Sofia SamatarJun 22, 2023
The White Mosque
In the late 19th century, a group of Mennonites leave Russia for what is now Uzbekistan. Driven out by Russian demands that the pacifist group make themselves available for conscription, and pushed forward by prophecies of the imminent return of Christ, over a hundred families travel in a grueling journey, eventually building a settlement and church that locals still remember fondly today.
Over a century later, the author Sofia Samatar comes across this story when exploring her own Mennonite heritage–and learns that there’s an organized tour. Thus begins a pivot key to her latest book, The White Mosque (Catapult, 2022), combining both historical narrative and travel writing, as Mennonites past and present make the journey to Central Asia.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press: 2013) and The Winged Histories (Small Beer Press: 2017); the short story collection Tender (Small Beer Press: 2017); and Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her work has appeared in several 'best of the year' anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Samatar holds a PhD in African languages and literature from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and she currently teaches African literature, Arabic literature in translation and speculative fiction at James Madison University.
In this interview, Sofia and I talk about both the Mennonite travels to Central Asia, her own journey alongside it–and how that connects to her own experience as someone with multiple backgrounds.
Nicholas Gordon is an associate editor for a global magazine, and a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.