Fantasy · Graphic/Illustrated · Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

Monster Portraits

I am not completely sure how/when I first heard of this collection. It’s very outside of my normal genre/style for reading, as a sort of graphic illustrated mini essay reflection memoir sort of thing. But, I am trying to branch out a bit in my reading, just a little bit at a time, and this seemed like a very unique way to do so.

Monster Portraits by Sofia and Del Samatar

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“The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

This short collection is by a Somali-American brother-sister duo, one who wrote the essays and one who illustrated them. According to the blurb on the back, it is supposed to be a sort of memoir about their time growing up in America in the 1980s. Each essay/story is titled after a different kind or species of monster, with reflections that somehow tie into their life experiences. Now, I am a fantasy/sci-fi person at heart. I love a good escapist/imaginative story and am generally willing to suspend disbelief and give benefit of the doubt much farther than the average person. And from that perspective, I absolutely loved the creativity in the different types of monsters, what they represented or how they were created/developed, that were included in this collection.

But there was definitely also a large disconnect for me throughout this reading experience. I really struggled to understand the essays/stories in the context that they were, theoretically, describing. There were a few moments where the messages were very clear, a few pieces where I was hit with meaning like a punch to the gut (I’ll point out some of those moments/passages/quotes specifically at the end of this review). Also, I did, from somewhere, get the general sense that these monsters were all meant to be personifications of the “deformities”/monstrousness/otherness these authors either saw in themselves or were seen in them by other people. However, for the most part, I feel like I really didn’t “get” most of this collection, writing-wise. It was incredibly abstract, esoteric, erudite (as far as the number of references to people/quotes throughout that I knew I was missing eliciting deeper meaning from*), in a way that made me, as a reader, feel very distant. Maybe that feeling was purposefully fostered, but I ended up too disconnected, I think.

*As a heads up to future readers, there is a section of “Notes” in the back that explains many of the references throughout the pieces. After looking through that and then rereading a number of sections, I definitely feel like I have a slightly better grasp of the collection. So, make sure you look back/use that to begin with, if you decide to read this; the clarification it provides is really helpful.  

The high point, for me, was the illustrations of the monsters. (I mean, just look at the cover.) They were, simply put, breathtaking. The amount of detail in each was astounding and I think I spent more time looking at each of them than it took for me to read the corresponding essays. The visual enhancement that they granted to each written piece was phenomenal. Just…stunning graphics.

This was less of a “read” and more of an “experience.” It was unique and creative and stirring and super intelligent and an artistic treat for the eyes. And it was short, so if you feel like any part of the above review speaks to you, I’d say go for it. Definitely worth the time to see what it’s all about. But, it’s hard for me to truly say I liked/enjoyed reading this, because of the effort it took to stay intellectually invested. (Emotionally I was present though, because like I mentioned, a few sections hit quite hard, and those kept me waiting/looking for the next one.) Overall, this successfully got me out of my comfort zone!


Some of my favorite passages/quotes:

The Green Lady  – Even though it was right at the beginning, the started as, and remained, one of my favorite stories and favorite illustrations, all together.

“Strangers, gods and monsters: interpreting otherness.”

The Clan of the Claw ­­– Another favorite. It had so much tangible-ness to the feel of it.

“I feel myself in the clan of immigrants and hyphens.”

“She said she had claws on the inside too. Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

The Early Ones – Wow. My second favorite overall, and probably the most realistically (understandably) striking.

“But to see us run on the great plain at dawn is to see the landscape return to itself, beyond plastic and smog, returned to its archaic splendor, the panoply of acacia shadows, the thousand and one varieties of blue. We run. Sometimes we are fleeting and sometimes dancing.”

“All monsters, I thought, express relationships: not the ones we dream of, but the ones we have.”

“Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

Everyday Monsters – One last full essay that I want to point out. This one was really striking and did one of the best overall jobs helping me really feel what these siblings felt while growing up, and the challenges/suffering they faced growing up.

“Light is a thing but lighting is a relationship.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

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