Reading Sofia Samatar: Indwelling

Image | Wambui Mwangi
Image | Wambui Mwangi

Our two worlds scrape together like the two halves of a broken bone

A Stranger in Olondria

Perhaps the word is possession—to be “taken by” a place or person. Perhaps it’s empathy— to “feel” another’s position. Perhaps it’s simply imagination—the leap that places us into another body. Habitation is one word: an attempt to register the forms of indwelling central to A Stranger in Olondria.

Indwelling: dwelling with

Three figures lie at the heart of this indwelling—three figures who “indwell” with/in Jevick of Tyom: Jom, his elder brother; Bain, the city that populates his dreams; and Jissavet, the angel who brings him closer to Jom.

Jevick and Jom’s mother, Kiavet, explains that Jom, who “wander[s] in the courtyard underneath the orange trees, exchanging pleasantries with the birds,” is “a child of the wild pig”:

the souls of the children of that god were more beautiful, more tender, than ordinary souls, and [it is] our duty on earth . . . to care for them with the humility we showed the sacred beasts

Jom is tender, easily bruised, loving. His first words in the book: “And all our hearts, and all our hearts, and all our hearts,” followed by, “And we love him.” The form of the greeting, his father says, is “not correct.” It is excessive—it gives too much, refuses the structure that formalizes feeling. Jom, who exchanges pleasantries with birds, does not know how to modulate feeling, how to distribute suspicion. And because Jom does not know that strangers should be distrusted, that foreignness is always suspect, he teaches his mother how to encounter Lunre, Jevick’s Olondrian tutor.

Jom was excited by the stranger and sought every chance to speak to him—of all of us, only he did not know that our guest could not understand. And the stranger always met him with a smile of genuine pleasure, clasping his hand as Olondrians do with their equals and intimates. In the green bower of the shade trees with their near-transparent blue flowers, the two spoke a language of grunt and gesture and the eloquent arching of eyebrows.

Not knowing becomes the route to encounter, the openness to meeting, to learning: “And all our hearts, and all our hearts, and all our hearts.” Jom’s three hearts create possibilities for being together, possibilities for dwelling together, ignoring the strictures of form, imagining and creating ways of being together—in the language of grunt and gesture and the eloquent arching of eyebrows. It is Jom, who cannot succeed in the formal classroom, who teaches Lunre “his first words in the Kideti tongue: “tree,” orange,” macaw,” “finch,” and “starling.” Not, as is often taught, the formal words of greeting that create distance, but words about the world that is shared—seen, touched, tasted, heard.

Although Jevick narrates A Stranger in Olondria, although it is his journey the novel follows, Jom lies at the heart of the novel’s feeling, at the heart of its openness to experience, at the heart of its vulnerability.

Three hearts.
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Jevick does not simply visit Bain. He lets Bain take him. Or, rather, he is taken over by Bain. Perhaps both. Here, for instance, is the rapturous opening to the novel:

As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents. I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea.

Being taken over:

Bain is, of course, the name of the Olondrian god of wine, whose eyes are “painted like sunflowers,” who plays the sacred bone flute. “Come before him with honey, exhorts the Book of Mysteries, “with fruits of the wine both white and red, with dates, with succulent figs.” Perhaps it was the presence of this strange god with the ruddy cheeks, who bewilders men with his holy fog, that dazzled my eyes and brain—for though I thrust myself against the rails and gulped the air, though I looked wildly about me, staring as if to devour the harbor, my first few hours in Bain—and indeed, the whole of that first day—I dwelt in a cloud pierced now and then by images like sunbeams.

Jom makes all the difference to how these passages of rapture are to be read.

Certainly (the lit scholar emerges) stories of young men encountering different modernities populate the novel’s history—a shout out to Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, which is simply excellent. Within multiple literary histories, young men—or simply men—encounter strange spaces and get lost in them. They are possessed by those places—they drink too much, have too much sex, lose their money, change their characters. They are “open to anything.” Young men “give themselves over” to new spaces, urban spaces, strange modernities.

In Bain, Jevick loses some of his fluencies: when he first arrives in the city, he loses his fluency—he is led by grunt and gesture. Following the Feast of the Birds, dedicated to Avalei, the Goddess of Love and Death, when Jevick encounters his angel, Jissavet, he loses the forms he had so carefully mastered, the practices of sociality that allowed him to navigate the world with such fluency.
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Jevick first encounters Jissavet on the boat to Olondria. Accompanied by her mother and a traveling companion—a servant—she is traveling to Olondria to seek a cure to kyitna, an “affliction” that is also an identity: “the girl was afflicted with kyitna . . . She was kyitna.” While Jissavet insists on calling Jevick “Brother” while on the ship—she calls him that at least four times—he sees her as kyitna, apart, to be pitied. In Olondria, when they have parted, when she has become part of the Rotted Dead, she becomes his angel.

Angels. Hallucinations.

Once believed to be the spirits of the dead, and to possess knowledge of the Land Beyond, the angels are now understood to be merely products of human minds which have become unbalanced through illness, shock, or intrinsic abnormalities. In the days of widespread ignorance and the reign of the cult of Avalei, diseased individuals were adored as saints rather than treated and returned to health. Suffering and folly ensued.

When Jevick attempts to leave Olondria, to return home, Jissavet stops him: “Before we reached the harbor and the ship, pain cracked my mind like a pair of silver tongs.” Inside him. “‘No,’ she said. A single word, a stab of pure and agonizing light.”

Jissavet appears to him and appears in him—he sees her form and experiences her presence: “Our two worlds scrape together like the two halves of a broken bone.”

My world has changed forever, tainted by that touch. Jissavet, my countrywoman, is dead.

As angel, or ghost, as part of the Rotted Dead, restless souls who seek release, Jissavet moves from the absolute otherness of being kyitna: now, she is “my countrywoman.” Something about that formulation irks me: I don’t think it’s quite accurate.

Again, I need Jom.

If, as I have been suggesting, Jom incarnates a tri-hearted openness to the world, calling out “brother” and “friend” to those designated as strangers, it might be worth asking what Jissavet-in-Jevick becomes. Jevick is, after all, social, affable, friendly, even open to the world. But Jissavet-in-Jevick, her dwelling in him, produces a different orientation to being in the world, an experience of being overcome, of struggling with and dwelling with being overcome. It is not comfortable:

Our two worlds scrape together like the two halves of a broken bone.

But it creates, I think, the possibility for a certain kind of narrative tone and attitude. A Stranger in Olondria is written, after all, after Jevick’s return from Olondria. It is a post-Jissavet, post-angel, post-ghost, but not, a post-indwelling book.

Part of what so many reviewers of the book have praised as its world building and its beautiful sentences comes, I think, from its attention to how one dwells in and with the world. Jevick—and we who allow ourselves to be with him, to be overcome with him—learns to dwell within time and objects, bodies and spirits. He learns how to inhabit the world as Jom sees it. And it terrifies him. It terrifies us.  Because Jom’s way of inhabiting the world depends on multiple forms of unknowing—not knowing that one should not be tri-hearted, not knowing that one should not speak to birds, not knowing that one should be scared of strangers, not knowing that language is a formal system that should not be circumvented by gesture and grunt.

Three hearts: and the possibilities of dwelling with and in. Indwelling.