror. I worked hard to reflect some of the tensions between oral and literate cultures without taking a stand in favor of either. And along the way, I got to make up religious texts, epic poetry, manuals for dream interpretation, painting styles and critiques of painting styles, pamphlets on etiquette, musical genres and children’s books.
Of course, not all of that material wound up in the novel! I’ve got enough left over to fill a library.