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On Del Samatar’s and Sofia Samatar’s ‘Monster Portraits’

Hey, everyone! My first book review for The Coil is up!

Brother/sister duo, Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar have created a whirlwind of lovely monsters and poetic language in Monster Portraits. The book comprises series of vignettes that correspond to specific monster illustrations. Sofia frames it as an adventure that the narrator and her brother, presumably Del and she, are on, separate and searching for monsters.

The back cover of the book really provides the first hint of the deeper subject:

“[…] An uncanny, imaginative autobiography of otherness, it offers the record of a writer in the realms of the fantastic shot through with the memories of a pair of Somali-American children growing up in the 1980s [. …]”

We see glimpses of this throughout the book, such as:

“When we had reached the other side I told her a story:

‘Everyone was drunk. They were trying to figure out if I was métisse or chabine. Métisse is dark-skinned with European features, chabine is light-skinned with African-features. Trees sighed in the night behind the bar.’

Such detailed racial cartography. Sometimes, I told her, the storms were so violent, you would have thought the whole island would sink under water [. …]”

While on the surface-level Monster Portraits is about all these monsters the narrator has met on her journeys, I would argue that this book is almost a speakeasy for quiet and poignant discussions. Sofia slips in incredibly clever discussions about race, marking her experiences growing up in the 80s, and crafts the text so that, if you really look, you can come away with at least one perspective of life as a Somali-American growing up in the 80s and the otherness that they felt at that time (and still do).

Even the monsters aren’t what they seem to be, however:

“[…] A child is dying. My friend protested against the deaths of Palestinian children. Someone replied: ‘You wish Israeli children were dying.’ ‘That is monstrous,’ she answered him, ‘a monstrous thing to say.’ For a long time I tried to think of a word that could replace ‘monstrous.’ Terrible? Vicious? Cruel? But only ‘monstrous’ really expressed where he had placed himself with his words: outside the wall. By suggesting that she would not feel for a child, that she would desire the death of children, he had become someone for whom we could never feel compassion.

It would seem that, based on this quote, the monsters — which, at first, appear to be fictional characters — are potentially people whom the Samaras have encountered, but that’s for the reader to uncover. Their cast of monsters is diverse and colorful, even if they lay in black and white on the page. The book offers so much to think about, and it’s a quick read. Definitely a must-read for those who like to mull over concepts for long periods of time, as well as those who are just looking for a wonderfully illustrated book of monsters.

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