Reading Sofia Samatar: Vallon

Image | Wambui Mwangi

Image | Wambui Mwangi
The word for “book” in all the known languages of the earth is vallon, “chamber of words,” the Olondrian name for that tool of enchantment and art.
--Jevick of Tyom

Write me a vallon. Put my voice inside it. Let me live.

Already I’m arrested.

Jevick of Tyom needs to learn how to write Jissavet’s story before he can write his own—he needs to unlearn what he believes about knowledge, what he embraces about writing, so that he can learn to submit to writing’s demands.

Jissavet, the angel, haunts Jevick, demanding that he write her vallon. When he finally agrees, he does so as the subject who knows, as the one who will shape a world to contain her:

Come, I said, and I will show you magic from the north, your own words conjured into a vallon. A book, angel, a garden of spears. I will hold the pen for you, and I will weave a net to catch your voice. I will do what no one has done, I will write in Kideti, a language like you and me, a ghost hesitating between worlds. Between the rainstorms, angel, and the white light of the north. Between the river dolphins and the wolves. Between the far south, the land of elephants and amber, and this: the land of cypresses and snow.

How often we who write believe we have mastered writing—that our sentences will follow our rules, our style submit to our will, our characters do what we demand.

How often we learn that we are wrong.

Jevick’s ode to writing comes from forgetting: he has forgotten what it means to be haunted by an angel, what it means to be possessed, to lose one’s senses, one’s will, one’s control over one’s body. He believes, wrongly, that writing will contain Jissavet: it will be “the net” that finally catches her.

Jissavet’s first words unmake Jevick’s place-making:

I already know about writing. We made maps: maps of the sea, of the waters between Tinimavet, Sedso, and Jiev. And maps of the rivers, the great ones, Dyet and Katapnay and Tdbati-Nut, the ones that made our country of mud on their way to the girdling sea. We made the maps on skins. First we would draw the lines with ashes and water, and later we traced them with a piece of hot iron. For many seasons our house was full of those maps, hanging on the walls, curled at the edges, dark-faced in the rushlight.

Where Jevick sees “nets,” Jissavet maps a world. She builds worlds, populates them with movement and memories. Her house—shared with her parents and her grandmother—contains maps, pointing to the world it inhabits, the world beyond it, the world as it unfolds, “curled at the edges.” This, she explains, is “writing.” To grapple with immensity, with what is beyond, and beyond that.

To belong to an immensity.

Jissavet—the angel without borders.

Unlike the rooted Jevick of Tyom, Jissavet is deracinated:

That’s where we lived, in Kiem. We were hotun, the poor, without status. The others called us “people without jut.” That is what they called us when I was small, before I began to fall ill: later they called us other names, worse names.

Earlier we learn, “jut is an external soul.” Jissavet is a restless soul, part of the Rotten Dead. She is also an angel. A ghost. More than jut could ever be. But deracinated.

When Jevick seeks healing from Ivrom, Priest of the Stone, who has outlawed all mention of angels, Ivrom dismisses the idea that Jevick, a non-Olondrian, can communicate with angels. Jevick is a “ludyaval,” an “unlettered one.” “Illiterate: a savage.”

a cluster of words: hotun, ludyaval, kyitna
description into being and unbeing

Again, I’m arrested.

Here’s one version of an argument: too often, the formally lettered try to “capture” the stories of “the unlettered.” We—we must be used here—want to “write down,” “arrange,” “trap” before “knowledge is lost,” “stories are lost,” histories are lost.” We never contemplate that stories have lives beyond how we write them, how we arrange them, how we circulate them. That stories live in winds and waves, in sand and soil, along rare impulses and common paths, engraved in memoryscapes the lettered dare not to learn. We do not imagine that those stories we want to capture, to form, to shape, will take over us, possess us, leave us undone. That they will transform us.

And even this mapping is incomplete. For I am still trying to manage the undoing that Jissavet incarnates, the undoing she performs.


Listen to Jevick’s silence as Jissavet’s words and rhythms, maps and stories, impulses and anxieties suffuse him. As he becomes not the vallon writer, but the vallon. A “chamber of words.”
Before we learn Jevick’ name, in the second paragraph of A Stranger in Olondria, we encounter a map. A map of light and scent, a map of being overcome (“delirious with scent,” “the clarity of light can stop the heart”), a map from one who says, “I knew nothing,” “I did not know,” “I had never seen,” “I knew nothing.” A map that is only possible because Jissavet teaches Jevick how to listen, how to write, how to be overcome.
Listening to angels is dangerous.
Angels uproot us. Their rage is terrifying. Their demands impossible. Their words unbearable. And then they leave.
Jissavet unsettles my thinking.

Here’s Adrienne Rich:

woman has been a luxury for man, and has served as the painter’s model and the poet's muse, but also as comforter, nurse, cook, bearer of his seed, secretarial assistant, and copyist of manuscripts.

Were I to attempt a very clumsy thesis, I would claim Jissavet is an anti-muse—too present in her demands, too fleshly in her ghostliness, too material as an angel to be a muse. To be used and forgotten. Not one who “inspires” only to be forgotten, but one who possesses, only to depart.

Again, this is not quite right.

How does one describe an angel’s enfleshment?
It could be that I’m wrestling against a critical impulse to schematize, and that I need to surrender to it.

Jissavet appears in at least three incarnations: on the ship to Olondria, as the kyitna who insists on calling Jevick of Tyom “brother”; as the (at first) unwelcome angel, who unsettles Jevick, turning him, temporarily, from rich trader-playboy to “saint” and prisoner, madman and prophet, exile and refugee; and as the vallon, the “word chamber” of existing and invented languages that Jevick will use to reconstruct his journey.

Jissavet is spur to writing, writing, and more than writing.

The critical impulse is somewhat satisfied.
The critical impulse is not wrong, only partial.

Jissavet is an angel’s fragments: not the whole story, only the story that can be told, the story that can be written down, the story that she can bear to tell, the story that we can bear to read. A vallon is, among other things, a repository of the bearable, a witness to silence.

Jissavet desires two things: to live forever and to die properly.
Even though I’ve been trying to convince myself that incompletion is important—a lesson Jissavet teaches—it’s difficult to avoid certain critical habits: summing up major critical points, identifying strong conceptual ideas, tracing overall patterns that confer greater meaning, formulating a thesis that will tie things up nicely.

It’s not that these things are impossible. Instead, to attempt any of them would mean I had not yet learned how to listen to Jissavet.

I will not claim that I have. Only that I am trying.