Occasionally, I am guilty of spending more time reading about books or daydreaming about them or rearranging them on my shelves than actually reading books. Sometimes, I plow through reading them so quickly, I barely have time to absorb them or think about them at all and then I’m onto the next one – which is partly why I missed writing about Pachinko, Vacationland, Never Let Me Go, Come As You Are, Gilgamesh, Beloved, and Gideon the Ninth over the last year. I enjoy writing about the books I read because it allows me to gather my thoughts, see patterns that I might not have noticed right away, and re-live some aspects of the book. Writing also carries a danger with it, though, which is that it tends to concretize those thoughts. Once written, they form something more rigid than the swirling ideas and emotions that existed before. Rigid things are less likely to fit everywhere they need to go; they are harder to reshape and may end up broken – either by accident, or by necessity.
Some of those themes of rigidness versus flexibility, writing versus speaking, logic versus experience are at the heart of A Stranger in Olondria. I didn’t notice immediately upon reading it, however. It started off feeling almost like a travel-memoir with luscious descriptions of islands and cities inspired by Sudan, the Ottoman Empire, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Mediterranean. I wanted to go there. I honestly might have been completely happy if the book continued in this vein without any plot at all, but the story did grow from there. It became a haunting, then a story of religious persecution, and finally a journey of self-discovery and homecoming. It wasn’t until well after I put the book down, however, that the themes that ran through every chapter and every travel stop started to make themselves known to me.
Jevick is the son of a wealthy pepper merchant who longs to hear stories about Olondria. When his father dies, Jevick has his opportunity to finally go there himself as a merchant. However, on the way he meets a dying girl and when he begins to be haunted by her, he is trapped in Olondria until he can find a way to let her ghost pass on.
Before I started reading A Stranger in Olondria (which is subtitled Being the Complete Memoirs of the Mystic, Jevick of Tyom), I was aware that Sofia Samatar’s father was a Somali scholar, historian, and writer, and that Samatar had done her own Masters and PhD on African literature, but I did not fully appreciate how much her experiences and her Somali heritage shaped the book until I found this article from Strange Horizons. In the article, A Stranger in Olondria is compared to African memoirs, stories of the African diaspora, African themes of returning home a different person, the fear of the erasure of one’s home culture by a colonizer, and the relationship we have with the dead. I learned that for much of history, Somali was an unwritten language with a rich oral tradition. That was when the first theme revealed itself to me and as I followed its thread, I began to realize how layered and multi-faceted the themes in A Stranger in Olondria truly are because like Somali, Jevick’s native language is unwritten. His adventure begins when he sees written language for the first time.
Once I opened my eyes to the tension between Jevick’s oral tradition of the Tea Islands and the written literature of Olondria on the mainland, I relived the book in my mind from a completely different point of view. As a student, Jevick reads about Olondria, but he will not be satisfied until he sees it. Once in Olondria, he learns that there are people who long to see angels as part of a spiritual experience, but the king and priesthood have declared that such experiences are blasphemous, because they have decreed religion may only be found in the religious texts. Eventually, a violent attack on a religious festival precipitates a civil war between the two factions. In such a war, Jevick knows that entire libraries will be burned and knowledge will be lost. However, this is also necessary in order to free those who cannot read – those who worship angels – from the oppression of rigid adherence to the religious texts. Meanwhile, the angel who haunts Jevick demands that he write her a vallon [a book] despite the fact that she was never able to read in life. “I know what a vallon is,” she says to Jevick, “it is a jut [soul].”
It may seem like a contradiction for the characters and the writer to love books so dearly, and yet also to see a need for their destruction… or to work so ardently at preserving written language while at the same time craving something more tangible… but that is part of the skill of Samatar’s style; she is able to hold that tension without a contradiction. Samatar says that Jevick’s angel is wrong – a book cannot replace a person – only remain as a sign of their disappearance. Jevick eventually returns to his islands and teaches writing so that the existence of books can continue there, but Samatar says, “I wanted this victory of books to be uncertain. Books are not life.”
Samatar’s prose exists not like a painting does, vivid and bright to the eye, but like a memory does in the mind – full of scent and emotion and meaning. When I read the first page, I was so stunned I stopped and re-read it, just to take it in again. She somehow manages to embody the breath of experience with nothing but flat paper and ink. Because of her mastery in this, the complementary and opposing themes are both underscored and elevated. I think this theme is encapsulated well in one of my favorite quotes from the book. It is about a woman whose beloved has been exiled – she has hundreds of unsent letters written to him, but when she meets someone who used to know him, she cannot resist telling her story: “I knew she had told it because she could not give up the chance to say his name, aloud, in the hearing of another, of one who had known him.” Who hasn’t felt that desire – to say the name of the person you love, speak it into the air, and have it land on someone else and see the change in their face when they recognize it? To me, it was such a powerful memory, I caught my breath again.
On its surface A Stranger in Olondria is a romantic tale, but thinking about the themes of logic versus experience made the book a far more valuable for me. I highly recommend you read this book… and then go out and talk about it.