Over the next few months (I anticipate that it will take at least that long) I’m planning to do a series of individual responses on this blog to the stories in the Rose Fox and Daniel José Older edited anthology Long Hidden. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now; I don’t read enough short fiction, and reviewing an entire anthology as a whole doesn’t allow for much attention to be paid to the workings of individual stories. Long Hidden looks great and features a number of writers I really like (some more about the collection here) and so here we are.
We begin with a Sofia Samatar story, which is great because about half of what I’ve read that has meant anything in the last year has been by Samatar.
Something I’ve had to keep coming back to lately (partly for work reasons) are the ways in which the enlightenment model of understanding the world and its contributions to the imperial project map (hah) onto so much genre fantasy, with its maps and exhaustive anthropologies and entirely knowable secondary worlds.
“Ogres of East Africa” features such a project. Alibhai’s employer (he is never named) is creating an index of ogres—for the purpose of hunting them, we’re told, though merely knowing them would be dangerous enough. Alibhai collects names and stories of ogres from a woman named Mary and records them in alphabetical order; then, in writing that the employer cannot read, fills the margins with additional information as well as his own reflections.
Samatar uses square brackets to differentiate these marginalia from what the employer would consider the real text of the book, and I’ve been thinking recently about what brackets do and how one might use them (here is a storify of other people’s thoughts). The bracket as a space for the “and meanwhile” as Cole puts it there, or as hijacked space, or experimental space. At least two of those are things that Alibhai’s marginalia are doing here, in the plainest, literalising-a-metaphor-est sense. But as for the third—I know that I also use parentheses specifically to destabilise. This is not official, this is a thought I’m trying out but unwilling to grant the status of capital T Truth, I want this to exist but under the radar. I find certainty suspicious, it feels like it belongs to catalogues of ogres. (I feel much envy for people who can affect such a tone though. I struggle with this in my critical and academic writing all the time.) I sit uncomfortably with the un-qualified/ un-annotated/ un-undermined sentence.
The dates, he reminds me, are strictly for the Somalis, who grow sullen in the absence of this treat.
My employer is full of opinions. The Somalis, he tells me, are an excitable nation. “Don’t offend them, Alibhai! Ha, ha!” The Kavirondo, by contrast, are merry and tractable, excellent for manual work. My own people are cowardly, but clever at figures.
There is nothing, he tells me, more odious than a German. However, their women are seductive, and they make the world’s most beautiful music. My employer sings me a German song. He sounds like a buffalo in distress. Afterward, he makes me read to him from the Bible.
He believes I will find this painful: “Heresy, Alibhai! Ha, ha! You’ll have to scrub your mouth out, eh? Extra ablutions?”
Fortunately, God does not share his prejudices.
I read: There were giants in the earth in those days.
I read: For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron.]
There’s a growing identification of Alibhai with the ogres he’s cataloguing. Most clearly near the end when the ogre Ntemelua, like Alibhai, has a back that “will never be quite straight”. But also because we know, because we know history, that Alibhai, and Mary, and the Somali cook and the headman and the Kavirondo porters, are the sort of
people creatures people who get written about in catalogues that say things like “the Somalis are an excitable nation”.
Alibhai’s notes are a series of “no, actually”s that dismantle piece by piece the employer’s ordering of the world. His Sunni and Shia employees get along well and pray together, his scribe is of subcontinental ancestry but also African, there is information he simply cannot access because of his limited language. The marginalia at this point are crowding out the main text; I imagine this book as looking like those occasional pages in which the footnotes have taken up most of the page and the text is reduced to a couple of lines at the top. Those are the best pages.
It’s tempting for me to read this story as carving out a space for uncertainty as well as the other things it is more obviously doing. We’re not led to believe that ogres are killable with the finality of lions. This is dangerous territory for someone who likes the world to be ordered. What if the employer did “acquire the ear of Dhegdheer” and she still had her ear because that is the shape that she is?
And perhaps most important (and so obvious that it’s almost unnoticeable) is the question of scholarship. Not only is Alibhai doing all the work, but his employer doesn’t even have access to most of what he’s learning/writing. It’s not just that this story centres writing from (literally) the margins; it’s that it has its marginal character have been in the centre all along. There’s a nice metaphor for the book, anyway.