Monster Portraits is a slim book at 78 pages, published February 27, 2018 by Rose Metal Press. It’s a hybrid of text and drawing, quotes and myth, created by siblings Sofia Samatar (text) and Del Samatar (images). Although I believe all works should speak for themselves, clues about the text are presented on the back cover and with some press materials sent to me: the Samatars are Somali-Americans who grew up in the 80s. Sofia Samatar thinks of Monster Portraits as “a speculative memoir.” That is not to say that had I not known the Samatars are Somali-Americans their book would be less. Instead, I would argue less information would make the pervasive question asked of non-white people — “What are you?” — universal.
You need to prepare yourself to read Monster Portraits. Whatever your call the pieces — flash fiction, poetry, hybrid — they are short. Since each piece is 1-2 pages, has an image of a monster, and the name of a monster, I started referring to the pieces as “portraits.” It made sense and was easier. Within the portraits, the font changes. Italics means there is an end note, typically explaining that the italicized line was pulled directly from another work. Occasionally, there are translations: “Iftakartik masriyyah” means “I thought you were Egyptian.” I’m not a fan of end notes, especially in a book that has so many but also a lot of space at the bottom of the page just waiting for footnotes. Having one finger saving a page in the back was a distraction, I admit.
Beyond the end notes (which I didn’t know about until I was several portraits in), you have to realize that Monster Portraits isn’t narrative driven, which means you should read a few portraits each day, no more. They’re meant to make you think; should you read more than a few, the portraits blend together. After I put these two realizations together, I started the book over again to read better.
The images of the monsters vary in style: some use more pointillism, others crosshatching, and some have a Magic the Gathering style.
Because these stories and images are more like Magic the Gathering cards (name, image, features), what stood out to me more were certain lines or moments instead of whole portraits. The Green Lady, a monster that emerges from the sea and speaks to a woman who sits on the beach) says: “Our castles are of coral; our herds are whales. It is the perfect place for you, excpet that you could not breathe.” This moment stuck out to me because it stung of a reality in which we can be so close to our dreams of fitting in, but something stops us, something we cannot overcome due to how we are born.
In another portrait describing “The Early Ones,” Sofia Samatar suggests she and her brother came to the United States at the wrong time in history, one during which they did not fit easily. At one time, Del Samatar is shot in the leg (in the United States? In Somolia?). In a number of portraits, Samatar’s writing implies the “I” is her, such as when she writes about being a foreigner in a city in which everyone closes their windows to avoid The Huntress:
The Huntress left dark patches wherever she passed. She left a streak. In the morning, the hotel staff would find me unconscious, gummed to the floor. The proprieter weeping, for nothing like this had ever happened in his establishment, nothing. Had I not read the instructions on the desk?
Here is where I understand Monster Portraits to be “speculative memoir.” However, had I not read the press release, I would have assumed “I” was a first-person character. Regardless of the author’s intentions, I feel Monster Portraits is a successful experimental collection of short works. It asks readers, “What is a monster?” Could it be the unknown, such as real creatures in the deepest ocean we don’t have pictures of? Children from other countries who don’t fit seamlessly? The stuff of myths and fables? Perhaps it’s those who see otherness as monstrous.
I want to thank Rose Metal Press for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.