Friday, April 23, 2021

Literary Sewing Circle: Amatka Book Talk!


It's hard to believe that we are already halfway through our Literary Sewing Circle round for this fall! Today's the day for some serious book talk! How are you doing with the book? Have you started it yet? Finished it? Do you have any reactions you'd like to share? 

Here are a few questions to ponder today and for the next while -- whether you have begun reading, or you've only read blurbs & author interviews so far and still have something to say, join in! Although there might be a few spoilers in the questions and discussion below so if you haven't got too far yet you might want to come back to this post.

I'll add some of my own thoughts and you can reply to them or add your own impressions. If you want to hear other takes on a part of the book that you are curious about, leave your own questions in the comments, too. I hope you are all enjoying it so far!

Sinziana Susa on Unsplash

Is there a particular character that you found especially compelling? Any themes or symbols that really resonate with you?

I was interested in all the characters, but I don't think one stood out as my "favourite" -- except perhaps Berol's Anna, who I would have loved to learn more about. In a world where language shapes reality quite literally, the choice to be a poet seems pretty edgy! I did appreciate the way in which Vanja's viewpoint shapes the story; not only is the world grey and tenuous, so is her perspective on life, which adds to the uncertainty. 

The themes of language and how we name things and affect our world really strike me with this story. It seems quite magical, but makes us think about the ways we easily name things in everyday life shape our experience of them. On a lighter note, the fact that this whole world is based on fungi is kind of funny and intriguing. There's so much research going on right now on mushroom-based textiles and various other areas that this doesn't seem implausible!

Language and its ability to shape our worlds is such a key element of this book. How do you see this idea playing out in our current world?

Like I mentioned above, I think that we use language and naming in everyday life in ways we might not be aware of. How does slotting an experience into one specific named perception change it? How can calling something good or bad affect it? How can using a name for something that is not the appropriate cultural name for it alter it, or how can misusing a word from another culture change it or us? Or, how about the question of personal names -- if your name is hard to pronounce for someone from a different culture, so you change it, or have it changed for you, how does that affect you as an individual? So many ways to think about how language shapes us. That's not even getting into the experience of the world as a monolingual speaker rather than someone who has facility in more than one language. 

What about that ending? Good or bad? Positive development or terrifying one? Why do you think so?

The ending can seem like a triumph, or a disaster, depending on your viewpoint. What's more important, the safety and security of survivalist colonies, or freedom and independence for individuals? Another element to the ending is the question as to whether trying to sustain and reproduce an old system of society in a new world that doesn't quite work with it is wise or even achievable. Does it make more sense in this setting to abandon the need to be human in one specific way and liberate the population into becoming something new and different? The first time I read this book the ending was mind-blowing, and I wasn't sure what was going on. Was this terrible or fantastic? I couldn't tell. When I read it again for this project, I found the ending more understandable and a little bit less unsettling; it seemed more hopeful in some ways. It's tough to settle on one interpretation though!

Did you like the narrative style, with elements laid out but never over-explained? Or do you prefer a little more elaboration of ideas in your reading?

I like a writer who leaves me guessing. I suppose that's why I like Tidbeck's work. I like the feeling of not quite knowing what's happening as I start reading. The way that they describe and mention parts of Amatka, like the tunnels and the mushrooms and the lake freezing each night, but never elaborate to explain why or how or even what part those elements are playing, is kind of interesting. It's like the characters in the story know and understand these things so they wouldn't think of explaining them in detail. In some ways you can sense the beginnings of this story in the dream world, with its strong imagery of inexplicable things. 

Is there anything specific  in the book that has sparked an idea for a project yet? Are you mulling over any ideas?

I am mulling over a few different ideas, some of which may appear in next week's inspiration post! Let's just say mushrooms are a key image from this book, for me, and might appear in something I make. But I'm also intrigued by Berol's Anna so might tie her presence into a project somehow. 

Jaredd Craig on Unsplash


  1. I enjoyed reading this novel very much, otherwise I wouldn't have finished reading it. Life is too short to spend time reading books I don't enjoy. :) I wrote the following immediately after I read the novel which has been a couple of weeks now. The details have faded as life as been busy. But here is what I noted:
    Vanja chose to leave a more progressive society to stay in Amatka. Then she felt imprisoned in Amatka.

    The use of words to label everything reminds me of a teacher I knew in High School told us he was going to teach his child that a cup was called a "frog." Would it have mattered to the child? Probably not until he was old enough to enter society solo and be told by others that a cup was definitely not a frog.

    The ending was too vague for me. Are the "Anna" people in real form or are they "aliens"? Are the people of Amatka being possessed or inhabited by these alien beings?

    We don't know if Vanja has improved things or made them worse. Maybe the possessed citizens just don't care about the tedium of labeling and naming things. Are they better off?

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Linda! There is certainly a lot to wonder about in this book. I also have the same questions about the ending, but somehow that makes this book more memorable for me.

      I found your story about your high school teacher interesting - my first thought was that his idea was indulgent & a bit selfish, to unmoor his child from accepted realities. Does that make me more Nina than Vanja? Hmmm!

  2. It was fascinating! I started off thinking it was a shared delusion by consensus, and then I was sure it really was a world made of slime and held together by words, and then I was back to the delusion idea. I also wasn't sure whether people in these colonies were humans as we know them or if they were something humans had evolved into to survive in this world. And following on that, are Anna's escapees now human again, or have they evolved yet again into something new.

    I related to the dissidents like Ivar and Evgen (librarian!). They never wanted to become aware but were forced into it by circumstances. Once convinced of the truth, they had a terrible struggle of trying to stay sane in the face of complete denial, threats, and a "procedure."

    I try to feel comforted by the ending because even though I don't know exactly what's going to happen, there is the assurance that Vanja will be taken care of.

    I thought of Vandermeer repeatedly throughout this reading, specifically because of the unknown forms of things, and that nothing can be relied upon to stay what it is. Orwell is also an unavoidable connection.

    You have some very good questions! The naming of things is both helpful and problematic, as we are learning every day with words we've used for centuries but we now learn have been aggressively harming entire groups of people. We think we know what words mean, but we don't know what other people think they mean.

    It requires a real stretch of the imagination to come up with a project related to the book. Something that isn't what it seems? Something with labels on it? (If I wanted a suitcase, I would make one that says "Suitcase, suitcase, suitcase" on it.) Or just a nice warm garment to protect from the freezing cold?

    I look forward to further discussion!

    1. Yes, I thought of Vandermeer too! Especially after reading his Ambergris series this year, which is all about a world based on fungi.

    2. Jeff Vandermeer is one of the people who has really championed Tidbeck's writing & brought it to attention in North America, so it is fascinating to look at their work together.

    3. Katrina, you make many good points here! The question of who is more human, and how, between the colonists & those who have joined Berols'Anna, is so full of possibilities. How do we define 'human", and what kind of life seems full & meaningful? I think this is something that this book brings up which could be discussed for a long time. I was also drawn to characters like Ivar & Evgen, and think that Vanja has narrowly escaped their final fates.

      Language in this book is also compelling, & I think you have captured how it can be just as powerful in our own world through harmful naming, even if unintentional.

  3. I would have to say that Vanja is the character that I found most compelling. I am not sure I would describe her view of the world as grey. I liked the way she was on the edge, curious, questioning, and wanting to know more and tried to achieve a better world – she could see it. I would describe Nina's world as grey in that she just accepted and followed, even to the end when she reported Vanja.

    And yet the whole theme was dark. Very controlling. There are almost similarities to what is happening in the world today. We cannot go any without 'checking in'. Google does it automatically and we hardly question it. The government now does it under the umbrella of 'Covid safe', by having smart phone check in's wherever you go – the library, the community garden, the community hub. We are checked in everywhere. The governments are voted in by the people, just like the committee in Amatka, and they make decisions whether we want them or not. They can say one thing and do another, and very little anybody can do. I am not making a statement about Covid management by anybody, only that we have agreed to so much 'controlling' of people and liberties. It takes some elements of this fantasy to not be quite such a fantasy.

    The concept of language and its ability to shape our world is also an interesting one. They were so dependent on words, but not really for imagination or knowledge, only to survive. The library itself was never used by many, and when books had to be destroyed or removed that was the end of whatever the books represented. The librarian on the other hand was impressive. It is interesting that only lately my young grand daughter told me reading was over rated (she had heard it said). I replied that reading is power, it is knowledge, it increases our understanding and puts words to feelings and situations. Language definitely shapes us.

    As for the end, I thought it was probably sad. So close and yet so far away.

    I think I am inspired to make a garment in dark shades, but with cracks of colour that peep intermittently as you move. That will be Vanja, questioning what could be. And then I am going to borrow another book by Karin Tidbeck. I am still trying to work out her style.

    1. Sara, I think you are right about Nina's world view being completely grey & Vanja's a bit brighter. Her own experiences around fertility may have soured her on the accepted life & gave her a more questioning viewpoint (and also having Ivar as a father). I was also sad that she couldn't fully benefit from the change she had brought to Amatka, in the end.

      The use of language really does reflect the differences between the colonists (as you say, they use language to survive) & the poets who lead the escape from the constraints of Amatka.

      I hope your granddaughter will be convinced that reading & imagination is not overrated! With your example I am sure that will change. I hope you"ll be able to find another Tidbeck novel & figure out what you think 🙂

  4. I really love this book. I enjoy a lot of the New Weird genre and this story is a great example of it: ambiguous, shape-shifting, unsettling, and questioning the shared bases of our cultural worldviews.

    I found it interesting and a bit surprising that Tidbeck based it on dreams she had, though there is definitely a dreamlike quality to the book. The themes of language and reality are so strong it's hard to believe it was unintentional!

    What I found compelling about the book was this idea not only of a battle fought over words and the use of words to define reality, but the way reality kept squirming out from underneath the words no matter what the colonists did. I think, if it hadn't been Vanya and Berol's Anna, eventually it would have been someone. You know, if a child colonist's mental daydreaming about their old pet cat can call forth a simulacrum of that cat without effort, eventually, the human colonists were going to have to give up the labelling and admit defeat.

    1. Ambiguous & unsettling... something I also love in a novel! Thanks for sharing info about this genre. It seems that Tidbeck has a deep concern with language & reality so that may come through even in their dreams.

      I like your point about the cat - I had almost forgotten that episode. It's true, reality just keeps coming despite trying to control it. Inescapable really.

  5. Hi Andrea, it is interesting you speaking of New Weird genre - I had never heard of this expression. When I looked up Karin Tidbeck in my library catalogue, there was only one other entry, other than Amatka, and this is a short story she wrote in 'Year's Best Weird Fiction'. So, is this a real genre? Maybe Melanie you could comment?

    1. Hi Sara. Here's a short wikipedia article on the genre. Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville have both written new weird novels I've enjoyed (Vandermeer's Area X series is one of my favourites of all time).

      The 'old weird' in the 50s pulp magazines was started by writers like Lovecraft, who even for the times were extremely misogynistic and racist, and their fiction had a lot of themes of contamination by women & immigrants etc.. New Weird is distinguished by using the same kinds of unsettling imagery and storylines to explore opposite themes (so Vandermeer is known for writing stories about environmental issues, Mieville is very politically left in his work, and so on).

    2. Woops, that was me--forgot to put in my name and url.

    3. Thanks for the link Andrea, and for the mention of some similar authors. It's a fascinating genre to explore.

    4. Hi Andrea, Thank you for the link. It was really interesting. So it could almost be said this genre is fantasy/science fiction and supernatural horror. And it amazes me how these authors can actually get their head around the story lines.
      I find a similarity between this and the concept of creativity which I studied recently at Uni. One of the ideas was that there is nothing 'new' creatively. It is all drawn on previous experience, ideas, knowledge and skills, but the 'spark' is in the way that the knowledge and skills are combined in new ways, applied to new contexts resulting in novel outcomes.

      Maybe these authors have the ability to really apply divergent thinking - the kind of thinking that is required to come up with solutions to new problems where there can be multiple solutions.
      Although hard for me to put in words, I see a similarity between New Weird stories and this definition of creativity.
      I have just read another short story of Karin Tidbeck's - 'Moonstruck' from Years's Best Weird Fiction, Vol 1. Many of the authors in this book are listed in your link. 'Moonstruck' had me mesmerized. I think I have found a new genre I am going to really enjoy.


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!