23 thoughts on “TENDER – Stories by Sofia Samatar

  1. tender bodies



    “‘Do you know what this guy said to me tonight?’ Mona asked. ‘He wanted beef couscous and he said, I’ll have the beef conscious.‘”

    I am feeling my way with this author, shedding my skin to flay and flense my sensitivity towards it to the bottom bone, The Bone Zone, as the text itself suggests. Mona and the narrator, co-restaurant workers, two Sapphics (or so I naïvely infer) who are to leave together for landlocked Colorado, with backstories that Krohn, Ocampo or Lispector might die for. But front ones to live for?
    I left keys behind so that I could have excuse to go back and read it again.

    “Death is skin-tight, Mona says. Gray in front and gray in back.”


    “There is a strange pleasure in this writing and not-writing, these letters than hang between revelation and oblivion.”

    I know the feeling. A catalogue of ogres, with marginalia by the man employed to hunt them, addressing a woman called only Mary who is also part of the mission, and their employer’s obsession with ‘racial defects’. Equally, it could be about me the Ogre called O! in ‘Green Grow The Rushes, O!’, as I have placed real-time review marginalia (merely pencilled, I assure you) on the margins of this work’s own marginalia.
    Needs to be re-read and re-marginalised to establish whether it is revelation or oblivion. And all my gestalt real-time reviews are strictly based on first readings. But I did get a sense of East Africa, its myths and tangled Sunni or Shia or whatever, into my tender selkie or selfie sensitivity ready-flensed and flayed by the previous story. If stories, these truly are. Writing or not-writing. Reading or not-reading. Reader or not. Dreamcatcher or not.

    “Mary’s brother had set up a net between trees to catch him.”


    “…because I am almost on the edge of nerd,…”

    From marginalia to footnotes, this is a genuine fiction classic (mark my words), one emerging from that earlier gestalt of ogre-hunting definitions, building up already, here into a more naïve-mature exercise in writing a paper for school from a female teenager who has not yet quite mastered punctuation and spelling, but has an instinctive grip on semantics and on the essence of humanity, as she writes and addresses the Aunt of a boy she knows, the Aunt who is also the teacher about to mark the paper. A sense of not creation as writing but as creature, here WALKDOG, and songs, and missing boys, till they come back as thirty something men. I believed every word, thought I knew the writer and the boys and the ‘conjure mat’ that comes from an older generational female abeyance… and above all I knew WALKDOG,
    No way justice can be done to the accretion, accreation, accreature that is WALKDOG because only reading this authorially retrocausal freehold of its sub-authorial real-time leasehold can bring you the end of the song that is sung anachronistically. Beautiful. Mark my words.
    Only nerds can nurse words thus.

  4. I reviewed the next story in 2014 and I show below what I said about it in that context:


    Olimpia’s Ghost by Sofia Samatar
    “In the long twilight, while Emil reads, I go up and down, up and down the stairs.”
    An entrancingly twilit-atmospheric series of epistolary Old Vienna-connected communications, one-sided, from a woman to the man she knows as a family friend from childhood. This connects with a marionette-filled dreamworld stemming from ETA Hoffman, implicating a haunted Proustiana of unrequited love…This story is an optimum one for my taste. Especially as a few days ago I attended a live chamber performance of La Traviata (reported here) and there is some, if inexact, synergy between that experience and this story. An opera version is in fact explicitly mentioned in the Samatar.
    Whence or whither doth improbable comfort cometh? “And so: to the stairs.”


    “A love story. She forgave him.”

    …even if it was herself for whom she had to forgive him.
    From the connected marginalia, footnotes and epistles of the first three stories, here we have connectable versions of a would-be iconic fantasy tale like 1001 Nights or one by Salman Rushdie, with sections between addressed to a ‘foreign researcher’ of such tales. I am a ‘foreign reviewer’ and I have already added what I think about it in the title above, what you might call an eponymous fulfilment of its true title. (NB: I changed the spelling of ‘marvelous’ to my version.)
    I was particularly struck with the difference between shivering and shuddering in the moeurs of such tales’ transformations and transportations — and the significance, in that light, of the whole work ending with the words ‘I can’t stop shaking’, if that’s not spoiling your reading of it.


    “Then he starts shaking. He does it every night.”

    This potentially life-changing work is somehow both rhapsodic and nightmarish, with some Fair or fairy wings and perhaps invisible underarm nipples, and slick voiding with a need for clearance areas. Ostensibly, a dystopic vision of our world morphed without notice, few or fewer children, a desperate reach towards a nostalgic family visit to an easier seaside, and new moeurs of child rearing, even wanting to go in for them at all. I seemed to understand it all, visualise its gestalt, but it equally escaped from my grasp. Or it was as if I lived in their time and tried to visualise my own, the world where you are reading this. When a flying bear meant being Borne. My Bear, my Bear. The Vanishing Life and Films. Slick films.

    “All of his paintings were white.”


    “I met the ghoul in 2008.”

    I did, too, when I started gestalt real-time reviewing. I met myself, hawling, exhuming…
    This short short is about a female ghoul, reminding me felicitously of some Rhys Hughes work, except here the absurdism and ironic fantasy border even more felicitously on the avant garde. A tale of ‘my’ interview with the ghoul at the airport. And God’s meterors and eyes like illustrated pages. And much more.

    “Nothing is wasted.”

  8. THOSE

    “Perhaps some men never grow old.”

    …even when they are old.
    I know, I know, as I feel history through the words of this story, controlling its own dream even where it also implies dreams can’t be controlled. But if only they could be.
    An old man talking to his daughter, I suspect with some demented Trumpishness that often besets old men like me, about his younger friend George, nursed by his daughter’s eventual mother during a word-marked period of Colonial African history, their Belgian employer encouraging George to lash the natives, particularly one native, one who comes back in retribution as a stencilled plural – like a plague of ants.
    A telling treatment of race as a a myriad ogre defects made into a mass forming of what is a singular righting of wrongs, even in the mouths of THOSE dements who caused THOSE wrongs.
    A dream of daughters. A nightmarish river of words as squashed letter insects, Those, not that. Each em dash or en dash a lash upon lash. With no Nubian cushion between.

    “if you enter — that — you’re dead to me.”


    “When she got too tired, I carried her on my back. We collected the wrecked paintings and made a mosaic of them in the courtyard,”

    Her back held down with a stone? Or a diaphanous, ungraspable surrogate for menstruation and a life led beyond a clockwork Artificial Intelligence? What I love about these stories is that I feel as they are reading ME and can’t quite see to the bottom bone of my ticking. A reader more inscrutable than what is being read, when what is being read is arguably inscrutable enough – beyond measure, beyond time. Each of us with our lover on our back or within us, abandoned by Father or father, abandoned by death or by our eventual lack of faith, whatever the colour or gender of those we try to love as separate from ourselves. Tobacco colour or red. And Father kills father, eventually. But which the king and where the kingdom? And mother is a monthly bleed as timed by birth’s clockwork countdown, and then the bleeding stops, at least for while. Burnt paintings better than white ones? Cage’s 4’33” better than silence?

    “What is the nature of things? The mechanism works perfectly for years, then one day it breaks.”


    “I don’t know, are they poems? If they are, I don’t think they’re very good. A nap could be a door an abandoned car. Does that even mean anything? Eat my teeth. I know them all by heart.”

    Perhaps that was why Girl Cee used to dig down a toothbrush to encourage the puking up of the bug. Is this ‘camp’ a sort of what we once called a finishing school? A place to instruct in the bleeding, another Chamber where the Girl came out of at regular intervals? Or somewhere ‘mixers’ (and ‘queers’) could be socially and sexually acclimatised at gatherings? A Never Let me Go Ishiguro sort of institution? Or, most likely, the sort of schools in Woolf’s WAVES where they made ‘speeches’ to us and later left to be grown up? What is striking about this camp, is that there are things as readers we know not of, yet we grow, via the working of this work, inured to them, such as the Parental emblems or keepsakes to replace Parents, and Life Skills such as Forgetting? We all carry our bug within us and even if we manage to sick it up, who knows whether it’s replaced when we sleep. The Girl Tisha, this strikingly beautiful first person singular work is her Woolfian ‘speech’ to Girl Cee, amid an unrequited future. All by heart.

  11. tender landscapes


    “It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way into you.”

    Or this very day’s promise of Fire and Fury, the like of which has never been seen before?
    This is about a ‘tender’, a monitor of toxicity.
    A series of still resonating (as I write this about them) prose poems forms the gestalt of this tender’s story, the history of toxicity and connected inventions/inventors, and the way invented language itself is made into ‘trapped’ visions that are affected by love and toxicity. Tenders as the new priests. The creation or miscreation of others merely by their discarded residua into the single self. Self or cell.


    This was a perfect kindred spirit with a story I read about an hour ago, before, not after, both at different independent timings of creation. Hole in a living-room chair and a bore-hole in South Africa, south not just in compass direction but in the name of the place itself. The hole and holism or whole of being ‘both is and is not’ the self also exemplified in Brian Evenson here in a book I happen to be concurrently real-time reviewing, a real-time that still continues after as well as before. With a sense of Rushdie, too, not rushing but still in a race through to death or whatever…
    This Samatar — via the lands of Africa: a planet to me of elsewhere, as well as a gamut of wildly accrued philosophies and beliefs of alien lands in the guise of being foreign on the SAME planet as me — is full of mad as well as sane-sounding synchronicities of religion, race and philosophy. The racial, not racist people, by name, too, who thought through or raced through such religions and philosophies.
    The Nouns of God. The Stretched Scribe (I am sure I have met this scribe or someone stretched before in this book?). Being continuously turned over, because her skin was fragile. The Anklets of Obsolescence. Arriving everywhere at once but one step behind our enemies. Someone called Forehead. The Meadows of Happenstance. Sinking deeper into Evenson’s sand each year. Or Evensong’s dust?
    And a ‘too’ meaning ‘also’ without too’s immediately preceding comma. “‘You’re here too,’ I said.” And I do also mean YOU. As well as me and Sylvia. Is and is not as one.

    “On the last day I saw an angel fluttering on the wall.”


    “‘Then what he said is true, and the world is ending, and this is death.’
    ‘Death!’ she exclaims. ‘No. Only dawn.'”

    A work that is essentially a poetic ‘speech’, buoyed upon, I feel, those Woolfian Waves, by a young woman in employ of the Lady, prose-lilting about that Lady and the young woman’s love for the 17 year old gatekeeper who lets in the Lady’s three travel-filthed one-eyed visitors…
    I sense a fey unrequital here via an aging mortality of the individual or of the world itself, but with that hope of dawn. Schubert’s string quartet with a similar name as the title but gently morphed accordingly. With a strange refrain known as the Song of Controversy. A prophetic brink that is the brink we all now teeter upon today. “…the brink of the River of Terror, or the brink of the River of Truth.” But when this story was written, I sense there was still hope to take us beyond such brinks. A series of brinks like waves?


    “, like fragments of yellow brick.”

    Fifteen numbered paragraphs.
    Judy was 16 when she made the film, but how old was Dorothy in the book?
    Baum or Borne to stem from two different parental lands. This another series of Woolfian Waves, here between Africa and North Dakota. Flying like angels. OR witches?
    A landscape of still tender age?
    She has dined out on Dinesen and other links personal and literary, this author, I guess. Lands as gneiss or loess of belief. And a wonderful wordplay on being over it as well as the nation itself, to reveal which would be a spoiler.

    “Oh, flight! Oh, flight!”


    “Her hoop fell sideways so that it leaned against the wall of the hotel.”

    The Lean Hotel, in fact. This seems to follow naturally from Dorothy’s rainbow nation, here in five parts, parts that interlock and question each other, an academic essay or dissertation questioning a fairy story, or vice verse. Words giving birth literally (like Pomegranate), as well as borne or buoyed, an apotheosis of Leena (leaner) Krohn and of crone as witch, tinged with Lispector and Ocampo and towards the end (“in the country of the blacks”) with Area X – the women travelers or explorers – the VanderMeer, the male half of The Weird, as Navigator of Area X?
    “Their wingbeats whispered, ‘You will wear a black wedding dress.'”
    Lingering sentences, meanings meaning more than they mean.
    “At the bottom of the ladder we find an afternoon in an insect-haunted restaurant that smells vaguely of scorched rice.”
    The father and the Father again, and explicitly the mountaineer and Mountaineer. Some beautiful fantasy visions. And paradoxes of narrative, sub-narrative and self-critique. Real world flying and dream vision flying. Looking down from a plane on boring desertation not dissertation? Dream science. Even a dream lexicon. Kircher and Kush. “Notes. Toward.”

    “A shifting border is no border at all.”

  16. “Of his madness many things are told. He claimed to have seen fabulous Irem, or City of Pillars, and to have found beneath the ruins of a certain nameless desert town the shocking annals and secrets of a race older than mankind.”
    HP Lovecraft


    “Sometimes, after dark, I catch sight of a woman just disappearing around a corner. I recognise her from her photograph.”

    This is Iram the city of tent poles, not Irem the city of pillars. But for me, at the age of near 70, I remember I was once good at my own Daddy-dancing (which my daughter laughed at)…
    This story is beautiful one, an inferred autobiographical series of poetic Woolfian Waves of the author’s or narrator’s father and uncle and other memories, a Somali background, subsequent westernisation, the city of incomplete Iram, of “unconstructed streets” and teenagers putting up playbills and more.
    And the giant saw on the side of a car, cutting through the unconstructed fence at the side of the unconstructed road, I guess.
    How these stories really entrance you, I have not yet fathomed.

    “When you’re outside, you can picture exactly what you want it to be like, but once you get in, all you can do is follow along.”


    “Did you know that God is a potter?”

    Letters written from a pod in space, asking for an ever-extending extension of duty as “extraterrestrial janitor”. As a possibly telling backdrop, I originally had an otherwise quite dissimilar story showing the letter-writing from a space pod, a story first published in the 1990s, tantamount to asking for an extension towards immortality? … http://www.dowse.com/fiction/Lewis.html
    I wonder if X is a surrogate for the letter-writer’s own Mum, who is also mentioned. That and accounts of the letter-writer’s previous life on Earth, and African roots, the Dogon (not King’s Dogan) of Mali, and other stuff that intriguingly infiltrates my mind without yet being ratiocinated. A “superfluous tenderness”?

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