‘Selkie Stories are for Losers’ is a bittersweet winner

April 3, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

Sofia Samatar’s short story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers,” was a finalist for four major SFF awards in 2014 (the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and BSFA), but beyond this recognition, it offers an emotive portrayal of how we integrate stories in our lives during periods of loss. Samatar explores the old Scottish myth of the selkie from the perspective of those left behind. In this work, a girl struggles to cope with her mother’s disappearance, and, in her search for understanding, blends fantastical elements with the real.

For those unfamiliar with the folklore, a common rendition involves selkies (seal-people) who can temporarily remove their seal-skins to shapeshift into human form. One man will steal a seal-skin from a group of bathing female selkies until one naked (and vulnerable) woman is left behind on the shore; he will later compel her to become his wife. However, though she may eventually settle into the captivity of her marriage, she will continue to long for the sea. Upon rediscovering the seal-skin, she will swiftly abandon her children and spouse and flee to her saltwater home, never to be seen again.

As compelling (and miserably depressing) as the selkie’s tale may be, the myths rarely cover the plight of the children. In pointed reference to this tradition, the story begins with the narrator’s passionate declaration, “I hate selkie stories.” There is even subtle foreshadowing of her “losing” her keys, a microcosm of her larger turmoil. These become particularly poignant when Samatar implies that the narrator once brought down a “disgusting old coat” from the attic, and then suffered the repercussions when her mother took the coat and she “never saw [her] mom again.”

In line with this opening statement, this work focuses not on the mother’s “escape” but on the chaotic aftermath that these myths rarely explore. Without the guidance of her mother, the narrator takes a waitressing job to help her father pay the bills, fumbles with a budding romance with the only other female server Mona, and copes with her emotional struggle to understand why she was abandoned without any explanation.

And Samatar deftly shows the narrator’s act of piecing together fragments of her life through the terse, episodic form of the narrative. The story reads as a series of short scenes, most as brief as one paragraph, with even a one-sentence unspoken love note. The narrator intersperses vignettes from her life with her recollections of various selkie stories, memories of her mother and Mona’s fraught relationship with her own mentally ill mother, who she looks after. Through the coalescence of these fragments, the story manifests itself.

Samatar leaves it to you to construct the world of the story; she has such a beautiful, almost painful writing style, revealing enough to stir your imagination in the liminal space created with sparse yet vivid details. Your experience of grappling with this vignette-style narrative also mirrors this ambiguity as you, too, must create coherence out of fragmented parts (though guided by the author).

The narrator assumes you are familiar with the strains of unreality in her tale, never expounding on what may seem implausible. Several questions remain unanswered or left in shadow, and all answers are hard-won. For example, is the narrator’s mother “really” a selkie, or is the narrator using the myth to rationalize her mother’s disappearance? In a stray detail that I almost missed, the narrator mentions how “the seals recognized me” at the zoo, suggesting the former.

Nevertheless, the narrator also endows the myth with a mundane “skin,” noting how her parents met at a swimming pool (what’s a selkie doing there?) and how her mother swam every morning at the YWCA with a ragged gray suit that, she darkly muttered, “No one’s going to steal.” (If we accept the first premise, then did the father steal her original swimsuit? But why would she want to transform into a seal at the pool in the first place? Or is this story a cover-up for the grim, fantastical truth?) However, I sense that finding a concrete answer to such surface-level concerns is not essential for the heart of this story.

Rather, in this landscape of uncertainty, where selkies may very well exist — or not? — the narrator’s loss takes on a magnified importance. In one strike, both the congruity of her family structure and her beliefs unravel, including her grip on reality (much more than if her mother was fully human, I claim). Not only does she lose her mother, she also loses her childhood innocence, particularly the traditional associations of fantasy with childlike wonder (see “Harry Potter”) made explicit by a magical parent. (Haven’t we all dreamt of inheriting magical powers as a child?)

But for the narrator, this truth — or useful lie — of selkie lineage is not something to celebrate, as learning that her mother is “not of our kind” does not alleviate her suffering or help her handle her grief. She derives no benefit from this magical parentage, as this means her mother would willingly abandon her to return home to the sea. Regarding her mother as a “sort of stranger” — a creature of legend — who never really belonged only aggravates the narrator’s pain, tearing through her perceived intimacy with her mother while growing up. Accepting that her mother is a selkie means that the narrator never really knew her mother at all — and that perhaps she never really had anyone “real” to lose.

The narrator goes through her memories of her mother for clues as to why she left, and then desperately searches through selkie stories for possibilities of what happens next. But these myths (which she also recounts through the larger story) stop after the selkie returns to the sea. As much as stories can offer comfort — the narrator tells this short story to make sense of her crumbling world — her selkie stories fail her in this regard. Her abandonment issues plague her own romance, as she becomes afraid of losing Mona if she confesses her love: “No one loves you just because you love them. What kind of fairy tale is that?”

In this context, “selkie stories are for losers,” and your interpretation of the word “losers” can change your reading of the text. The narrator is a “loser” who has “lost” her mother. She clings to stories for support, but she also derides herself as a failed “loser” whose unsuccessful search for answers haunts her much like her emotional trauma. This ambiguous title reflects the story’s indistinct blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, the intricacy of the human psyche (where myth and fact can hold equal importance in one’s mind), and even the haziness of remembrance that a significant loss can evoke.

Despite this complexity, the narrator — and Mona — are not without hope. The story culminates in the narrator and Mona’s decision to visit Colorado, Mona’s birthplace, submerging themselves in Mona’s nostalgia for the “cold, cold air” and “mirror”-like clouds. It seems no accident that they attempt to return “home” throughout the story, the narrator through her memories and Mona with her plans to go to Colorado. With their discordant family histories, “home” implies a sense of stability, what they each had when they were young and still had their mothers in body and mind. (Or is this, too, a fantasy?)

Though they may search for “home” like the selkie in the myths, Mona and the narrator ultimately resolve to break out of the confines of this distressing narrative to create their own. The narrator declares, “We’ve got to have different stories,” figuratively ending her perusal of selkie stories, and even this very short story, to move forward with her life. As she says, “We’re not like [our moms], Mona and me, and selkie stories are only for losers stuck on the wrong side of magic — people who drop things, who tell all, who leave keys around, who let go.”

Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Shana '21 is a former Managing Editor for Arts&Life (Vol 256) who is studying computer science, English, and their many intersections. She is also an active night owl who enjoys green tea and flights of imagination (spurred from works like Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation"). When she’s not reading speculative fiction or attempting to write it well, she wonders if books are word sandwiches and their themes are different flavors of idea jam, and if that’s why they're so nourishing to the soul.

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