- A museum, like a tomb, is a whole theatre of weird temporality:an interview with Sofia Samatar
The compact complexities of Sofia Samatar's short stories and the archival eccentricities of her critical theory essays embody powerfully "Weird Temporalities." Samatar's short story "Ogres of East Africa" (open-access available online at Uncanny Magazine) was the first story of hers I read, and yet it opens up anew when considered with the theme of this special issue in mind. It is also a wonder to analyze with students; what can initially be a deceptive simplicity of form grows increasingly strange the more intently one examines the temporalities bound together, even at times battling one another, in the story.
"Ogres of East Africa" is a list story, more specifically a taxonomic catalogue, commissioned by a European hunter seeking ever more exotic (to his mind) game. Writing the catalogue, while traveling with the hunter and a retinue of porters, is Alibhai M. Moosajee, who was born in Mombasa to a father who immigrated from Karachi. As a translator and scribe, Alibhai extracts the names, descriptions, and tales of the ogres he puts in the catalogue from Mary, a local who has been educated, or more accurately, re-educated, in a mission school, though she initially and vehemently denies this part of her past. Mary's accounts originate in diverse sources and recount a wide temporal range of ogres' histories. Alibhai underscores the notion of plural temporalities in the very first entry of the catalogue:
She claims that he [the ogre called Apul Apul] has been sighted far from his native country, even on the coast, and that an Arab trader once shot and wounded him from the battlements of Fort Jesus. It happened in a famine year, the 'Year of Fever.' A great deal of research would be required in order to match this year, when, according to Mary, the cattle perished in droves, to [End Page 145] one of the Years of Our Lord by which my employer reckons the passage of time; I append this note, therefore, in fine print, and in the margins.(10)
This brief excerpt points to the fact that Alibhai's work requires a capacity to navigate distinct temporalities, and find ways to make them interoperable for the catalogue. At the same time, the excerpt helps to introduce a paratext of notes by Alibhai that run alongside the primary catalogue entries. The paratext begins somewhat as a space for footnotes and reminders of supplemental work to do in the future, but the paratext space quickly shifts into Alibhai's reflections on his employer, the project, and Mary, as well as speculations on what will become of all involved when the hunting party departs to pursue the ogres as prey. What's more, the paratext is ostensibly written in a language unknown to the hunter yet presented to us in English.
Constructed in this way, each ogre entry is a weird node of temporalities: the time of the ogres' lives, especially as encountered by people and passed on orally; the time of the hunter's journey and employment of Alibhai and the location of Mary as informant; the time Alibhai and Mary spend talking; the transcription/translation sessions; and the unspecified time of our access to be reading this catalogue, and accessing its secret paratext. And this level of temporal complexity comprises the mere existence of the catalogue; the weirdness intensifies deeply with the stories of each ogre. These are filled with temporal repetitions, elisions, and other aberrations tied to trauma, radical fear, the modernity of railways, and projections into possible futures. Through this bundling together of prolific form and content levels temporalities, a rather short story turns out to be immense in scales and sophistication. Reading Samatar's story is something like taking that line of Timothy Morton's Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, "The year 2015 was when a very large number of humans figured out that they had more in common with a lion than with a dentist," and dropping it into a Petri dish of narrative mastery (33).
Similar intensities of weird temporalities permeate Samatar's...