In Search of the Monstrous

Monster Portraits by Del and Sofia Samatar is by far one of the most interesting books I’ve read in 2018. I had the good fortune to stumble upon it at a signing at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (AWP), and I’m very grateful that I did. The book resists being fit into any box, which makes any summary painfully anemic, but here goes: Monster Portraits is a speculative memoir that explores living in a world where one is perpetually othered. In this exploration, Sofia’s text tracks in two directions at once. On the one hand, the book is a not-quite-straightforward bestiary/travelogue detailing the process of seeking out and coming to know each of the monsters it describes. On the other, this external process of finding and coming to know the monsters of the book points inward toward understanding the multi-faceted nature of the self. Sofia’s text is accompanied throughout by Del’s illustrations.

This mixture of prose and illustration becomes a high-wire act that could easily have fallen short of its ambitious aims, but Del and Sofia work together to pull the task off beautifully. The text itself creates its own need for this illustrated element: “Most monsters, I have read, have a horror of the camera, but will allow their portraits to be drawn by hand.” This mediated experience of the monstrous is crucial to the book’s success. We do not find them out in the wild as something to experience purely as an other, but rather, our experience of the monsters in this text can only come through the text—through the author.

In this vein we see the external experience brought in to the Samatars’ own lives, translated from fictional encounters with fantastic beasts into a speculative memoir. The Samatars present their own experience, not directly, not through the steady gaze of prose, but at a slant. In so doing, they create their account and a mirror for readers to consider their own otherness. A mirror that not only reflects the reader’s experience through the Samatars’ but that can provide a field guide to a life. And “a mirror becomes architecture when you pass to the other side: this is what we had understood as children.”

You can pick up Monster Portraits from Rose Metal Press here.

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Ryan Murphy