“Pain is the heaviest thing”: The Many Meanings of Tender, by Sofia Samatar Reviewed by Sara Rauch

tender: having a soft or yielding texture; demanding careful and sensitive handling
tender: a person who tends or maintains a specific space
tender: money, as in “legal tender”

Sofia Samatar’s new collection of stories, Tender, is comprised of two sections: “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes.” In a way, bodies are landscapes, the physical terrain upon which we map our emotional lives. But, bodies also exist separate from the landscape—forces at work upon each other, for better or worse. As one might intuit from this division/ connection, there is a lot of mirroring throughout Tender. The stories gathered here reflect the other side of something, or an alternate lens through which to view the world—something both of and other. Infused with dreamscapes, myth, and fairy tales, Tender is fabulous in all meanings of the word.

The collection’s nineteen stories and standout novella span time and space, ranging from ancient history and myth to automatons and kings to post-apocalyptic and futuristic imaginings, and yet, Samatar’s themes of youth, desire, loss, and return connect the pieces with unexpected clarity. The stories resound off one another—a dream here, a longing there—and all the while, a steady creep of pain snakes between the lines.

The concept of pain jumps out immediately in the novella, “Fallow.” If you read the collection from first page to last, “Fallow” is the penultimate piece, an unusual but interesting choice placement-wise. The narrator is, as many of the narrators in Tender are, writing. This time, the narrator is writing memories from her youth, hoping to have them accepted for preservation in the archives. Though she has “submitted dramas, fantastical stories, novels of Old Earth, children’s tales, even hymns,” “all have been rejected.” But the memories she captures in “Fallow” are different, propelled not by desire for inclusion—which, it becomes apparent, she has given up on—but by some deeper urge and courage to make a clean breast of it (as Schopenhauer said to Goethe).

Agar Black Hat, the narrator of “Fallow,” has lost her sister and also Miss Snowfall, her school teacher and, in some ways, mentor, to nameless, mysterious events. And though Agar is not the type to rebel against the rules of the world she finds herself in (a place called, interestingly enough, Fallow) for fear of expulsion, she cannot help but recounting the strange influence Miss Snowfall has exerted over her life. Fallow is an uncanny place, separate but not cut off from Earth—a place far in the future that feels eerily similar to the community of Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Miss Snowfall, who Agar clearly loved, has been shunned.

“Fallow” opens with a story (a story within a story within a story) of pure, familial love, of a brother and sister carrying each other through to death; “’Pain is the heaviest thing,’ said Miss Snowfall, who was telling the story.” Agar calls the story beautiful, “like a window through which I can see another world.” Here, again, is the twinning that Samatar is so good at—taking the sad and turning it mysterious and beautiful. Pain may be the heaviest thing, but it is also a thing that makes one tender, and thus, alive.

“Fallow” is a rich tapestry of story-thread: full of religious undertones, class divisions, visions of paradise, yearning for escape, physical and emotional abuse; riddled with secrets and disappearance and light and searching and wonder and suffering—in Fallow nothing exists without everything, to pull any one thread would be to unravel the whole world. It may take “Fallow” to state the obvious, but once stated, it’s impossible not to see this interconnectedness, this interdependence of beauty and pain, which makes Tender such a marvelous collection.

Though pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) and vulnerability make up the emotional core of Tender, they by no means make it maudlin or melodramatic. Samatar’s deft hand makes sure to balance intense interiority with unusual landscapes and bizarre settings. Consider the title story—the one that made me pause and consider the many meanings of tender—the narrator “tend[s] St Benedict Radioactive Materials Center.” She “perceive[s] the outside world through treated glass.” Anything she likes can be delivered to her, but must pass through a transfer box to decontaminate it. This measure, she tells us, “is not to protect me from contamination by the outside world, but to protect the world from me.” Here again we find a complete world existing just on the other side of the glass. The narrator’s friend visits her, standing on the lawn outside the see-through enclosure. Once a month, this friend brings the narrator’s daughter. In “Tender,” poison equals pleasure. The narrator, while nostalgic for her life before, cannot imagine ever leaving her radioactive cocoon: “I sit with the earth as if at the bedside of a sick friend. I am so tender now, I feel the earth’s pain all through my body. …I understand that there is no other world. There is only the one we have made.”

Mirrors and glass and alternate worlds also infuse Tender with a sense of trickery. Whose story do we trust? Whose vision of the world is correct? In “Walkdog” and “How to Get Back to the Forest,” the narrators are young, revealing only what they want to, using the coyness of youth to their advantage until the pressure of necessity to tell the truth overcomes them. Both the world they first present and the one they later cop to are true. Aren’t they?

While many of Tender’s stories are set in speculative or fabulist worlds, a number of stories—including “How I Met the Ghoul,” Meet Me in Iram,” “White-Footed Gazelle,” and “Ogres of East Africa”—are flavored with a more classic, folkloric sensibility by Middle Eastern and Arabic influences. These settings play well into the trickery that pops up in correlation with all the mirrors and glass that appear elsewhere. Nothing is what it seems, these tales yearn to warn us. Everything you trust is constantly shifting shape.

A number of the pieces in Tender—among them “Walkdog,” “An Account of the Land of Witches,” “Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold”—borrow part or all of their narrative structure from nonfiction. Despite their obvious invented plots, they feature quotes and sources, reading as pieces of academia: reports, dissertations. It’s an erudite, off-kilter take on meta, and it creates something beguiling: a clever mix of staid intellectual expectation with bizarre plots and sensitive characters. And because of Samatar’s subtlety, and her keen sense of emotionality, she pulls all of this off without a hint of obnoxiousness.

On top of all that Tender has going for it, the poetry of Samatar’s language fairly sings off the page. Tender begs to be read out loud (and indeed, I did, read passages this way, to my month-old son, who smiled in delight), words rolling off the tongue and dazzling, so radiant they draw castles from thin air, worlds so complete you almost feel you can hold them in the palm of your hand.

The brilliant worlds of Tender are infused with magnificent melancholy—an indelible twinning of sadness and joy that imbues the entire collection. As one of the characters in “Fallow” says: “If you could take the magic of a childhood Easter, and put it together with all the sorrow we have learned since then—then…you might understand how I felt.” If you can imagine the beauty of this kind of pain, these stories will leave you tender, long after you set the book down.
Sara Rauch is the author of WHAT SHINES FROM IT (forthcoming, Alternating Current Press). Her fiction and essays can be found online at Hobart, Split Lip, Gravel, Luna Luna, and Lunch Ticket, and she can be found teaching at the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop. A long-time resident of Western Massachusetts, she lives in Easthampton with her family.