Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person? Sofia Samatar writes in Monster Portraits, the unique collaboration with her brother Del, whose drawings of monsters and fantastical creatures accompany the twenty-six short prose meditations that make up the narrative, exploring the concept of “otherness” in all its detail and implications. A loosely metaphorical journey of discovery, Monster Portraits starts with “The Field,” which begins:
We went into the field to study monsters in their environment. We thought it would be like a holiday or a game. Instead it became a journey that lasted an indeterminate length of time, which outwardly took the shape of five years.
“We” is Del and Sofia. The book ends with “Self-Portrait”: “We went into the field to study monsters and they found us and they found us and they found us and they found us.” We learn from the penultimate segment, “Liber Monstrorum”: “We went to all the wrong places, my brother and I, and we were wrong within them. The truth is, we had always been writing the monstrous book.”
So what is the conclusion of this journey of self-discovery? What is missed and what is discovered? Alienation and belonging, pariahs and misunderstanding, fear and dislocation.
Sofia Samatar’s writing style is aphoristic, philosophical, self-reflective. Allusions to works from Shakespeare to Rabelais, Aristotle and Aquinas, from Homer to Hélène Cixous abound: the journey is as much intellectual discovery, research, as it is an actual journey through mythical lands (“the sea at Rostai,” “Klun,” “”Funderlee,” “Muramanae,” “Snimron,” etc.). Details of her and Del’s life are slipped in almost unnoticed.
One is tempted to focus on the concept of “Otherness,” that Monster Portraits so poignantly explores. “Like all monsters, we don’t belong,” she writes in “The Early Ones,” or in “The Clan of the Claw,” a meditation about the “clans” to which we either belong or are assigned, she writes: “I feel myself in the clan of Alan Turing,” the British mathematician who broke the Nazi codes, who was sent to prison for his homosexuality. “I feel myself in the clan of Sarah Baartman,” the 18th century African woman exhibited as a freak in Britain and France as “the Hottentot Venus.” “I feel myself in the clan of immigrants and hyphens.” Del and Sofia are “Somali-Americans.”
“The Clan of the Claw” continues:
An elderly white woman approaches me in the park. “Your hair, it must be naturally curly. What’s your nationality?” She reaches to touch my hair. I flinch. She is taken aback, hurt. The monster destroys all innocence, all fellow feeling.
But as Sofia writes in “Notebook (II)” about the late American science fiction writer Octavia Butler whose story, “Bloodchild,” expresses, in Butler’s words, “a fear of bot flies,” “Everybody thinks it’s about race.” Yes, dark-skinned people are often regarded as “Other,” the monster, but these portraits are so much more complex. “Otherness” is an existential condition, if particularly acute for “minorities,” as dark-skinned people are so often called.
“The Perfect Traveler” is a monster. “The Perfect Traveler has no friend,” she writes in the early segment with that title, “Like ecstasy, he’s always on the run.” Knights, nannies, saints are all monsters, as are the “monsters of compassion” who, through a kind of survivor guilt turn the grotesque into objects of pity. She writes, “‘We Are the World.’ What an awful song. There’s grotesque for you,” about the anthem from the 1980’s crusade to provide food for starving Ethiopian children.
In “The Sexy Zebra” Sofia Samatar writes about her objection to her brother’s illustration of the monster she calls the Sexy Zebra. She says she demanded that her brother remove that illustration and he agreed. “My reason for it was comic books, the depiction of women in comic books. The Zebra was sexy in the way that comic-book women are sexy.” Women as other as monster. The catch is that Del’s illustration of The Sexy Zebra does accompany the text! And yes, she is sexy in the way that comic-book women are drawn, all impossible curves and prominent breasts. Monsters “have been rejected, but really they are our friends,” Sofia observes in this piece.
But this brings us to Del’s gorgeous, fantastical, detailed illustrations of monsters – “The Green Lady,” “The Knight of the Beak,” “The Miuliu,” “The Graphis,” “The Collector of Treasures,” to name a few of the more than thirty black and white drawings. Of course, you have to read the book to see these pictures because they cannot be translated into words. Think of Keith Thompson, Junji Ito, even some Edward Gorey. Del Samatar’s illustrations dance a sort of tango with his sister’s prose meditations, each shining a light on the other, making the “monster” so vivid.
Monster Portraits is at once a fantasy entertainment and an exploration of self on the most elemental level, a true marvel of literary art.
About the Author: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist (Apprentice House), which deals with the populist politician, William Jennings Bryan and a chapbook, Jack Tar's Lady Parts, by Main Street Rag Press. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.