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Author Spotlight: Sofia Samatar

In “How to Get Back to the Forest,” Cee is one of those people who appear in our life for a brief, wondrous flash and then disappear. Her character is incredibly intriguing. Was she based off of anyone in your own life or just the idea of these people who come into our lives and change our perspectives on the world?

Cee was inspired by a number of people—some are people I’ve known, and others are writers I’ve read but never met. She’s that person who’s a little bolder than you are, the one who cares a little less what people think. A truth-seeker and a truth-teller. I was trying to get at the way these people affect others, even those who initially reject them. If you’re lucky, their passion stays with you, even haunts you, the way Cee’s passion haunts Tisha in the story.

The Parent Figures were an interesting notion, because often kids are babysat or raised by television, video games, novels, or any other physical object. You completely took the parents out of the equation and replaced them with real, physical, and meaningless objects. What was your idea behind this concept?

Well, basically, I was looking at the creation of lack, the creation of need. In a consumer society like ours, a sense of lack is extremely important, because need feeds consumption. The more people believe they need, the easier it is to control them. So in the story, I tried to expose that by imagining a society in which children’s parents are taken away and replaced with these physical objects, and the children are conditioned to constantly meditate on the objects, to think of themselves as irreparably damaged because they’ve lost their parents. This is a system of control: It creates a sad, uncertain, and malleable population. It’s really less a critique of kids getting raised by TV or something, than it is a critique of the way we tell kids that being raised by TV has ruined them. The story asks: Do you really need everything you think you need? Who convinced you that you need it—and why?

The Life Skills quiz was funny to me because it gives off the idea that you can teach people or children how to behave in real life based off of some formulated exam. Do you think that you can actually teach skills about life through standardized tests? Or were the “Life Skills” quizzes more of a parody of real life?

I don’t think you can teach anything at all through standardized tests, because they’re not designed for teaching, they’re designed for measuring. So the Life Skills—definitely a parody. Also of course it goes back to control, because the kids in the story are being raised in a state-run camp. Every aspect of their lives is supposed to be visible, measurable, and adjustable. They’re taught how to live; they’re not supposed to believe they already know, or could find out.

Each class that graduates from the camp seems to be forced into a particular job or role in society. Do you feel that this is how we train people in real life? That if I go to college for this specific thing, then that is what I will do forever? There seems to be more leeway in today’s society, but could you see the forcing of roles onto people ever happening?

I think it’s already happening. People are pressed toward certain roles based on their resources, where they live, what schools they attend. In the U.S. we tend to focus on the people who’ve “made it,” on those rags-to-riches stories, because belief in the American Dream is as important to our society as lack. But it doesn’t describe the majority. My story exaggerates, as speculative fiction often does, it takes things to their logical conclusion, but I certainly didn’t make up class divisions! I just sort of played with “class,” as in socioeconomic class, and “class,” as in graduating class.

Also, I wrote this story when I was graduating myself—I was finishing graduate school and getting ready to start my current job, teaching literature and writing at California State University Channel Islands. “How to Get Back to the Forest” grew out of my anxiety about that. What kind of teacher am I going to be? Am I going to be like the counselor in the story—always peppy, telling students everything’s fine, as I prepare them for the labor market? You know, as an English professor, you have these two conflicting goals: On the one hand, you’re supposed to introduce students to ideas, often radical ideas, and encourage them to think creatively; and on the other hand, you’re supposed to teach them to follow the rules—the rules of writing, and other social rules that will enable them to fit in and get a job. It’s an impossible project, which makes it very exciting, but also scary. This story engages the fear.

Toward the end of the story there seems to be the idea that those who question society or their circumstances are “sick.” There are multiple references to Cee being unhealthy and needing to go to the hospital to be “fixed.” She also has to be physically ill to remove the bug that may or may not be in her system. It seems like you were playing with the idea that we drug our children and don’t really take care of them, so they have this emotional disconnect with reality. They need objects to be happy, in this case, the “Parent Figures.” Tisha even feels ill at the end of the story. What were your methods and goals in portraying this “societal sickness” throughout the story?

This is such a great question. First of all I have to mention three pieces of writing that inspired the story: “Everyday Barf” by Eileen Myles, “Barf Manifesto” by Dodie Bellamy, and “Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, and Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write” by Kate Zambreno. Three amazing women writing about vomit! In these writings, there’s a connection between, as Zambreno puts it, the revolting and the revolt. So yes, my characters are sick, but in a sick society, their sickness is a kind of health. This goes back to the idea of control—what is health, actually, and what is sickness, and who gets to decide? Very often, as you pointed out, people like Cee, who rebel against the status quo, are dismissed as “sick.” So when Tisha looks for liberation, for escape, that’s the only language she has for it. She wants to get sick. The science-fictional element of the implant or “bug” inside her is social control made literal: control imagined as a device that you can actually throw up. If only it were that easy!

The other important aspect of sickness in the story is that it’s catching: One person vomits and then everybody else wants to throw up too. This is something we all know, and it can be really funny—think of the “barf-o-rama” scene in the movie Stand by Me. In my story—and again, I owe this notion to the three writers I mentioned earlier—there’s a liberating power in this contagious urge to throw up. If nausea is rebellion, and nausea is catching, then it has real political implications. Of course it’s no accident that my rebels are a bunch of girls, girls whose bodies are controlled, and who get up to a secret vomit-fest in the bathroom. Feminist writing has always been concerned with the body and its potential, the body as a site of resistance, and how that affects writing.

What’s up next for you?

I’m working on the sequel to my novel A Stranger in Olondria. I’m also working on a chapbook of monstrous prose poems called Monster Portraits, with images by my brother, Del Samatar. I want to write an essay about the concepts of Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism, and the links between them. And I want to write an essay about Charlie Parker.

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Bradley Englert

BradleyEnglertBradley Englert is currently an undergrad at Western Kentucky University where he studies English, creative writing, and film. He enjoys writing fiction and directing short films. One day he hopes to have something written in italics in this section.