The genius of Sofia Samatar has enchanted me for years. She is that singular writer who can construct entirely original worlds while slaying every sentence of her creation. A first-time reader of Samatar’s work is in an enviable position, for whether they are working their way through her World Fantasy Award-winning epic A Stranger in Olondria, her exceptional and exquisite story collection Tender, her genre-bending and Calvino Prize-finalist Monster Portraits, or the deeply thoughtful memoir The White Mosque, now out from Catapult, they will be flushed with Samatar’s talent.
I was delighted to speak with Sofia Samatar on her beautiful new memoir. An admission: I did, indeed, fangirl.
Megan Kamalei Kakimoto: What was your impetus (or impetuses) for writing The White Mosque, and did you always intend to have a personal stake in the work as a form of memoir?
Sofia Samatar: It was personal from the beginning. The book grew from a spark of recognition: I was staying with my Mennonite in-laws in Nairobi, and my father-in-law gave me a book from the 1970s called The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880–1884. I was fascinated by this history—not only the story itself, which is dramatic enough, with its doomsday prophecies and desert journeys, but my deep sense of connection to it. I felt an affinity for the image-world of this nineteenth-century migration, its combination of Mennonite and Muslim scenes and characters.
In one sense, this isn’t surprising, as my own family is Muslim on one side and Mennonite on the other. But in another sense, it struck me as strange, since I have no ethnic connection to the specific characters in the story, and at the time I had no experience with Ukraine, where the Mennonites came from, or Uzbekistan, where they settled. How can a story so distant in space and time feel so intimate? This was really the impetus of the book—to follow and, hopefully, understand this pull, the intense magnetism of certain images.
In a recent interview (with Safwan Khatib for Words Without Borders), you described your composition of The White Mosque as taking a prismatic approach to the subject matter. Could you elaborate on this approach, and if it was essential to managing such a wealth of research material?
The approach is similar to one I used before, in Monster Portraits, my book with my brother Del. It involves taking an image and turning it around, so to speak—using the image as a prism and tracing the ideas it casts off, the way a prism refracts light. In Monster Portraits, the image was the monster, and in each of the small sections in that book, I sought to address a different shade of light: the monster as horror, as oppressed figure, as hybrid, as creative spirit, as revolutionary, and so on.
With The White Mosque, my prism was a Mennonite village in Central Asia: Ak Metchet, which means The White Mosque. This is a complicated subject—it can’t be reduced to a single image. It gives off a dazzling field of splintered light. It led me to contemplate pilgrimage, martyrdom, missionaries, apocalypse, anthropology, photography, and more. Far from helping me manage the project, my prism methodology was a problem! I mean, when do you stop? And where? I had huge difficulties with structure, which took about seven years to solve.
In The White Mosque, you describe a pilgrimage as a quest narrative with a clear trajectory, yet it’s the randomness of movement that intrigues you. Did this interest in the randomness of movement during your own heritage tour of Uzbekistan influence the structure and form of the memoir?
This is one of my main topics of concern in the book: the tension between plan and event, between intention and accident. The Mennonites who moved to Central Asia intended to meet Christ there, they expected the world to end in 1889. But this plan, or its failure, isn’t what makes their story compelling to me. Rather, it’s what they did with the unplanned reality, the way they endured their disappointment, transformed their view of themselves, and lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors for fifty years. To me, this kind of accident is the source of life. It’s where writing comes from, too. In its newness, which can be terrifying, an accident is more beautiful and dynamic than any plan.
How can we embrace accident? How is it possible to know, out of all the random things that happen on a given day, which chance meeting or offhand remark holds the key to the problem that occupies you, the line of escape from a personal struggle, the unforeseen, perfect word? On my Mennonite heritage tour of Uzbekistan, I wrote constantly. I carried a little red notebook and wrote down as much as I could of my daily experiences: snatches of conversation, the drone of the bus, the blue shadows of juniper trees. I’m sure I looked somewhat deranged, but I’m glad I did it, because when it came to writing the book, all those seemingly trivial details became its circulatory system. In the end, I needed everything.
During the Mennonite heritage tour of Uzbekistan, did you feel the book taking form? Did you feel it constantly changing, a living thing?
On the trip, I thought the story of the tour would be one chapter! As I’ve mentioned, structure was a massive problem for me. I had all these bits and pieces—a chapter on Mennonite martyrs, on Langston Hughes in Uzbekistan, on Central Asian cinema, on my memories of high school—and for several years I kept rearranging this incredibly unwieldy collage. My Mennonite heritage tour took place in the middle of that time, and while it gave me new information and themes, it didn’t have an effect on the structure until years later, when it suddenly struck me that my whole narrative—all the characters, scenes, events, and thoughts—could be told through the journey, embedded inside it.
By that time, my little travel notebook from my trip had been packed away for a couple of years. I’d moved from California to Virginia. I didn’t know where that notebook was, and all at once I needed it desperately! When I found it in a box under my bed, I freaked out—cursing myself for losing it and praising myself for finding it. What an idiot I was. And how lucky. Keep track of your notebooks!
You’ve previously described research as “the scholar’s form of world-building.” As someone whose worlds I’m always so taken by, I wonder if you could share what the research process was like for such an enormous undertaking as this, and how you managed to distill such an intricate, complex history while embarking on your own tour through Uzbekistan.
Yes, research is worldbuilding. A long, intensive, deeply rewarding process. I read everything I could find about the Mennonite journey in English: a couple of histories and several memoirs by people who had been on the trek, mostly self-published and translated by family members. From there, I followed the lines of light. A Swiss traveler, Ella Maillart, visited the Mennonite village in the 1930s, so I read several of her books of travel writing and photography, thinking about these methods of encountering others: the tourist’s notebook and camera. In Ak Metchet, one of the Mennonites gave a camera to Khudaybergen Divanov, the first Indigenous photographer and filmmaker in the region, which led to a chapter on Central Asian cinema. And so on.
My approach was very improvisational, very “yes and”—yes, and I can add this too, and this, and this. It was a practice of inclusion, of inviting in all the strays. Where the images chimed with my own memories, I incorporated those too. As for the distillation, that happened through revision, through reading and re-rereading the work, sensing points of energy and connection, cutting out what felt lifeless, preserving and shaping what felt alive, to clarify the images that had meaning for me.
You detail in The White Mosque all the ways in which you identify as a hybrid—culturally as a Mennonite writer, ethnically as Swiss and Somali, religiously as Mennonite and Muslim. How do you figure this hybridity into your understanding of yourself, as a person, as a writer? And how did you come to the sentiment that it’s “the contrast, the incongruity, that delights”?
The notion of delighting in incongruity came very early, as I was trying to understand why this history called to me so insistently. There’s something so unexpected about the phrase “Mennonites in Uzbekistan”—whenever I told people I was writing about this story, I’d get raised eyebrows and even gasps. I began by trying to understand why this reaction gave me pleasure. Why did I feel at home with these expressions of amazement—secure, even gratified, as if seen? I realized it was because I’d been hearing such exclamations all my life. My family story provokes the same astonishment as the phrase “Mennonites in Uzbekistan.” Those nineteenth-century pilgrims aren’t related to me, but they’re as weird as I am, and that’s part of my attachment to this story. In writing The White Mosque, my understanding of hybridity moved away from the tragic model, toward an ideal of community across time and space, a sense of joy.
An addendum to the previous question: As someone whose background is also baked in contradictions/hybridity, I’m fascinated in learning more about your upbringing, your family, and how you negotiated figuring your personal history into The White Mosque.
I was raised Mennonite in a mixed household: My father was Somali and my mother a Swiss-German Mennonite from North Dakota. They met when my mother was teaching English in Somalia in the sixties with a Mennonite missionary organization. I went to a Mennonite high school and college and worked as a volunteer for a Mennonite relief and development agency for nearly a decade. The hilarious and painful thing about all this is that because Mennonites in North America tend to recognize one another as white people with particular European names, I’m constantly having to explain to other Mennonites that I am in fact Mennonite, because I don’t look the part or carry the right surname. Meanwhile I’m like—how much more Mennonite could I possibly be? Should I start singing the hymnal from memory? (I can probably get halfway through.) These networks of belonging are made of images, of sounds and pictures, of language: a name, a way of speaking, the texture of a lock of hair.
Identity is formed and communicated through such images. So it felt natural for me, in writing The White Mosque, a text that began with the lure of images, to treat my personal history as well, with its mosaic of images, both given and acquired.
Do you feel as though writing The White Mosque changed you, not only as a writer but also in relation to your own complicated Mennonite heritage?
Definitely. It gave me a greater respect for accident. I now have almost a reverence for chance: the haphazardness, the intricacy, the sheer weirdness of human experience. And as for my complicated Mennonite heritage—it became smaller to me, in a sense, less urgent, less of an issue, as I investigated so many other lives, all of them crisscrossed by unanticipated influences, stretched into surprising shapes by unplanned events. Every Mennonite heritage is complicated, not just mine. Every heritage is complicated.
Megan Kamalei Kakimoto is a Japanese and Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) fiction writer from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. Her work has been featured in Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, Joyland, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and is the recipient of the Ramblr Fiction Award. Her work has received support from The Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop. She graduated from Dartmouth College and is currently a Fiction Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. Her debut collection Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.
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