Interview: Sofia Samatar

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I invited Sofia Samatar to come to UT's "Symposium for African Writers" but I never asked her if she thought of herself as an African writer. In this interview, she very carefully clarified that it wasn't quite a category she was comfortable claiming. "I have never really seen myself described as an African writer, and I've never described myself as an African writer," she said.

My relationship with African literature has always been a little bit wistful. It has always been something that I would love to be a part of, but I can't quite. I was born in the wrong place, I don't speak the right language, and so I'm always kind of on the outside. That's okay, but it's also sad.

I could list her bona fides, if that were necessary. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria while living in South Sudanand it shows. Her short story "Ogres of East Africa" is a wonderfully smart piece of African literatureby some definitionand the Somali diaspora is an important part of the community she embraces; her father is an eminent scholar of Somali poetry and politics, and she's lived in different parts of the continent for over a decade of her life, here and there. Does this make her an African writer? Her hesitation at the category might say more about the heavy weight of the category than her own inclinations. I might even suggest that doing a PhD in African literature, and writing a dissertation about Tayeb Salih, Ibrahim al-Koni, Ben Okri, and Bessie Head, makes her particularly wary of placing herself in that kind of company. Academics are often better at policing boundaries and clarifying categories than at thinking about why they even exist, and why, maybe, they don't always need to. But I haven't thought twice about inviting her, and no one has complained. She belongs in these conversations.

It's easier to call Sofia Samatar a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer, though perhaps a term like "speculative fiction" is better at gesturing towards the breadth of her work. Her story "How to Get Back to the Forest" takes place in a dystopian semi-future and maybe "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" could be called "fantasy" if you had to make something out of the fact that it has Selkies in it. If "A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals" isn't surrealistic prose poetry, it's a robot story grounded in the cutting-edge medieval mechanical engineering of Badi’ al-Zaman Abu-‘l-‘Izz Ibn Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari. Or maybe all of these stories are about adolescents looking for love. There's a lot of vomit in these stories, and bleeding. Also poetry.

This interview was conducted over Skype, on October 30th. A week later, it was announced that she had won the 2014 World Fantasy Award for best novel, a richly deserved honor. On receiving the award, which features the face of virulent racist H. P. Lovecraft, she said a few words about the award statue, as she wrote on her blog the next day:

 I said “I can’t sit down without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the controversy surrounding the image that represents this award.” I said it was awkward to accept the award as a writer of color. (See this post by Nnedi Okorafor, the 2011 winner, if you are confused about why.) I also thanked the board for taking the issue seriously, because at the beginning of the ceremony, Gordon van Gelder stood up and made an announcement to that effect: “The board is taking the issue very seriously, but there is no decision yet.” I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.

Nobody’s post about winning an award should turn into a post about controversy! Everyone should be able to announce their awards with unadulterated joy! And unless the statue is changed, there will be a lot more posts like this. Can we not?

SofiaSpeech, picture by Scott Edelman


AB: So, you have a PhD in African literature, from UW Madison, and you write fantasy, fictional fantasy. Can you talk about the way those two things are in dialogue?

SS: The relationship between fantasy fiction, and the whole African literature thing... So, I get questions a lot, where people ask me why I write this, and I try to answer them as best I can.

Is that an antagonistic question? As in, "why do you write fantasy rather when you should be writing real literature?"

I think it's a little bit antagonistic, but I also think it's genuine. I don't think people are asking it to be confrontational. They honestly want to know. But genre fictionyou know, science fiction, fantasy, Western, romanceall of them are set apart from literary fiction, in the way that our literature is divided. And since literary fiction is generally felt to be realistwhich is totally not the case, but it is what people thinkthe question becomes, well, here is this dominant literature, here is The Novel, we have this idea of the novel as a realist form... That's where the question "why" comes from, the idea that writing fantasy is not a normal thing to do.

One way I address this is to turn things around, and look at how much older fantasy is than realism, how much more widespread in the world. How deeply a part of oral tradition fantasy isand say, you know, explain to me, "Why write realist fiction?" Because fantasy is not the fringe, really, if you take narrative as a whole. It is the center.

So, there's that answer. But that doesn't work, right? Because we are still looking at things the way they are now, the way literature is divided. So then I go to my other answers. One of them is that I don't know. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih: I wrote it on the uses of the fantastic and the uncanny in his work, plus a comparative piece where I was looking at Ibrahim al-Koni of Libya, Ben Okri of Nigeria, and Bessie Head from South Africa/Botswana. I was looking at how all of these writers are using the fantastic and the uncanny in their work. I did this, in part, to try to figure out why I am drawn to this literature. And I failed! I failed, Aaron. I still don't have a satisfactory answer for my attraction to this kind of literature.

Are you still working with that problem?

Well, there's a reason the dissertation has not been revised into a book. I have issues with it. I'm not happy with all the arguments, but I'm still interested in looking at the world inside literature, the worlds that are created within a novel, for example. Taking that kind of world-building seriously, and looking at what writers are doing with that. Very often, world literature, as we study it now–there's something very extroverted about it. It's about circulation and reception, where stuff was published, who was at what conference when. I'm very interested in comparative studies of world-building among different writers in different places; how people imagine the world.

Would you have advice for yourself, if you could to talk to yourself at the beginning of your graduate career, as you were beginning to embark on this project?

If you mean, would I tell myself something to do differently, I don't think I would. Because all of the questions that I asked and the answers that I cobbled together under the stressful conditions of graduate student life, I think that they're important, I think that they were necessary for me. I learned an enormous amount writing that dissertation, and even though I don't look at it and think it should be shared with everyone, I look at it and think maybe I can mine this or that part of it for an article. I don't see it as a project that I want to publish, as I said, but every chapter gave me something in the creative realm. The chapter on Sufism became a short story. The chapter on epic became a really important part of my forthcoming sequel to A Stranger in Olondria which is about history and memory and epic. I needed every bit of that dissertation.

Was it because the kind of the thinking you were doing could actually come out in better forms? You're sort of both in and out of academia, occupying different worlds at the same time, after all.

The first thing that came into my head, about "occupying different worlds at the same time"that's the title of my memoir! It sums everything up about my life. [Laughs] I think that thought, that research... all that work is really important, and we all know that. We all know that the product is not the work, the work is the work. I think it's important to say that: your dissertation can do a lot of different things for you. It doesn't have to be this one path.

I adore Tayeb Salih, and Season of Migration to the North is so... let's see, I wrote my MA thesis on that novel, and I finished my MA in 1997. So it's been over fifteen years thatI can't do math, I've lost countthat this novel has been a part of my life. However, when I look back, it's really the part about Bessie Head that stands out for me as something I want to go back to. I want to go back to Bessie Head.

Would you talk about that?

Part of it is that when I was in college, and even in grad school, it may have been there, but I didn't know about mixed race studies. Now it is a thing. I'm really interested in it, and I have all kinds of reservations about it, but I'm interested in Bessie Head and the centrality of mixed race and mixed race identity in her work, especially A Question of Power. Something really painful, but at the same time, something that yieldsfor her, for Elizabeth, the character in the booknew ways of thinking and new ways of looking at land, and community, and belonging. Bessie Head was doing that stuff pretty early.

That might be an awkward segue to what I'm calling the obligatory "African Writer" question. Do you think of yourself as an African writer? How do you fit into that, as a writer, rather than as a scholar of African literature. 

I have never been invited to anything as an African writer, until now. I have never really seen myself described as an African writer, and I've never described myself as an African writer. This doesn't mean I don't want to come to the symposium. [Laughs] Because I definitely do! But in order for me, someone born in the United States, who grew up hereexcept for a very brief time, maybe a yeargrew up here, did not live in Africa until I was an adultI was 26, when I went, or 24, I forgetin order for me to be described as an African writer, we would need a new description for what that means. And I think that new description may be in process right now.

I have not, up until now, described myself as an African writer. Although, really, I would love to! I am so passionate about African literature. But my relationship with African literature has always been a little bit wistful. It has always been something that I would love to be a part of, but I can't quite. I was born in the wrong place, I don't speak the right language, and so I'm always kind of on the outside. That's okay, but it's also sad.

That said, at the same time that I love the idea of being accepted by other African writers as one of them, I also do get stuck a little bit on the question of citizenship, simply because the question of citizenship is a question of privilege. So I don't think that we can really skip over it. I don't know.

This brings up Tope Folarin, right? Immediately.

Well, did I tell you that I interviewed him, as well? 

Oh, really! No, I didn't know that.

He sort of does what he does, and he writes what he writes, and he has a very strong sense of his vocation as a writer. But he said he hadn't realized that he was legible as an African writer, that he was eligible for the Caine Prize, until he spoke to Helon Habila, who urged him to enter. And he said he had no idea he was even eligible. I'm curious what your take on that is, especially since it seemed like there was actually not that much controversy. A lot of people just said, "Yeah, ok, that makes sense."

I'm not 100% sure what that's coming from, but it's certainly recognizable to me, coming from an extended Somali family, who say of course you're Somali. To them, it's not even a question. But I say, I was born here, I don't speak the language, I have an American passport. And they say, "So what? We don't care."

I'm not sure what's going on in Tope Folarin's case, but it could be something like that, where people are saying, "This is our child." Just because he was born in Utah, that does not make him any less our son. So then the question for me is, how many generations does that go? Are African-American writers eligible for the Caine Prize?

I was teaching Nnedi Okorafor's short stories the other day"Kabu Kabu" and "On the Road"and they're both the story of an American-born person of Nigerian parentage who goes from Chicago to Nigeria to visit family, and magical and supernatural things happen there. And they're about many different things, but they are also both about Africa as this place you go to and also a place of fantasy. It's not quite real, but it's also overwhelmingly real, humorously real, and horribly real. I don't know... it seemed like in those stories she was working out that sense that while you can't fully claim it, can't fully connect to it, it's also there, and you have to deal with it, have to take it in. 

I don't know. I can't decide. I can't adjudicate the Africanness of anyone else. I can say something about myself. I feel that my most important role is talking about, and teaching, and promoting the work of African writers. I don't feel comfortable talking about or promoting my work in those terms. I feel that would be false. I see myself coming to the symposium as a passionate scholar of African literature who wants to meet Laila Lalami, and Taiye Selasi, and wants to sit down with these people. I'm more like Langston Hughes at the Makerere conference, kind of over at the side, listening and interested, but not making any pronouncements. And I think that's good!

Well, Langston Hughes was on the sidelines at Makerere. But you have these other conferences of artists, which precede decolonization, and precede many of the institutions of African literature, where you have people like James Baldwin, who are standing next to Aimé Césaire and Senghor, and it's a very different kind of collective. And it's not like African literature is ending, because nothing ever ends, but I feel like we're in a moment where "African Literature" is entering a new chapter that looks a little bit like what preceded Makerere.

I don't know, man! I think it does and doesn't. I think the whole Pan-African things looks very different from the Afropolitan thing.

How so?

They look different because, in one of them, long-term residents of the Americaswho are blackare very central, are central players. The Afropolitan thing, it seems to me, seems to be coming from a different direction, from people whose experience of the African continent is much, much more recent. It does not seem to me to include... doesn't mean that it couldn't, it just means that the formulations I've seen would not say that a woman whose family has lived in Chicago for generations is an Afropolitan. To me... and I can't get my hands on Binyavanga Wainaina's speech from 2012...

No, nobody can! I asked him about this, and he said that it was not recorded, and also that it's less aggressive and polemic than the title sounds. But this is one of the things that's interesting to me about the "Afropolitan," as a phenomenon, that that title was enough. People have read so much into the titlelike "what would he have said?"that there's almost a polemic ready to be made about the distinction between Pan-African and Afropolitan.

Well, the other thingand maybe it's a little bit unfairbut there's the idea that Afropolitanism is just about the surface, just about culture, just about flying around the world to different cities. Whereas Pan-Africanism is much more about resistance.

Do you think that's true? I'm not sure, but I do question that. Weren't the Pan-Africanists about culture, too? Weren't Senghor and Césaire, flying around the world?

It's a very uncharitable reading of what has been said about Afropolitanism. And it's maybe a nostalgia-infused reading of a Pan-Africanism that we wish was more than it actually was.

To switch gears, awkwardly, I wonder if we could talk about some of the publishing enterprises that you're involved with, like Interfictions and Long Hidden, and this morning you were tweeting about Hidden Youth.

Well, I got involved in the Long Hidden anthology because I sent them a story and they liked it. That story was "Ogres of East Africa," and it opened the anthology, the first story of the anthology. Long Hiddenthe story of Long Hidden is really interesting. It's this small press book, from Crossed Genres press. But it was way more successful than anyone expected, and the interest that it drew, and the people that it drew together, it was very interesting.

This is all part of the history of a lack of diversity in science fiction and fantasy that a lot of people are interested in fixing, and that a lot of other people don't see, or don't think needs to be fixed. Science fiction especially has been kind of a white guy's genre. Still, to this day, despite the powerful of work of people like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and N. K. Jemisin. There are all these people doing this work, and yet the broad perception still tends to be that science fiction is white, that fantasy is white. And so there's a lot of discussion about that, and has been for years.

This is something that Samuel Delany predicted, and I wish I could remember the date of his essay... it was definitely in the 1990's. [editor's note: The essay is "Racism and Science Fiction"] He was saying that with the issue of race, everybody is fine with it as long as there's only one or two of us, but once there starts to be a critical mass of people of color in this field, we're going to start to see push-back. I think that's come true, in some sense.

So Long Hidden comes along and inserts itself very boldly in this space. A whole anthology about marginalized people, and marginalized in a very broad sense: it's race, it's gender and sexuality, it's ability, it's culture and nationality, it's all kinds of ways of being marginalized. And people just... there are so many people who wanted that, so desperately, and were so happy to have this book in their hands. So they said, wow, let's do another one, and focus on younger protagonists, and they asked me to help edit it.

How far along in the process is the Hidden Youth?

We open for submissions on Saturday. And we'll be reading submissions through June.

I'm fascinated with the submissions page's list of criteria, what you will accept, what you won't, what you say handle with caution. It's a fascinating document, because there's an attempt to say, very explicitly, here is what falls within the boundaries of the project. 

We inherited most of them from Long Hidden. But I completely agree with you that it's a fascinating document. If you read between the lines... Well, you don't have to read between the lines. It's a response to science fiction and fantasy stories that people see and find extremely problematic. I've come across this debate more than once, at science fiction conventions. You're in a room, and people are... well, basically, there are white writers who are really nervous, because they want to write non-white characters and they're afraid that the people of color will be mad at them if they do it wrong. The reason there is so much sensitivity about that is because people who come from a marginalized background, who are black for example, they say I'm having trouble getting stories out there, and then they're reading stories that have black characters by white writers and those stories are very obnoxious. With the anthology, we're trying to say, we don't care what your background is, go ahead, we're very pro having people of all backgrounds writing marginalized characters. That's great. However: don't be stupid. Don't have a black sidekick die, and say you are writing about marginalized people.

What do you think you'll get?

Long Hidden had all kinds of stories, and that's what's so great about it, it was such variety of style, setting, and so on. And I hope we get that as well.

You're also doing something with the Jalada collective, right? 

Yes! I'm a guest editor for their upcoming issue, on Afrofuturism. I am super-excited about this project. Afrofuturism is something that really fascinates me, and something that I'll be writing about when I can get my act together.

Well, your distinction between Steampunk and Afrofuturismor the friction between the two termsis really interesting.

I have some issues with Steam-punk. Afrofuturism... even though it has future in the name, if you look at Afrofuturistic artistic production, going back to musicSun-Ra, George Clinton, and all those peopleit's always very interested in the past as well. These are African American musicians that are very interested in Ancient Egypt. The future part is there, the past is there, and that bridge has always been there, bridging the gap that is the middle passage, the slave trade. That's the trauma that Afrofuturism is trying to deal with, trying to imagine a future that transforms these traumas, and is healing, in a way. I'm making big blanket statements, but that's a strong current.

What I'm excited about with the Jalada project is that this is an Africa-based project, and it's really going to be something that artists based on the African continent and elsewhere are going to be producing together. And I think that's really, really exciting. Because I think that those connections have always been really foundational for the ways that Afrofuturism has been thought about.

How far along in the process is the anthology? 

It's pretty far along; it's not to the point where a table of contents had been announced. But it's getting there.

Has anything surprised you about the submissions?

I certainly haven't read through everything; I was brought on as a story editor for a few pieces, and given the constraints on my time, it's been very few, unfortunately. But I like, and find gratifying, the fact that there's a real variety in terms of how real the fantasy is. That sounds weird, but whether they're in genre sci-fi mode, or whether they're in a surreal mode, a dream mode... stories where it's definitely not about going to other planets. There are things where the influence of something that is futuristic, or in some way not realist, is very, very subtle. I really like that. Among the debates you run into in science fiction and fantasy are arguments about when something is really science fiction or fantasy, and I find them fairly tiresome. I'm always open to things that are speculative. Speculative is very broad. It doesn't have to mean there's an actual rocket ship.

I want to ask you about your novel, before we run out of time. In an interview you did with, you said that you knew that there was a ghost, and that ghosts were illegal in Olondria. Could you talk about that? The idea of ghosts being illegal... that's a poem or short story right there.

What often happens in speculative fiction is that people will take things to their logical extreme. You have something that exists in the world as we know it, and maybe we don't really notice it, or recognize what it's doing. A piece of speculative fiction will try to exaggerate that thing; it reflects things back to you in a mirror that's distorting them in a way that allows you to recognize what's really going on. And maybe somebody doesn't want you to see them as they really are.

As for ghosts being illegal, there are certainly many people who will say that ghosts don't exist, really, in an absolute way. They will reject, or think less of you for believing that. So part of what I'm looking at in the book is the difficulty of different belief systems existing side by side. That's very much a real world problem. The exaggeration is, then, what if they're not just going to think you're superstitious or stupid, but you're actually going to be locked up?

What did it do for you as a writer to write so much of that novel in South Sudan?

Well, I was teaching at a high school. My husband and I lived in Yambio, in South Sudan, for three years, and we taught in a secondary school there. So, we were in a place where the civil war was still going on, but we were in the liberated south, so the part that was under the control of the SPLA government, not the Khartoum government. So education in that area had switched from Arabic to English. We had a lot of students who had done their primary education in Arabic, and were now going to do their secondary education in English. And language was a big part of that conflict, people in the south wanted those connections to Kenya and Uganda, and to study in English was a really big deal. So my students were really excited to study in English; this was the future, as far as they were concerned. So I was, like, great! Let's do this. You guys want this, I'm able to do it, I have this skill, let's do this thing.

And then, of course, the longer I stayed there, I just started to question it, quite a bit. What was I really doing? Why was this so much better than Arabic? What's happening to this primarily oral culture? I don't know. It's not that I think I committed some grave error about going and teaching English. But I just developed a lot of questions about it.

And so I wrote this book, and it's a lot about educated in a foreign language, and travel, and exile, and about these conflicts between oral and written ways of knowing. And again, this is something in the novel becomes exaggerated, where the worship of ghosts, or what Olondrians refer to as Angels, is something that's associated with an illiterate peasant class. So the whole thing of deciding what is legal is not arbitrary at all. It's very much, to recall Bessie Head again, it's a question of power.

I was struck by how legible this novel is, in terms of African literature and the themes we've come to expect from it. It reads like a novel written by someone who has spent a lot of time with Tayeb Salih, for example.

To be honest, I'm surprised how many people found it legible on the science fiction and fantasy side. Because it's not... this is why I had trouble getting an agent, when I was trying to get the book published. They didn't think they could sell it, they saw it as illegible, in between, no one knows how to read this.

What kind of obstacles do people have in reading it, do you think?

Well, it has too many words in it, it's too long, it's too dense. It's too slow. That's a big thing. I'm not saying that these are bad comments. These are legitimate complaints in a way.

If it was classified as literary fiction, then maybe people would know to have patience, because literary fiction is hard, right?

I don't know. A lot of literary fiction isn't hard at all. If you're saying some of the denser, slow fiction in the Proustian mode, then yeah, people would be ready for it. People would be ready for that. But then they'd be like "Why is it all made up? Why do I have this map?" The chair of my department is a really great guy, and he read the book, and he said "You know, I was so thrown off by all these names," and he was stressing because he couldn't keep it straight. And then once he got far enough in it, he realized he could just relax and go with it. But by and large, people who read fantasy are ready for made-up names. The important names are going to float to the top and everything is going to be fine.

For me, to go back to the beginning of this conversation, the whole thing about studying African literature, studying foreign languages, and then writing this novel in which there are all these foreign words that I've made up… I find that the strangeness of foreign language and the way that languagewhen you study a foreign languageit's not a straight line. It goes up and down. You can be great one day, and wake up the next day and be terrible at it. There's something so weird and electric and rich and exciting about that. I feel at home in that, I feel at home in a situation where not everyone understands everything that's going on.

I think that is related to growing up in a house where my parents spoke English with each other, they spoke English with me, and I did not know Somaliexcept for a few wordsbut I would hear my dad speaking Somali on the phone all the time. I would hear music and poetry in Somali, and there was always this... It's there and it's not there at the same time. You're kind of existing in this space, and I guess part of doing it in a fantasy novel, is that because I made these words up, there's no way... You know, if I mingled languages, then people who read both of those languages who came along and read the book, they wouldn't have the experience of not-knowing the language. The only way to make sure that everybody gets that experience of destabilization is to use a language that's made up.

That makes me think about how, with a lot of African writing, "foreign" words will be italicized, or explained in the glossary, which can wipe away the strangeness of those words. But all that Jevick knows about Olondria is what he's read, which is also all that we know. Perhaps you experience the flatness of that kind of knowledge because you know it's not real.

I really enjoyed creating this character. As a student of languages, I really enjoyed putting that experience to words, through that fantasy. Also the idea that, you know, Jevick's whole thing is that he's only read a few books, and his only access to Olondria is what his tutor has given him to read. But that means he only has the books that this one dude likes.

And it's a pretty random selection!

Yeah, and yet he thinks that's Olondrian culture. You know, right before I had written this book, I had done my MA in African literature at the University of Wisconsin, and that was what was happening to American students in that program, not having gone to Africa, yetthey'd go eventuallybut getting this idea, and sometimes being quite confident about an idea of Africa, or the part of Africa that they studied, completely without having gone there. That was something I was critical of at that time, because I, at least, had grown up knowing up how much I didn't know. So there was no way I was going to sit there in class and say, I've read these books, now I know about Kenya.

At the beginning of this conversation, I was framing it in terms of "African" writer. Would it be a different question if I asked "Are you a Somali writer?" How would that be different?

I don't think the question would be that different. The thing is that whatever I am, it's going to come with some caveats. If I say I'm an American writer, that's also not nuanced enough. If I say I'm an African American writerwhich I do, I do describe myself that waythen there are always has to be an explanation of what kind of African American writer. So when I say that I don't feel like I can describe myself as an African writer, because if I did, it would have to come with some caveats, that's true of all of them.

And so, it's the same thing with describing myself as a Somali writer. Well, OK, but I don't write in Somali. But neither does Nuruddin Farah. I've never been to Somalia. Well, but I'm part of the Somali diaspora, which is actually a thing. Everything would come with explanation. And I look forward to the day when that's not the case.

What I think is exciting is the discussions within the very vibrant Somali diaspora, especially young people who are living all over the world, doing really amazing things. I would love to see some of those young voices tackle this idea of Afropolitanism, because I think they'd have really interesting things to say about it. Of course, along with having the wonderful and dynamic Somali diaspora comes, in the extreme, the difficulties that are suffered by Somali refugees who are often unwanted in their various places. "Kasarani Concentration Camp" was an extreme situation in Kenya, but it's not the sort of thing that's limited to Kenya, at all. The whole issue of illegal people is a problem that's much bigger than that; I live and teach in southern California, where the question of who is "legal," and who is not, is a very important local issue too.

Can I ask you what you're working on now?

Well, this is exciting, because it takes us in a totally different direction, in how strange I am. I'm writing a novel that's kind of a hybrid novel-memoir-history about a Mennonite migration from Russia to Uzbekistan in the 1880s. [We both laugh]. I'm not even kidding you, this is actually what I'm working on.

That's great!

Because... I'm Mennonite. And people walk by me on the street and go, "you're Somali." But nobody says, "Hey, you're Mennonite." That never happens. It's not something that's really visible. But I went to a Mennonite high school, I went to a Mennonite college.

This story, of this trekit's called "The Great Trek"it's about Mennonites who went to what was then the Khanate of Khiva, which is now in modern-day Uzbekistan. What's interesting about it is that you've got Mennonites and Muslims living together, and that's a powerful story to me, being a product of both of those faiths. But then, within that, there are all kinds of interesting issues that come up, such as the idea of expansion through moving of people, the creation of diaspora, and also the movement of faith and belief systems. And then there's the idea of contraction and schism, where they decide they don't like other people, and splitting themselves up, and becoming smaller and smaller.

The other piece of it is that growing up in these Mennonite schools, as a Mennonite of color, when Mennonite... um, you know, Mennonite culture is framed, to this day, as a German culture, despite the fact that most of the places where the church is growing are in India and Africa and Latin America. So that becomes a question. If you go to other countries and spread your faith, it seems like you should also expect that your culture will not be the same any more. And yet when people talk about Mennonites and Mennonite culture, it's all about quilts and baking.

Maybe we should call you a Mennonite writer, then! Would that come with... with...

That would, again, come with a whole structure of warnings and caveats. That would be fine! My main issue is that if I am described in these ways, it will block me from being described as another kind of writer. And that's what's frustrating. As I think some of your other interviewees have been saying: We don't really care about your description. As long as you don't see your description as the be-all and end-all, it's okay.


African Writers in a New World: Introduction

Interview: Maaza Mengiste

Interview: Laila Lalami

Interview: Miral al-Tahawy

Interview: Tope Folarin

Interview: Teju Cole

The interviews in this series were conducted in concert with the Symposium of African Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The event, which took place December 2-3, 2014, featured conversations with Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and Taiye Selasi. “African Writers in a New World” will conclude with a conference report from the Symposium. Details are available at