Monster Portraits is Charmingly Inscrutable

Monster Portraits is refreshingly original, starting with its unusual form. It’s a collaborative effort between brother and sister duo Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar: Del sets the foundation of the work through his vibrant drawings, which are – you guessed it – images of monsters (No Frankensteins or mummies here – these are monsters fully formed in Del’s imagination.) Sofia then replies to each drawing through prose-poems: these short works set in fictional lands are both linked tales with shared themes as well as flash-memoirs rich with metaphor. Since the artist-and-author siblings grew up together, their joint work brings up a chicken-and-the-egg question: did Del’s drawings inspire Sofia to write these prose-poems? Or did the experiences that Sofia has written about (she’s a prolific speculative fiction and poetry writer) inspire Del to create these creatures?

The collaborative aspect of Monster Portraits isn’t the only thing that complicates our understanding of it – the writing and drawings themselves also confound. For one, Sofia’s written responses to the titular portraits are saturated with allusions. Dozens of allusions pop up relating not just to monsters, but to bodies in general. Sofia lets you explore the way that authors over the centuries have tried to understand, in art and science, how bodies and monsters are related, but it can be mystifying (or frustrating) if you aren’t already familiar with the references. For example, Sofia makes multiple references to Hélène Cixous. If you’re not familiar with Cixous’s feminist essay Laugh of the Medusa, you might not understand the way that Sofia is using the work to advocate for the idea that women should reclaim their monstrousness. (That was one allusion I was happy I understood, but I went down the Wikipedia wormhole to understand many others.) There’s a notes section at the end of Monster Portraits, but it’s short and only scratches the surface of many of the authors and works that are quoted, so be prepared to either come to terms with Sofia’s secret meanings, or have a computer ready to do some deep googling.

Even Del’s drawings can be a mystery. Some of the drawings are more like field notes – they aren’t centrally placed on the page, their lines are jagged and sketch-like, and they have no title or accompanying story from Sofia. These nameless pictures look like they could have been preparatory drawings for the more final images, or they could have been ideas for monsters that didn’t make an appearance in the book. While I was confused by the presence of these informal scribbles (especially since there are so few of them in the book), I was happy to see more strange imagery featuring impossible creatures.

Of course, the titled images are just as weird, but in a different way. The black-and-white drawings are vivid, inspired, and odd, and they vary from unfamiliar to horrifying. Their crisp lines and clean shapes create clarity, and almost a sense of calm, even though they’re depicting unknowable beasts. For example, “The Collector of Treasures” is drawn with radial legs, with only its feet visible under its Christmas-tree-skirt of a bottom; its mid-section is skeletal, reminiscent of the wide-ribbed but open structure of Alien’s facehugger; and the creature’s eyes and mouth are covered by four bracelet-adorned hands.

The “Collector of Treasures”: odd and uncomfortably formed, but beautiful. The complementary prose-poem was one of my favorites in the collection.

Sofia’s response to “The Collector of Treasures,” as to Del’s other images, are hauntingly appropriate, and they bring the idea monsters into the real world. She doesn’t take much time describing the physical characteristics of the monsters – we can see that for ourselves – but instead frames the monster in terms of things like coming-of-age, identity, and the feeling of otherness that has been imposed on her and her family throughout her life. For “The Collector of Treasures” she both writes about the monster’s eerie form: “At the witching-hour, The Collector of Treasures dons a fur-trimmed cloak”; she then goes on to describe a moment from the ‘70s in which a stranger approaches her father and says, “Ah, are you an Abyssinian? What a magnificent species!” It’s a poignant juxtaposition, and she manages to do this throughout the book without it seeming redundant or one-dimensional.

There’s a bit of satire in the project, as Monster Portraits even pokes fun at its own form. Sofia writes that “in the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The irony here is palpable: the book is a catalogue of monsters. But it’s also a catalogue of the way that the Samatars experienced monsterhood in their own lives and how we all think about things in terms of their monstrosity. The book acknowledges and warns against this common practice: when we can dissect something and describe every part of it with words, we revel in our catalogue of it; when we can’t, we put it in the catalogue as a monster.

With so many dualities and variations in form, Monster Portraits uses its inscrutability to force us to ask important questions. Given the ubiquity of art that’s designed to be easy for consumption, Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar’s work can be hard to get used to, but the effort is worth it.

Monster Portraits by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar (Rose Metal Press) will be available February 22 at Rose Metal Press online for $14.95.

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