As a child, Sofia Samatar would sit near her brother Del, as they both fervently scribbled on paper scraps their mother brought home from her work as a secretary. Peeking at the other’s work, Sofia would write about the creature Del had brought to life. In a house not particularly focused on fantasy, the two would create a world filled with “Others” made of monsters.
Now a professor of English at James Madison University and a New Jersey-based tattoo artist respectively, Sofia and Del Samatar continue their tradition in creating these monsters in their new work, Monster Portraits, to be released this month, published as the winner of Rose Metal Press’s hybrid literature competition.
Del’s drawings came first—Sofia’s words gave them a voice. Each piece in his ever-growing sketchbook collection inspired her to give the monsters meaning. Though they’ve always been drawing and writing together, the two began constructing Monster Portraits about five years ago. With a growing list of Sofia’s previously published poems, stories, essays, and books, they decided to publish a work together—an opportunity to showcase Del’s artistry in drawing and Sofia’s poetic mastery. Together, they have created an emotional journey for their readers.
Their attraction to fantasy began at an early age, Sofia reading nearly exclusively in the genre during her adolescent years. “I wish I knew what brought me to fantasy,” she said when asked of her intrigue. Unsure of why she is fascinated by the Other (those who don’t necessarily fit in or conform to tradition) in fantasy, why we as a culture are interested in monsters, and why this has resonated as both a personal and cultural theme, she provided two different explanations. The first, a more personal connection, relates to those who write fantasy, describing fantasy writers as a congregation of “kind of weird people—we fit awkwardly into the world, so we fit together.” As a literary scholar though, she also offered a more historical interpretation. She believes that, since fantasy is a much older genre than realism, “fantasy should be the default; our oldest stories are fantastical stories.”
Being Somali-American, Sofia has faced many instances in which people feel the need to classify her based on race. The daughter of a Somali scholar and an American English teacher, she developed in a mixed-race household, speaking English and Arabic and experiencing both Christian Mennonite and Muslim culture. As she worked towards a PhD in African Languages and Literature, people’s incessant need to categorize her persisted. To this day, when she meets new people, they typically make their way to the questions, “Where are you from? What’s your background?” and even, “What are you?” Always prepared for that last one, Sofia’s answer comes with ease: “That’s what you ask monsters, not people.”
“These monsters are presences that are inside and outside of culture.”
Inspired by various folklore and origins, monsters can range from hyper-exaggerated giants to subtly sinister false friends. Sofia believes that monster stories can be comforting in a way. She mentioned a specific Somali ogress whose name means Long Ear—she hears people coming with her one long ear. Monsters discussed in this safe manner can be cozy—like the nostalgia for youthful campfire tales—and offers a different perspective than the standard scary one.
Monster Portraits takes just this approach, as the drawings and poetry depict monsters in a hybridized fashion. Sofia’s writing style depicts her fascination with the combination of poetry and essay form, providing a “sense of the uncanny to everyday experience.” Similarly, Del’s monsters are created from his own head, mixing different mythology, video games, and comics, unbound to a specific culture. “These monsters are presences that are inside and outside of culture.”
While it may be unsettling to some readers, many will find it intriguing to realize that monsters are everywhere, and they often break misconceptions about what seems monstrous. This idea, that people who find themselves to be part of the Other can find each other in the outskirts, unclassified by race, class, gender, sex, sexuality and so on, can be comforting. Sofia hopes that readers will find “joy or liberation” in a monstrous figure and realize that the “tendency of settled people to view nomadic people as monstrous” does not isolate each nomad, but creates a community of the socially monstrous. She wants readers to see that monsters and the monstrous hold “richness and cultural expression” and that the monstrous are “an expressive vehicle to communicate whatever it is you want to say.”
Monster Portraits contains poems, prose, and poetic essays alongside black and white drawings portraying monsters of all kinds, but one particular piece represents a theme present throughout. “The Early Ones” tells the story of a monstrous brother and sister that find themselves part of the Other before the term exists. They are out of place because they are from a later time. The people who are not part of the Other may find them dangerous or fearful, but they are simply ahead of the crowd. Often this is what plagues today’s society: people who are completely human, but are seen as monstrous because they represent something the majority does not understand. Because the monsters portrayed in Monster Portraits are not from any particular culture specifically, but instead represent a myriad of Others, they provide readers the opportunity to find community outside of general society. They are an invitation to a place where Otherness is not Other, but instead rich and warm, like friends telling ghosts stories around a campfire.
Beyond this publication, Del plans to continue to draw monsters, collecting even more inspiration for Sofia. She will hang these masterpieces among the many others in her office. Surrounded by these creatures, she will continue to write, giving life to the sketches that make the space feel like home, telling the stories of the monsters she sees everywhere.