April 16, 2024

The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain


Sofia's novella The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain is now out from Tor. At some level, it is her response to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as to her experiences as a university student and professor. It imagines a future in which humanity, having rendered Earth uninhabitable, is drifting through space in a fleet of spaceships, searching for asteroids to mine. Our current societal stratification is still present, and a section of the population is incarcerated. The story follows a boy who is plucked from the chained to join the academic elite and his mentor, a professor whose father had been one of the chained. It's a wonderful feat of world-building.

November 7, 2023



Sofia's latest book is now available from Columbia University Press. This is an unusual collaboration with her friend Kate Zambreno, author of Green Girl and Drift, among many others. It is written in a choral first-person plural voice: the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere. The book had its genesis in their email conversations, as they were trying to nail down where tone exists in literature and how it might be defined. Sofia and Kate are both extraordinarily widely read, and one of the pleasures of the book is the vast array of writers they reference, including Nella Larsen, W. G. Sebald, Hiroko Oyamada, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, and Franz Kafka. The book itself, partly because of its unique voice, creates its own tone, at once erudite and chatty, pensive and expansive.

October 25, 2022

The White Mosque


Sofia's new book, The White Mosque, comes out today. This is a significant departure from her speculative fiction, blending travel writing, memoir, and history. The book emerges from a crazy passage in Mennonite history. In the 1880s, a preacher named Claas Epp decided that Christ was going to return somewhere in central Asia. So he led a group of followers on a two-year journey from what is now Ukraine to what is now Uzbekistan. Many died along the way, but the survivors found hospitality and kindness in the khanate of Khiva, where they established a small community. 

Sofia went on a Mennonite-led tour of Uzbekistan in 2016, and she uses that expedition to structure the book. Along the way, she reflects on her own identity as the daughter of a Swiss Mennonite and Somali Muslim. This is a book of layers and moments, always compelling, always gorgeous. I think you should buy it.

January 26, 2019

"The Last Djinn"

© 2011 by Mysha Islam 

I have a new story, "The Last Djinn," in the latest issue of the Journal of Mennonite Writing.

February 22, 2018

Monster Portraits

Sofia and her brother, Del, have created a book entitled Monster Portraits, now out from Rose Metal Press. For as long as I've known him, Del has drawn hybrid creatures of one kind or another, and in my mind's eye he's always curled on a sofa with his battered black sketchbook. For this work, Sofia riffed off of images Del created, using the persona of an investigating journalist to explore the concept of monsters. The pieces feel like prose poems, and are both personal and resonant, gathering notions of monsters from multiple writers.

The book has already received stellar reviews from the New York Times ("Reading this was like wandering out of a dream and into an awareness of something with claws sitting on my chest") and the Chicago Review of Books, and starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist.

May 4, 2017


Sofia's collection of short stories, Tender, is now out. It includes most of her published stories, including the Hugo and Nebula nominated "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" and the widely published "Honey Bear," "How to Get Back to the Forest," and "Ogres of East Africa." There are also two new stories, "An Account of the Land of Witches" and the excellent novella-length "Fallow," which is about Anabaptists in space. The book is available in hardcover and as an ebook.

January 15, 2017

The Sins of Angels Goodreads Giveaway!

My publisher, PS Publishing, is doing a Goodreads Giveaway for The Sins of Angels. Ten signed hardcovers are up for grabs.

September 14, 2016

Lithium Jesus

My friend Charles Monroe-Kane has published a memoir, Lithium Jesus, with the University of Wisconsin Press. Chuck and I were roommates our first year at Goshen College in 1987. We were an odd pair: I hadn't spent much time outside of East Africa and Chuck came from a poor Ohio family. Somehow, though, we hit it off and have remained friends for nearly thirty years.

This book tells the story of Chuck's struggle with mental illness, and his attempts to come to peace with himself via religion, drugs, sex, and other escapades. It's highly entertaining, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. If you're paying attention, you might spot me flicker on and off the page at one point. I suggest you buy the book.

September 1, 2016

The Sins of Angels Ebook

The Sins of Angels is now available as an ebook from Amazon. The signed and unsigned hardcovers are still available from the PS Publishing website.

July 16, 2016

The Sins of Angels

My third novel, The Sins of Angels, is now available for preorder from PS Publishing. It’s a noirish paranormal thriller set in Cairo and the Western Desert, about a couple of hapless detectives who stumble upon a fallen angel. At this point, it’s available in a limited edition of one hundred signed hardbacks, and as an unsigned hardback. You can read the first chapter on my website.

The publisher asked me to write something about the genesis of the book, and I’m including that below.

In 1999, after three years in southern Sudan, my wife and I moved to Egypt. Soon after we arrived, I picked up E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide, which has been called the best guidebook ever written. It deftly melds the mythology and history of the city with modern-day landmarks. In the opening pages, Forster gives a brief synopsis of the Gnostic cosmogony, discussing the demiurge and Sophia, the last of the fallen angels. Reading his overview, I had a vision of a fallen angel on a Cairo sidewalk, and knew I would write her story one day.

Seven years later, the notion of a literary and detective agent came to me, and dovetailed with the earlier vision of the fallen angel. In the meantime, I’d discovered the Nag Hammadi texts and had delved deeper into Gnosticism, and realized I could fruitfully bring that knowledge to bear on the tale of Sophia and my blundering detective, George Zacharias. The book was started in Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, completed in Madison, Wisconsin, and polished in Ventura, California.

One of the great pleasures I had while working on this book was the discovery of Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels, an immensely rich and comprehensively researched text. I knew little about angels and their hierarchies when I started out, and Davidson’s book provided the background I needed to create a solid structure. I’ll leave off with the following passage from Davidson’s alluring introduction:

“Without committing myself religiously I could conceive of the possibility of there being, in dimensions and worlds other than our own, powers and intelligences outside our present apprehension, and in this sense angels are not to be ruled out as a part of reality—always remembering that we create what we believe. Indeed, I am prepared to say that if enough of us believe in angels, then angels exist...”

May 29, 2016

Encounters in Africa

My father has led an extraordinary life. Born into an Amish family in Hartville, Ohio, he was the first in his community to go to college, where he met my mother. They joined Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions, and went to Tanzania, where my mother had been born, and then Sudan, where my father helped set up the Sudan Council of Churches. In 1974, they moved to Nairobi, where he worked first with the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), then volunteered as regional representative for Mennonite Central Committee, and finally served as an adviser to the All Africa Council of Churches. He remains active in Nairobi and the region today.

He is perhaps the most modest person you'll meet, but has had an astonishing influence. While working in rural development with NCCK, he facilitated the creation of the first sand dams in Machakos, which have dramatically raised the water table in the region. The Nairobi Peace Initiative, which he helped set up, has had an enormous impact on the continent, and was instrumental in heading off Kenya's descent into civil war following the 2007 elections. At eighty, he is as active as ever, walking many miles a day and offering his services as mzee (elder).

Last year, my brother and I helped my dad get a collection of his occasional pieces into print. Encounters in Africa is the first volume, containing primarily lighter stuff: book reviews, anecdotes, travel pieces. A second volume, due out later this year, will include weightier material.

Recently, a Canadian Mennonite book group read Encounters in Africa. Their delightful reflections were published by The Mennonite under the title "An Evening with Harold." (The picture is of the author of the piece, not my father.)

March 16, 2016

The Winged Histories

Sofia's second novel, The Winged Histories, is now out. Her first, A Stranger in Olondria, won the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award. This book takes place in the same densely constructed world. It tells the stories of four women in wartime, and is possibly more gorgeous and heartbreaking than Stranger.

Here's Sofia's blog post about the novel, and here's an interview at the Los Angeles Times.

December 1, 2015

"Stone Collection"

I have a suite of three poems under the title "Stone Collection" in the latest issue of Masque & Spectacle. The sculpture above is by the featured artist, Jyl Bonaguro.

November 25, 2015

Ursula K. Le Guin

Image by Euan Monaghan/Structo
Last weekend, Sofia and I made a pilgrimage to UCLA, where the Center for the Art of Performance was hosting an evening with Ursula Le Guin. We were in the plebe seats at the back of a massive hall, but it was nevertheless a magical experience. When she walked onstage, Sofia whispered: "That's the person who created The Tombs of Atuan," and it really was a bit surreal.

She is eighty-six now, small and hunched, with a low voice and deeply wrinkled skin. For ninety minutes she was in conversation with an appropriately awestruck moderator and read from several works and took questions. She came across as witty, ridiculously intelligent, and somehow simultaneously kindly and prickly. Some of the more interesting moments: Rocannon's World, her first published novel, was in fact the sixth novel she wrote. She considers her first three published novels, which would include Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, to be "apprentice work." Thus, I suppose, she would suggest that her real career begins with A Wizard of Earthsea, which is probably where most of her readers begin as well. Landscape and human intervention came up more than once. She read three poems about the Colorado River, before and after the damming, and offered a beautiful and emotional response to a question from Sofia about Always Coming Home, saying that she was trying to create a positive future for a landscape she cared for deeply. Her pacifist stance came through very strongly, as did her love of Virginia Woolf and J.R.R. Tolkien. In Earthsea, the old word for stone is tolk; it comes up at least twice, in poignant moments, and I believe this is a nod to Tolkien's influence on her. Furthermore, inien is the word for sea, so "Earthea" itself is possibly "Tolkien" in the old language. She mentioned Tolkien's "beats" - the alternating lights and darks, ups and downs, tensions and resolutions - which she says occur at every level: sentence, section, and chapter. She also told us that she read The Lord of the Rings aloud three times (to each of her kids), and is a strong believer in reading one's own work aloud.

I read the first three Earthsea books in Nairobi at the age of nine or ten. They were the lovely set in the clamshell, with the spines that make a perky little fish when put together. They were immediately placed on that special pedestal that contains the other hallowed multi-book fantasies: The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. All the others were second-rate imitators: Shannara and Thomas Covenant and Dragonriders of Pern and other crap. Of course I read everything else I could get my hands on in Nairobi, though I was too young for The Left Hand of Darkness. I devoured the short stories and the early novels and the slightly less compelling middle novels, The Word for World Is Forest, The Eye of the Heron, and The Beginning Place (though Le Guin's great gift is storytelling, and her work is always compulsively readable, with a special empathy that shines through even in her more minor work). Then in college I read Always Coming Home and The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and became obsessed. The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, in particular, became touchstone works in the way A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan had been when I was a child.

More than any other living writer, Le Guin seems timeless. I think Earthsea and The Dispossessed will be read in a hundred years, and possibly in five hundred. Though she's had a few misses, the catalog of her hits is more extensive than that of just about any writer I can think of. Here's my Le Guin canon (in no particular order):

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
"Darkness Box"
"She Unnames Them"
"Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight"
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Dispossessed
Always Coming Home

May 2, 2015

The Online Library of Babel

Okay, this is pretty awesome. Jonathan Basile has created Borges's Library of Babel online. You can choose books off the shelves and read them! In an interview at Flavorwire, Basile says: "When I started building the site, I actually had in the back of my mind the idea that a searchable, virtual Library of Babel might make it possible to find a few of those rational arrangements of letters. I very quickly realized how incorrect I was. And that I think is the most important part of the project — it gives that brief glimmer of hope, that reason might win out over unreason, then crushes it. In this way the site is true to Borges’ vision — I think he wants us to see that all the creations of reason, of human language and thought, are haunted and undermined by their irrational reproducibility."

March 1, 2015

New Edition of The Illuminations

I have put out a new version of my translation of The Illuminations. It has a new cover and I've done a little bit of tidying up inside. It's available on Amazon.

January 31, 2015

The Epilogue to Blood Meridian

Over at the always wonderful Biblioklept, Edwin Turner draws interesting parallels between the enigmatic epilogue to Blood Meridian and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Here's the epilogue:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.
 Like Turner, I'd read the epilogue as describing the actions of a post-hole digger, followed by archaeologists  ... and "those who do not search" (settlers; us?). I'd imagined the digger marking the boundary between Mexico and the U.S., but as Turner notes, he could also be "carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth." Turner notes other interpretations: "it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire." Turner doesn't arrive at a satisfying conclusion; perhaps all we can say is that both McCarthy and Anderson are grappling with America's greedy, blood-soaked past and (perhaps) trying to draw lines to the present.

I first read Blood Meridian in Burundi, where I served with Mennonite Central Committee as a peace worker. It was a fraught time, and perhaps the novel explained or at least echoed some of the horrors I witnessed. A fellow MCCer had borrowed the book from a friend in the States, and I read the twice-borrowed copy to tatters, entranced by the language and the character of Judge Holden. For a while I thought it was McCarthy's finest novel, but now I'm back to All the Pretty Horses, with Suttree a close second.

November 10, 2014

Olondria Wins the World Fantasy Award!

My wife's novel A Stranger in Olondria has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel. Earlier this year, Sofia won the British Fantasy Award for best novel, as well as the John W. Campbell Award and the Crawford Award. At the World Fantasy Convention, she announced that she has signed a contract with Small Beer for a second novel, The Winged Histories, and a collection of stories.

September 26, 2014

Books That Influenced Tolstoy

Open Culture has a list written by Tolstoy of books that influenced him. Very pleased to see my beloved George Eliot on the list. Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Wood) is new to me. I'll have to check her out. They also have a scratchy audio recording of him reading in English, German, French, and Russian.

Here's the book list:


Childhood to the age of 14 or so

The story of Joseph from the Bible - Enormous
Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman - Great
The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky - V. great
Russian byliny: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich. Folk Tales - Enormous
Puskin’s poems: Napoleon - Great

Age 14 to 20

Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount – Enormous
Sterne’s Sentimental Journey – V. great
Rousseau Confessions - Enormous
Emile - Enormous
Nouvelle Héloise - V. great
Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin - V. great
Schiller’s Die Räuber - V. great
Gogol’s Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect - Great
“Viy” [a story by Gogol] – Enormous
Dead Souls - V. great
Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches - V. great
Druzhinin’s Polinka Sachs - V. great
Grigorovich’s The Hapless Anton - V. great
Dickens’ David Copperfield - Enormous
Lermontov’s A Hero for our Time, Taman - V. great
Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico - Great

Age 20 to 35

Goethe. Hermann and Dorothea - V. great
Victor Hugo. Notre Dame de Paris - V. great
Tyutchev’s poems – Great
Koltsov’s poems – Great
The Odyssey and The Iliad (read in Russian) – Great
Fet’s poems – Great
Plato’s Phaedo and Symposium (in Cousin’s translation) – Great

Age 35 to 50

The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek) – V. great
The byliny - V. great
Victor Hugo. Les Misérables - Enormous
Xenophon’s Anabasis - V. great
Mrs. [Henry] Wood. Novels – Great
George Eliot. Novels – Great
Trollope, Novels – Great

Age 50 to 63

All the Gospels in Greek – Enormous
Book of Genesis (in Hebrew) – V. great
Henry George. Progress and Poverty - V. great
[Theodore] Parker. Discourse on religious subject – Great
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons – Great
Feuerbach (I forget the title; work on Christianity) [“The Essence of Christianity”] – Great
Pascal’s Pensées - Enormous
Epictetus – Enormous
Confucius and Mencius – V. great
On the Buddha. Well-known Frenchman (I forget) [“Lalita Vistara”] – Enormous
Lao-Tzu. Julien [S. Julien, French translator] – Enormous