How A Mennonite Writes Fantasy
Thia Shenk, Contributing Writer
How does a Mennonite write a fantasy novel? It seems like the punchline to a joke you might overhear at a cocktail party (or perhaps a church potluck). But the punch line takes serious form in Sofia Samatar’s book “A Stranger in Olondria,” to be released this fall. I met Samatar at the recent Mennonite Writer’s Conference, where she read a selection of her upcoming book.
Samatar is a poet, writer, and blogger of Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite background. She graduated from Goshen College, served with MCC for 12 years in Egypt and South Sudan, and is currently pursuing a PhD. She also has an effervescent presence and seems prone to a rare streak of mischievousness (What else would inspire a writer to, on a whim, give away the last advance copy of her novel for review in the Weather Vane?).
The book is enchanting. Set in the ancient and far off Empire of Olondria, it is the tale of Jevick of Tyom, a merchant’s son who goes on a quest to discover the printed word. The power, even magic, of reading, writing, words, and books is an ever present theme. “My journey was already there,” narrates the main character early in the story, “like a word waiting to be written.” From the home country with no written language, to the voyage across the sea to Olondria, to the deeply spiritual power-struggle Jevick finds himself trapped in, the word is closely tied to the journey.
This book will appeal to anyone who can understand Jevick’s bewitchment at his first experience of an overcrowded used bookstore, but even those who don’t have a history with books will become lost in these curious lands. Samatar crafts a world that is both reminiscent of the familiar and exotically foreign. Most astonishing to me were her invented religious customs and superstitions and invented languages. Throughout the text, poems and quotes from ancient Olondrain scholars provide the characters with guidance and new perspectives on the world.
Inherited diseases, cross cultural encounters, feverish nights and spiritual powers also find their ways into the story. It is a coming of age story, a story of journeying, and a story of returning home.
So how does a Mennonite write a fantasy novel? With panache. With global imagination. With haunting spiritual imagery. With a second-nature consideration to the least of these. With the alchemy every writer uses to bring worlds from the deep recesses of imagination: words.