One of my favorite short story collections last year was Sofia Samatar’s Tender. When I read it, I was struck by Samatar’s strong writing, of course, but also by her incredible imagination, and the unexpected forms her stories often take.
In Monster Portraits, which pairs new stories with the artwork of her brother Del, Samatar further blurs the lines between genres in two senses of the term (with regards to both content and form). It’s a difficult book to categorize, combining fiction, artwork, social commentary, scholarship, and a bit of autobiography, but that’s all by design via Rose Metal Press, an independent publisher of hybrid genres based in Chicago.
The marriage between artwork and prose in Monster Portraits results in a beautiful book and a moving, subtle, timely meditation on otherness. According to the Samatars, the project was image-driven, with Sofia extrapolating narratives from Del’s drawings. In the first narrative, two siblings go into the field to study monsters in their natural environment.
One day I called my brother on the phone. He didn’t pick up, so I left a message saying we should tell our lives through monsters, as the ancient Egyptians told the year through the myth of Osiris. A mirror becomes architecture when you pass to the other side: this is what we had understood as children. I wanted to find that depth again, to plumb a vertical field. “Our world is another,” I managed to say before my brother’s phone cut me off.
The idea that “our world is another” is what propels the book forward. Each vignette asks questions about alienation, about the ways we divide the world into us and them, and the self-fulfilling prophecies that result.
“We got here too early,” the narrator of “The Early Ones” believes. “We have always had this sense of wrongful, unseemly arrival. We arrived before community, before there was language to describe us, before the ‘Other’ box on the census, before the war.”
Like many writers and artists of science fiction and fantasy, Sofia Samatar’s imagined worlds are in many ways a mirror for reality — in this case, the marginalized people that society-at-large (and to an increasing extent, the United States government) treats as less-than-human. And in Monster Portraits, Del Samatar’s illustrations reflect the same verisimilitude: if you look closely at many of his monsters, it’s easy to see the humans beneath the imaginary scales and feathers.
FICTION & ARTWORK
Monster Portraits by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar
Rose Metal Press
Published February 22, 2018
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013) and The Winged Histories (Small Beer Press, 2016), and the short story collection Tender (Small Beer Press, 2017). Her work has received the William L. Crawford Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She teaches at James Madison University in Virginia.
Del Samatar holds a BA in Fine Arts from Rutgers University. He lives in New Jersey, where he is pursuing a career as a tattoo artist.
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.