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Sofia Samatar's Monster Portraits

Sofia Samatar, illustrated by Del Samatar
Monster Portraits
(Rose Metal Press, 2018)

Call the monster with bolts in his neck “Frankenstein” and someone will tut, “That’s the Creature; Frankenstein is the doctor.” It’s not out of laziness, however, that we misname the Creature “Frankenstein.” Through our conflation, we’re questioning which character is more monstrous: the creation or the creator.

Monster Portraits, written by Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria; The Winged Histories; Tender) and illustrated by her brother Del Samatar, interrogates the idea of monstrousness and of creation, both in its content and in its form. This slim, evocative collection of prose poems can be read as playing the role of Frankenstein-the-Creature.
The fifth prose poem, “The Search” is a collage of quotes, compiled from a Google Scholar search on the term “monster:

 The monsters and the critics. Monsters in emerging markets. Nursing home aids: saints or monsters? Mass media, monsters, and mental health clients. Religion and its monsters. Dancing in the glory of monsters. Slaying the monsters of cost and delay. Neighbors and other monsters. Working with monsters. An alternate method of calculating the population density of monsters in Loch Ness. Monster theory {DISCIPLINE: No discipline assigned). Do monsters dream? A sociology of monsters.

 There it is: literary research laid thrillingly bare in its stitched up, Frankenstein-ed form. The rest of Monster Portraits is similarly raw, and according to one of the definitions set forth by Samatar—“Monsters combine things that ought not to go together”—it's unabashedly monstrous.

 Monster Portraits is an illustrated collection of prose poetry, combined with a bestiary, combined with portraiture. It’s also a work of speculative autobiography, tinged with ekphrasis. Sofia Samatar came up with the original idea: “I left a message saying we should tell our lives through monsters […] A mirror becomes architecture when you pass through the other side,” but Del Samatar’s etching-like pictures inspired each of her elliptical, startling prose poems. [1]

 Monster Portraits also begins as a fairytale. The heroes, Sofia and Del Samatar, set out to pass, Alice-like, through the mirror-become-architecture in order to “study monsters in their environment.” The monsters’ environment is a rusted-out, uncanny reflection of our own world, complete with cafes (whose doors emit the sounds of howling) and dingy train cars” marked with a diagram representing a human or a starfish.”

The Samatars come prepared to play the role of seekers, but the world of monsters reveals itself to them at its own pace and in its own unexpected ways—the monsters often appear in situations that reveal the Samatars’ human deficiencies.

Sofia Samatar is greeted by the Perfect Traveller when she’s lurching along at the speed afforded her by decidedly imperfect train travel. The Perfect Traveller is eerie—he's friendless and dooms whomever he brushes in passing—but he doesn't rely on trains. He's built for speed and has been running for millennia. The Green Lady surprises Sofia while she's camping. She knocks over her cooking gear, spilling her dinner. The Green Lady explains that she doesn't need absurdities like cooking pots: “In our country, phosphorescence is eaten from little shells.“ Later, stopping to catch her breath on the top of a steep staircase, Sofia Samatar encounters Beauty, a flying monster. Ill-equipped for the monsters’ environment, humans are the unsettling ones. (“Like all monsters,” Samatar writes, “we don’t belong.”)

 Before long, the setting of Monster Portraits splits between the monsters’ environment and our own. The narrator, plagued by vision problems—the prismatic light turns yellow, then pink, and then pursues her—is jolted from the monsters’ environment into memory. Monstrousness, it becomes apparent, exists on both sides of the mirror.

When The Miuliu offers coffee and explains “they kept a small supply in the back, for visitors of my clan, “the narrator bridles at the word clan, “my mixed blood roar[ing] like an April thaw.” She then hearkens back to a memory of racism: an old white woman who, unbidden, touches Sofia’s hair saying, What’s your nationality?

While Sofia Samatar is in the company of a monster known as “Nameless,” she tells another anecdote of casual racism: a bar where a group of drunks try to label her, either as métisse (dark-skinned with European features) or chabine (light-skinned with African features). And in the terrifying prose poem, “The Abyss”—which prompts the narrator’s realization, “Monstrous comes upon the monster when the monster is asleep…The monster is only monstrous insofar as it enables the monstrous act”—a glimpse off a bridge gives way to musings on the massacre of the Tutsis.

Del Samatar’s illustrations are by turns grisly, as in “The Abyss,” and delicate (“The Miuliu.”) They recall woodcuts—the details are generally defined by an absence of shading, shining out from inkier depths. They're also reminiscent of tattoos—Del Samatar is pursuing a career as a tattoo artist. In the three “Notebook” prose poems that punctuate the collection, as well as slotted between poems like bookmarks, Del Samatar’s images take form in sketches—a disembodied claw, a spidery silhouette, a prototype for “The Collector of Treasures” who keeps his four hands clapped snugly over his mouth and eyes.

The “Notebook” interludes serve as repositories for Sofia Samatar’s writing as well; they’re places to house resonant verbal sketches, like a meditation on the itching sensation of a maggot hatching under her arm in South Sudan (“What a joy to be a parasite instead of a host”). They provide space for themes that appear elsewhere in the narrative to be developed in a freer, more associative way. The itching of the fly maggot is reflected in the (tattoo-like) “prickling under the skin” that results when the narrator drinks a bowl of monster medicine and again in a section called “Monsters of the Fairy Kingdom” as Samatar contemplates further how she’d be comfortable as a parasite, and on the parasitical nature of writing.

 These Notebooks exhibit the evidence of artistic process, effort and intent; the stitching on The Creature’s body. When you read Monster Portraits, you realize it’s correct to name the monster “Frankenstein“ and the doctor “Frankenstein’s Monster“—that the term monstrous comes upon the monster when the monster is asleep. The monsters that appear in this book, in their environment and appearing of their own volition, are sublime, lyrical, and melancholy. They only become monstrous when an outside force decides that they combine things that ought not go together.




Rebecca Rukeyser

REBECCA RUKEYSER is a writer and teacher. She lives in Berlin.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues