Local author Sofia Samatar finds shiny objects in a historical journey — and within herself

A picture of a book and a picture of woman
Sofia Samatar, a Harrisonburg writer and literature professor at JMU, writes about many themes in her newest book.

By Rachel Petterson, contributor

In “The White Mosque,” local author and professor Sofia Samatar writes that she has never lived anywhere for more than five years. But since she typed those words, she has surpassed that by living in Harrisonburg for six. 

Samatar, who grew up Mennonite, said she has found connections in Harrisonburg, including to others who have lived abroad as Mennonite missionaries. 

“A big link is the Mennonite link, of course. So that makes Harrisonburg very much kind of like a continuation of other places I’ve lived, including places I’ve lived abroad in South Sudan and Egypt because I went there with Mennonite Central Committee,” Samatar said. 

Samatar is a literature professor at JMU and teaches African literature, Arabic literature, and speculative fiction. She published her fifth book in October. But unlike her previous four books that fall in the fantasy genre, “The White Mosque” is grounded in nonfiction and explores a historical journey that shows readers a little bit about identity and peoples’ relationships to place and culture.  

(Photo courtesy of Sofia Samatar)

Samatar’s connections to Harrisonburg are clear even before I introduced myself. As she entered Black Sheep Coffee, she greeted another customer whom she recognized, and talked for a minute or two with the person before our interview.

She said much of her everyday social circle is related to having grown up Mennonite, particularly her time at Lancaster Mennonite School in Pennsylvania and Goshen College in Indiana.

“My friends are friends that I made when I was a student in a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college, and they live here, and many of them teach at Eastern Mennonite University,” she said. “So those are the people I see most regularly.”

Samatar attends Community Mennonite Church, while also describing herself as a secular person. Her husband also grew up as the grandson of Mennonite missionaries but doesn’t practice. This points to another way that Mennonites are not a monolith: in their beliefs. 

“We’re both secular Mennonites, but he’s a staunch atheist, while I, in accordance with my magpie disposition, pick and choose: I go to church every Sunday, I love the music, I sing, I drift, I take notes on the church bulletin, I lose myself, I write,” as Samatar described it in “The White Mosque.

Ideological divergence from Mennonite religious doctrine is referenced even in Samatar’s retelling of her high school self at the Mennonite boarding school. Entering memory, Samatar writes in third person, referring to a brown girl who appears to be representative of her past self as “the child.” She and some of her classmates have just gone on an outing to see the movie “Platoon.”

“The child sits close to the window, watching the watery streaks of highway lights. At last another girl speaks: The saddest thing, she says, is that the men who fought in Vietnam all went to Hell when they died. They went straight to Hell to suffer forever, for fighting is a sin. The child answers savagely, ‘They didn’t go to Hell.’ She says there can’t be a Hell, for a loving God would never torment someone who had already been so tormented in life … she is finished with Hell, which doesn’t exist and will never exist, no matter what anyone says,” Samatar wrote.  

Through various avenues, Samatar makes it clear that being Mennonite is at times a sociocultural experience, a collective memory, or, often, a shared lineage. At others it is a religion someone converts to from outside associated bloodlines or having been brought up in the tradition. 

While not all Mennonites have the same ways of being Mennonite, the tradition and culture carry collective stories, including literal books outside of the Bible. One of these is the 17th century book “Martyrs Mirror,” which tells in gruesome detail the accounts of Mennonites who have been persecuted for living true to their doctrine and, as a result, died martyrs. 

In “The White Mosque,” Samatar references the author Ross Bender’s critique of the narratives of what it means to be a Mennonite that this book promotes. She quotes him saying, “The Mennonite story is not a narrative but a sort of consensual hallucination.” 

But Samatar sees that as part of the general nature of identity. 

“He’s being critical and saying, ‘Look, this isn’t a real thing. This is just, like, we all decided that we’re descended from these martyrs and we decided this is a central thing in our tradition.’ And it’s–that’s where it’s a consensual hallucination,” she said in our interview. “It’s a group of people who have decided, ‘This is who we are.’” 

She said she understands the sentiment in that critique. 

“But what is any identity except that? … We are making this together,” she adds. “We’re dreaming it up. Together. We’re deciding together what aspect of a person qualifies as identity.” 

As Samatar points out in “The White Mosque” when writing about a remote Mennonite community in Soviet Russia, “you can’t be Mennonite alone.” 

“The White Mosque” is a story that is both locally and internationally embedded. It revolves around a religious community that found a home in Harrisonburg, but for a short time, a group of them attempted to make a home in Central Asia.

Starting in 1880, Mennonites living in Russia sought to flee a Western world that they saw moving increasingly toward the antichrist. Following a self-proclaimed prophet, Claas Epp Jr., they embarked on a journey to what is now Uzbekistan. 

Many did not survive the journey and others left along the way, but stories survived from what would come to be a period of about 50 years during which Mennonites settled in Central Asia. These Mennonites in Uzbekistan, or the Ak Metchet Mennonites, lived there until the Soviet government exiled them for refusing to collectivize. 

“The White Mosque” follows their saga but also allows Samatar to examine her own life as a Mennonite of color, the culture of the Mennonites at large, and themes of human existence that pertain no matter someone’s background. 

As she researched material for the book, Samatar traveled to Uzbekistan on a tour along the same route the Ak Metchet Mennonites took, and her travels served as a personal narrative alongside the historic journey.

Samatar gathered details — so many, in fact, that she writes that “The White Mosque” a “swollen book.” In a rush of passionate description and honest reflection, Samatar explains to her readers: “Lacking perfect understanding, I tell you everything.” 

Lacking perfect understanding is not to be mistaken for an assertion of no understanding. “The White Mosque” approaches the existential from various lenses, and it includes sections that lean heavily into the expository.

One theme in “The White Mosque” is that Mennonites’ mainstream image does not fit the reality. 

“Due to the missionary project begun a century ago, most Mennonites now live outside North America and Europe, while North America contains Black, Latino, and other ethnically diverse Mennonite communities,” she wrote. “Our fastest growing church is in Ethiopia.” 

She calls Mennonites an “[evangelizing] tribe that travels the world to spread the universal love of God, and at the same time maintains the occult power of its family names, its language, its tradition, its alphabet of bone.”

In 2016, for instance, there was a meeting to discuss the racial climate at Goshen College, the Mennonite university that Samatar attended. Students of color, she reported, expressed feelings of isolation, up against a dominant culture they called “the Mennonite wall.”

Samatar’s mother is a Mennonite of Swiss ancestry who grew up in North Dakota. Her father is Somali and was raised Muslim. They met while her mother was a missionary English teacher in Somalia. Samatar calls their story implausible.

Early in “The White Mosque,” she starts reflecting on her multifaceted background and specifically on what she calls her “magpie existence,” referencing the bird that is attracted to and collects shiny objects. 

“It starts off as me kind of making fun of myself a little bit — kind of speculating on possible connections between coming from a mixed cultural and ethnic background and then being somebody who kind of doesn’t settle, either in one place, with one idea, a mind that’s always kind of jumping to the next thing,” she said. “And, of course, this is a joke because there isn’t really a connection between your cultural background and your brain function.”

The origin of writing “The White Mosque” is its own global story. Her father-in-law gave her “The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880-1884” while she was in Nairobi on her way to South Sudan to start teaching. 

She explained her life as “fragmentary” at the time, which was soon after being a student and before her fantasy novels were published. She saw her various identities as a “mosaic: that is, a shattering.”

When she wrote “The White Mosque,” Samatar said shefound it interesting to contemplate the different ways of seeing that kind of hybridity.”

“It can be seen as — and has been seen in the past, especially with race — as a kind of, like, a debility. Like something that is going to make your life really difficult. Like if you are mixed race like myself, you’re never going to fit into any culture, you’re never going to find your people, and you’re going to be this sort of sad, melancholy figure,” she added.

Her aim was to turn that notion on its head but without lecturing the reader by telling them: “Tragic mulatto is not a real thing. So we should not think that.”

“Because I don’t find that very useful,” she continued. “I think when there’s powerful cultural ideas. I find it more interesting to kind of play with them and work with them, rather than just saying ‘that’s not real,’ because it simply doesn’t work to do that because it still is having real effects on people.”

Paradox and irony also repeat throughout “The White Mosque,” embedded into even the basic story of the Ak Metchet Mennonites and their culture. 

During Samatar’s travels in Uzbekistan, one of the other people on the tour, called Frank in the book, was reading about how the travelers headed from Russia to Uzbekistan would round their wagons in a circle at night. 

“‘Here comes the German sense of order!’ he exclaims.” Indeed, the Mennonites have a cultural appreciation for order in their daily routines that is sometimes contrasted with the way the Central Asians around them lived. 

“I think one of the things that is really powerful to me about this story of the Mennonites in Uzbekistan is its extremely disordered quality,” she told me. “Like, yes, on one hand, they were really concerned with knowing what time it was, but on the other hand, they didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t know where they were.” 

The group’s leader, Claas Epp Jr., was a “very charismatic preacher,” Samatar said. From his reading of the Bible and religious literature, which was actually a fantasy novel, Samatar said Epp had “cooked up this idea that Christ was returning on March 8, 1889.”

“This was way out of order. And, you know, this group had to discover that.” 

This idea underscores how entire systems can be based on a false foundation.  

“And if that’s the case, then you have tied yourself into following something that is going to lead you very, very far away from reality,” she said. “And so I think there’s a sense of, I guess, the value of questioning.” 

Again, she looks to her own approach — ”the magpie condition,” as she calls it. 

“It’s a good idea to take a look outside your border once in a while, and just–and to be able to recognize and incorporate other things so that you don’t find yourself, you know, tied up to a ship that is going down,” she said. 

The period in which these Mennonites were in Uzbekistan has sometimes been regarded as a shameful part of Mennonite history, Samatar writes. The prophecy of Claas Epp Jr. could easily be called heresy, after all. 

As Samatar describes the trek to Uzbekistan, she pauses to illustrate what could be called a saviorist mentality amongst the Mennonites coming in contact with Central Asian culture. 

She goes on to explain the various ways in which the Mennonites brought to Uzbekistan technologies, such as the sewing machine. 

What ensues is a section of the book that discusses what Samatar calls the “missionary effect.” Whether or not the Mennonites did indeed bring useful technology to Central Asia is beside the point when it comes to this discussion. What Samatar is pointing to is an attitude, an approach. 

“This is something that I grew up with and experienced and thought about,” she said. “In a lot of ways my response to it is…this book.” In this way, she says it is offering a “critique of my own culture.” 

This identity is built on the idea that, as Mennonites, those on mission trips are inherently bringing something that others lack, but usually not just a religion–also a culture and material way of existence. An in-group/out-group mentality forms, and something that may have been seen as average or subpar among the in-group suddenly is presented as advanced and superior when compared to the lives of those they are trying to save. The examples Samatar gives span from the Mennonites in Uzbekistan in the late 19th century to today, and this concept is revisited various times in the book. 

This kind of attitude is not unique to Mennonite culture, and is not always tied directly to religion. And Samatar is not alone in her discomfort.

Grace Martin, a professor in the World Languages Department at Bridgewater College, sees what she calls Western saviorism in various realms. Broadly, it is a paradigm of thinking, she said. To her, it does not just occur between people from different countries but between people across various degrees of privilege, including those who live in the same city but are of different classes or disability status. 

“I teach about this concept specifically in my Conversations for Social Justice class. But I try to apply it in most of the classes I teach,” Martin told me.  “It could apply to anyone … the paradigm that people assume: ‘My culture is the right culture because we are more developed, because the way we do things is the way I’ve always known.’”

This includes people who come in with good intentions, she said.

“But there’s this sort of perspective that anyone else who is not as privileged or who is not from that specific cultural background needs helping, saved and needs to be sort of like brought to the light, if you will,” Martin said.  

Martin makes a point to explain that just because an organization displays saviorist attitudes does not mean that the work they are doing is bad. 

“This is something that is frequently seen in charities that are legitimate organizations that are doing work that is important,” she said. It’s possible that this mentality comes out in their public messaging, particularly in how they ask people to contribute money, displaying the group they are helping in a way that promotes pity. 

Martin said the idea that there’s a right or wrong way to be human should not be the basis for providing a service. 

At various points in “The White Mosque,” Samatar points to assumptions about Central Asian culture by Europeans: that the Central Asians around them were unclean or generally of a more lowly existence.

Samatar addresses this issue in a way that is close to home. She speaks as the child of a Mennonite missionary and a Somalian who met as the result of a mission trip and as someone who has gone on mission trips with the Mennonite Central Committee. Like always, she writes in emotion, personal accounts, and history all rolled into one. If Martin speaks of the forest, Samatar is describing the way leaves rustle in a section of trees. 

For instance, Samatar’s book delves into Mennonites’ presence in Somalia and the current relationship between North American Mennonites and Muslim Somalis, such as explaining how Somali Muslims have attended EMU’s Center for Justice and Peace-building, engaging in cultural exchange centered around conflict resolution.

While doing so, she peels away from organized narration of past and present to write a section called “A few conclusions,” which is a single page filled with what, when taken as individual statements, are conclusions, but together come off as something closer to contradictions. Each sentence is followed by another version of itself, rolling together as if racing down a hill. 

As with much of “The White Mosque,” what Samatar demonstrates is not as much a clear answer on every aspect of this problem as it is a grappling.

Martin gives an antidote to the problem that leaves room for outcomes that could look different in each community. 

“One of the key ways of avoiding saviorism is to listen,” she said. “Not just be like, ‘I’m here to help.’ Just listen to the people that you’re working with. Take into account how they live, how they choose to live, what they want, what they prefer, and what they need.”

“The White Mosque” came out in October 2022. (Photo by Rachel Petterson)

Along with the title and Samatar’s name, the cover of “The White Mosque” says simply: “A Memoir.” What it contains is just as much a view into the intimate moments, trials, and perseverance of others as it is a view into Samatar’s life. In the process of demonstrating the interconnectedness between the two, Samatar struggled to find a form that could contain it all. 

“The form was a huge pain,” Samatar said. “In fact, it is really the reason that it took seven years to write.”

The research was part of that, too, of course. 

“Obviously there’s a lot of material in this book. There are a lot of different topics. And I was very determined that, yes, all these topics belong in the same book,” she said. “Even at one point my agent was like, ‘Are you sure this is one book? Are you sure this isn’t maybe a history and then maybe a more personal narrative?’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s definitely the same thing.’” 

What resulted is a book with 304 pages of narrative divided into three parts and nine chapters, with each chapter containing subsections of various length, which allow Samatar to interject the story she is telling with sections that focus more specifically on a certain idea. 

“I did have it in the beginning in this sort of collage form where I just had a bunch of different pieces,” she said. “And the final piece was my journal of the trip to Uzbekistan. So the earlier pieces were not linked into the trip. They were just like–here’s a chapter on Langston Hughes, here’s a chapter on this actor, here’s a chapter on these Mennonites, and I really love collage as a form, so I don’t have a problem with it because it’s collage. But what struck me about it was that it was very static.” 

After wondering why the pieces of the book felt so disconnected, Samatar realized that the last portion about her travels could provide momentum. 

“I eventually asked myself the question, why does this thing feel so static? Why does it feel like it’s not moving when it is literally about the journey? It’s about the Mennonite journey, it’s about my journey, and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, what I need to do is take that final chapter, stretch it out, and put all of the other stuff inserted into the journey so that the book now becomes the journey.’”

This form helped aid Samatar in fulfilling one of the most basic functions of the book.

“I think it’s about creating the conditions within which a connection could happen, which is exactly how I think of teaching,” she said. “Like, I’m not there to make anybody learn anything. I’m there to create the conditions within which learning could happen. And then you cross your fingers and you hope that it happens.”

Writing is similar, she added, where it’s difficult to predict what people might connect with but the hope is that they will. 

“I think these things will resonate with other people, but I don’t actually know, and it’s not something that is within my control,” she said. “So all I can do is really do my best to set up the conditions within which that might happen.”

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