Like a Talisman
by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar
Rose Metal Press, 2018
reviewed by Seana Graham
I don’t know about where you live, but here in Santa Cruz, monsters seem to be trending. A young acquaintance of mine told me recently that he was taking a class up at the university which was entirely devoted to the subject, and just last week there was a special event having to do with all things Frankenstein. So I suspect that Sofia and Del Samatar, sister and brother, author and illustrator of Monster Portraits have their timing just right in the publication of this book.
Monster Portraits is composed of multiple short pieces on various types of monsters, in what might be called either prose poetry or micro fiction. Accompanying these are illustrations of the monsters in question, which sometimes look like they’ve emerged straight out of the graphic novel world, sometimes are preliminary sketches, and at other times remind me in all their rich complexity of the Golden Book of Fairy Tales of my childhood, although these images are rendered in black and white.
Del and Sofia, with a Swiss-German mother from South Dakota and a father from Somalia, are people who have lived in and between various cultures themselves, which may be part of what drew them to this hybrid project. Sofia writes fiction but has also spent a lot of time in academia; Del is an aspiring tattoo artist. The first piece starts off like this:
We went into the field to study monsters in their environment. We thought it would be like a holiday or a game. Instead it became a journey that lasted an indeterminate length of time, which, outwardly, took the shape of five years.
In a fascinating interview with Amina Cain over at Literary Hub, Sofia talks about books she has carried around in her backpack, perhaps without reading for weeks or months, but which she feels the influence of all the same. She wanted Monster Portraits to be a book someone would carry around like that.
Something small yet forceful, like a talisman.
I was curious about how the Samatars worked on this book, independently, but united in spirit. Sofia describes part of the process:
I loved writing to the pictures. I concentrated on each one in a trancelike way. I compared them to icons, and I focused on them in that way, meditatively but not calmly—my goal was to work myself up to the highest pitch. To the highest pitch of what, I don’t know!
At the outset of the book, the monsters seemed to me to be described more anthropologically or sociologically. “The Perfect Traveler” and “The Knight of the Beak” are good examples. But the further we get into this short work, the more we find ourselves examining our own ideas about monsters and why we feel such repugnance toward and fear of the anomalous, the outrageous or the merely different.
I’m not sure I’m doing you a service by mentioning that at end of the book there are notes which tell where the many highlighted phrases and sentences come from. Eventually you’d find them on your own, and maybe it’s best not to flip back and forth the first time through. But choose your own adventure.
It seems very appropriate that Monster Portraits found a home at the not-for-profit Rose Metal Press, whose mission is to publish hybrid works of many types–word and image, novels in verse and many other works that are hard to categorize, but lovely monsters all.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. The forthcoming Akashic title, Santa Cruz Noir, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.