Sofia Samatar has a way with a sentence. No matter what she’s writing—whether it’s short stories, like her quietly devastating Nebula- and Hugo-nominated “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” or novels, like her World Fantasy Award–winning debut, A Stranger in Olondria—her work has a way of pairing the mundane and sublime with casual aplomb.
Her latest, The White Mosque (Catapult, Oct.), is a mosaic memoir that juxtaposes history, culture, religion and regionalism, tracing the journey of a group of German-speaking Mennonites into the heart of Khiva in Central Asia—now modern-day Uzbekistan—on a quest that promised no less than the second coming of Christ.
Samatar’s own journey to the site where the group’s church once stood started in 2016, when her father-in-law gave her a book titled The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites, by Frank Belk. “This guy, who’s sort of a cult leader, predicts Christ is returning, and these people just uproot their lives to follow him,” she says, speaking via Zoom from her office at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where she’s an associate professor of English. “Of course, nothing happens. But they stayed for 50 years, until they were deported by the Bolsheviks.”
Samatar, the child of a Black Somali Muslim and a white Mennonite, became obsessed with the story. “Honestly, what struck me was these images that are very familiar for me,” she explains. “Mennonites with their plain clothes, and this mosque in the background. It mirrored my upbringing—and I never saw that anywhere. Here it was, this one moment in history. The juxtaposition of my life.”
Like any writer, Samatar, who’s 50, fell into a rabbit hole, reading memoirs about the Mennonite settlers, trying to reshape the story into a fictional narrative. But it was so deeply resonant with her own life that she felt compelled to undertake their expedition firsthand. “So I went on this fantastic two-week trip into a time and place that doesn’t really exist now,” she says, shaking her head. “And it became this journey into finding myself.”
The book reflects Samatar’s experiences growing up in two cultures that appear to be polar opposites but have deep overlaps that shaped the way she sees the world. “They were both these insular communities, but there was so much shared between them—and no one outside of them understood anything,” she explains. “I was a misfit wherever I went, in so many ways.”
Born and raised in Goshen, Ind., Samatar says she had a “very sheltered” childhood and was a kind of a third-culture kid. Her father, Said Sheikh Samatar, was a professor of African history; his work took the family from Indiana to Tanzania to London to Kentucky, before they finally settled in South Orange, N.J., where he became a professor at Rutgers University when Samatar was about 10.
“These are people,” she says of her parents, “who grew up with large animals—my mom on a dairy farm in North Dakota, my dad herding camels and goats—but they transformed their lives.” Though the family was uprooted regularly, there were anchors. “Their relationship was kind of steeped in language and literature. We moved from place to place, but we always had our books.”
Even in the more diverse environment of New Jersey, however, Samatar didn’t feel like she belonged. This led to her enrollment at a Mennonite boarding school in Lancaster, Pa., and then at Goshen University—against her father’s wishes. “All my friends were going there,” she says with a shrug and a laugh. “It was where the arty Mennonite kids went, and that was me. And my dad was like, ‘Absolutely not! Apply to Harvard. Apply to Yale.’ ”
All the while, Samatar was reading—everything from fantasy to Faulkner—and writing. “We read the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings aloud as a family, and I was drawn to mythology and fantasy,” she says. “But my mother studied Beowulf when she got her masters, and I was very into Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf by the time I was in high school.”
Samatar got her bachelors in English from Goshen, fixating on writers like Audrey Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange, but also inspired by Frida Kahlo. “I was writing poetry and then short stories,” she says. “I always wanted to write novels, but I didn’t feel like I had the capacity. At that point, I was still in a state of discovering all these new voices. And it takes a while to realize, as a person of color, that you are allowed to write, too. But these women, they were like giants. I couldn’t quite figure out how to cross over that gap.”
At Goshen, Samatar also met her husband, fellow writer Keith Miller, then followed her father’s footsteps into academia, getting a masters in African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she focused on contemporary Arabic Literature. Then she and Miller taught high school in South Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The country was under curfew and the couple “wrote, wrote, and wrote,” she says, adding, “There was nothing else to do. We didn’t have a computer. I still write longhand because of it.”
While in South Sudan, Samatar began working on A Stranger in Olondria—a book that was 13 years in gestation, about a long journey across a war-torn land. “I started it there and wrote 220,000 words,” she says. “Then we moved to Egypt for nine years. We got a computer, I wrote the sequel, had two kids, and Keith sold The Book of Flying to Riverhead. And I was still working on it, querying and mailing manuscripts to America.”
When they returned to the States—and Samatar started her PhD in Madison—she met Gavin Grant, the publisher at Small Beer Press, and all the hard work finally paid off. The novel was published in 2013 to acclaim, and by then she’d published several short stories and was also reviewing for publications like Uncanny and Tor.com. “There are so many things you can do to just be involved in book culture—to be a good literary citizen,” she tells her creative writing students now.
Samatar currently teaches literature and creative writing, and she finally feels at home in both worlds. “For the longest time, I didn’t even put my novels on my CV, there was such a divide,” she says. “But now, I love the collaboration. I love teaching, and I love working with other artists.”
In 2018 she released the illustrated novel Monster Portraits, which she created with her brother, Del Samatar. It’s a kaleidoscopic work that melds prose, poetry, art, and narrative vignettes both grounded and surreal. “I wanted to work with him so people would know that Del is actually the gifted one in the family,” Samatar says. “We grew up very Gen-X latchkey. He was always drawing, and I was writing.”
Which brings her back to The White Mosque, a work that unites the unique, startling contrasts of her journey. “It’s been so interesting, exploring this space between fiction and nonfiction—a nonfiction world that can still feel like a novel,” she says. “To get all these pieces of me into one book—being a Mennonite with a Somali background—became this huge challenge. The whole book is the journey, and for me, it was transformative.”
Sona Charaipotra is senior editor at Parents and the author of five books, including How Maya Got Fierce, Symptoms of a Heartbreak, and Tiny Pretty Things, which has been adapted by Netflix.