Four Continents, Three Families, One Nation: Talking with Namwali Serpell
If writer Percy M. Clark had known his (fictional) granddaughter would marry an African in a novel almost a century after his death, he might have done all he could to thwart the literary union. An aspiring photographer, Clark left his humble beginnings on the English countryside in 1903 to seek his fortune in a colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River. There, he regarded the area’s “natives” as “kaffirs” and participated in enforcing their bottom status. In what she calls a “comeuppance” to Clark’s ghost, Namwali Serpell’s epic debut The Old Drift braids Clark’s lineage with that of a Zambian man also endeavoring to elevate his social station.
In the novel, named after the settlement that would become part of present-day Zambia, Serpell goes on to mix the line even further, weaving in two families that include similarly racist Italian forebears, and a transplant from India who sells wigs to the customers that frequent his Lusaka shop. A host of heroines and heroes, actual and imagined, each revolutionary in completely unexpected ways, ties the strands together. In three generations, these disparate threads of ethnicities, classes, and ideas become one, whether they like it or not—a reflection of Zambia itself. “We still deliver the local news in seven different languages,” Serpell notes of her country, where seventy-two different tongues are spoken.
Beyond connecting cultures and people, Serpell also plaits genres together. Her short story “The Sack“ won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing and was hailed as a “formally innovative” and “stylistically stunning” work by Chair of Judges Zoe Wicomb. In The Old Drift, by twisting strands of magical realism, historical fiction, and speculative fiction, Serpell creates a stunning narrative that’s voiced as forcefully by her characters as they are by a vociferous swarm of mosquitoes—yes, actual mosquitoes—exploding the dividing lines between categories to tell a new kind of story.
The Rumpus: Fortune and misfortune play a large role in the story you’ve written, and you have a line in the book that asserts that the mosquito is democratic, unlike fortune. What role did fortune or fate play in your storytelling?
Namwali Serpell: In multiple religious and philosophical traditions, humans have a really hard time grappling with, on one hand, the sense that everything is preordained, and, on the other hand, that everything seems to happen by chance. I was trying to explore these two different forces: the force that keeps you on a straight path, that says, “This is what is going to happen to you, this is what is foretold.” And, the chances or contingencies that actually deviate from that path. To me, the mosquitoes’ ultimate argument is that error itself is the fate. Everything that seems like it’s foretold is in fact going to happen through a series of errors, slips, or contingencies. So I talk about how life itself is the product of a series of errors.
This is how Darwin explains evolution, that there’s occasionally a little slip in the genetic code that yields something that adapts better to the environment an animal is in, and so they reproduce that error in the next generation and the next. With this idea, error isn’t something we should be trying to escape or deviate from. It is our fate to continually err, but that deviation is in fact productive. It creates. It’s where all of the beauty of love and art and life, I think, come from.
Rumpus: You wrote from so many cultural perspectives and in different genres in The Old Drift. Did your agent and publisher understand it right away?
Serpell: I knew from the get-go that there was going to be this movement through genres and generations mapped onto each other, and people who first heard it when I presented a section of it in college were really uncomfortable with it. That was in like 2000, 2001. It was a great delight to me for books to come out like Cloud Atlas and then A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, to see writers playing with and juxtaposing genres in exactly the way that I felt this book needed to. It was like I had conceived the book in this way, and then I had collected evidence over the course of ten years in order to sell the book to my publisher, so it actually never came up as an issue.
In fact, my best reader is the one who encouraged me to make the last chapter at Kariba Dam more like a spy thriller. It’s got the very, very slight elements of that, but I don’t think that at any point there was a sense that these genres needed to be smoothed out at all. In fact, the question was whether to sharpen the distinction between them, like Cloud Atlas does, where it’s really high contrast, or whether to allow what I wanted, which is more of this gradation.
Rumpus: In the Percy passages, you really nailed the casual vitriol of racism through the violence of the language he used. How did it feel, as a writer of color, to write about how others other you?
Serpell: Well, very usefully Percy is a real person, and he wrote a book called The Autobiography of an Old Drifter. So, I’m reading Percy’s book and he’s quite charming, very jovial. He’s got all these funny anecdotes about growing up in Cambridge, England, and he was a striver. I wanted to capture that. He really, really wanted to exceed his class because he grew up poor, and so moving to the colonies was the best way he could do this, to make his fortune. And then, once he gets to Africa, all of a sudden, he would casually throw out the “n” word or call people “kaffir,” and I just was like, “Oh, my Lord!”
There’s a lot of hero worship of explorers who came to Zambia, like Dr. David Livingstone, by Zambians. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, the great Dr. Livingstone.” But Livingstone himself has some quite troubling stuff that he did. I wrote a prologue to my novel that’s now being published in the anthology New Daughters of Africa, and it’s a longer chapter about Livingstone and his two bearers. Livingstone was very Christian and he helped people get out of slavery. But he was also very racist about these bearers and he once shot at one of them because he thought he was too high on weed, essentially. I wanted to give the sense that the people who are considered heroes in the West, and even sometimes at home too, actually had this deep and kind of unshakeable faith in their own superiority.
Rumpus: You write, “Pioneering isn’t all lavender.” I love that line. You do a great job of humanizing Percy and the white settlers, and showing that striving. You show the hierarchies that existed even among the settlers, and how that played out in terms of their relationships with Zambians. Why was it important to you to tell the stories of the challenges the white settlers faced in that way, and why was it important to you to humanize them?
Serpell: Well, I don’t think my desire was to humanize Percy as much as it was that I wanted to give a sense of Zambia, in its origins, being this place of contact between different kinds of people. Every kind of person in that melee of this backwoods, pioneer context is a human coming into contact with other humans. It’s not just the colonizers coming in and colonizing a pre-existing set of people who then are, you know, treated very poorly and eventually rise to fight for their freedom.
I wanted to give a sense that this is a bunch of humans thrown into the situation, and that it was a much more contingent, arbitrary, and casually violent place than what we imagine when we think about colonial contact. Usually, you imagine one person on one side and one person on the other side. But it was chaos. So it was less that I wanted to humanize Percy and more that I wanted to give a sense of that chaos.
Rumpus: You’re such a gifted and poetic writer. I found myself underlining so many passages not only for the wisdom, but the poetry in them. What inspires your approach to language?
Serpell: I was given a rule by my friend in college that I could only have one metaphor per paragraph. I know that I don’t stick to that, but I do think she’s right. In order to convey what you’re trying to get across to the reader, there has to be a kind of clarity to the prose, with the occasional ornament. My interest in metaphor is a compulsion, but it’s also what characterizes reading the books that I like to read.
I think of metaphor as a really powerful way of connecting multiple worlds. I’m, obviously, really interested in multiple worlds, multiple genres, and multiple characters. So, for me, metaphor is the smallest-scale version of that.
Rumpus: Staying on language, there’s a growing movement among writers of African, Asian, Latin American, and Native American descent to stop using italics when representing our local languages, foods, and customs. Was there a specific reason you chose to use italics in your work?
Serpell: I’d published three chapters of this novel before I finished it. All three of those chapters went through an editorial process where the publishing standard for those journals was to italicize the non-English words. Once I had those out there, it felt odd to revert. So, in some ways, it was just purely vestigial, but I also kind of felt okay about it because I decided to italicize not just the Zambian words, but also all the Italian words and all of the Telugu words in the Indian section of the novel. So it felt like there was a kind of equity, at least, across which kinds of words were being italicized, which was all words that are not in English, rather than only words from Zambia, if that makes sense.
I understand the politics of it. I’m much more opposed to the idea of having a glossary, because I feel like marking certain words as not being of a particular language visually represents a kind of hybridity on the page. It’s this visual flow that then has these interruptions of straightforward text, and I don’t mind that. But I do mind the idea of fixing meaning to a particular set of words, or not giving the reader the sense that they should figure out words from the context around them, or look them up themselves.
Rumpus: Hair kept coming up in the plot of this novel. In the book, you wrote the lines: “Were fingernails dead or alive? What about hair? What was the exact nature of these felt but unfeeling edges of her body where the inside met the outside?” What role did hair play for you in the narrative?
Serpell: Plot-wise, it’s what brings together all three families. I’m very interested in what academics calls syncretism, which is the amalgamation of different cultures. Possibly that’s because I’m in a mixed family, and am mixed race, so I’m interested in how these forms come together. I also think it makes for the best art when you have cultural contact zones that clash and collide in these ways, but then produce something new through combination and juxtaposition.
You have, literally, hair from a different culture, being plaited into your own hair, in styles that are very much drawn from local traditions, but also pull in African-American styles that people see in Ebony and Jet magazines. Hair is this strange place where you can actually weave cultures together, and this was very interesting to me. I learned about Tirupati—this temple where people practice tonsure, and then their hair gets donated to wig factories. Thinking about all those wigs coming to Zambia and being plaited into people’s actual scalps, it just felt so almost visceral to me, a way of drawing cultures together. I wanted to enact that in the book.
Rumpus: Even though you’re exploring grief, pain, and all this disappointment in the characters’ lives, your approach was remarkably unsentimental, which I really appreciated. Was that deliberate on your part?
Serpell: I love emotional things. I love melodrama. I love the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. But I think of melodrama as part of a spectrum of human emotions, and that’s why when I’m writing about grief there’s always a bit of irony built in. I don’t want my characters to be unfeeling or blithe, or cold in any way, but I wanted there to be a sense that emotions are just one of many instruments or lenses that we have for looking at the world.
This is important to me, I would say, more than the representation of women specifically in the book. I do think my desire to capture multidimensional aspects of womanhood applies to my male characters too, but the part of the book where I was really trying to make a feminist claim, apart from the various critiques of patriarchy throughout, had to do with giving emotion the full intellectual depth that ideas, thoughts, science, and philosophy get.
The idea that magical realism or melodrama or romance—these typically feminized genres—are not intellectually or philosophically deep is something I wanted to push against. For instance, really considering emotion in all of its dimension, but also with a sense of how it gets used, how it gets reified and how it gets thwarted, and the ways that it circulates between people at the very small scale and the large scale. It’s less that I’m not interested in sentiment and more that I’m interested in making emotion and sentiment as complex as we think ideas are.
Rumpus: Your Caine Prize Winning Story “The Sack” is an epilogue of The Old Drift. Why didn’t you include it?
Serpell: The prologue about Livingstone and the epilogue, “The Sack,” are both published but not part of the novel. So I’m considering them a kind of floating prologue and epilogue. “The Sack” was originally in the novel and bookended with this piece about Livingstone, which is modeled on the same structure. But there was the sense that the tone of those two pieces was starker, darker, and more pessimistic than the rest of the book. We played around with keeping them and shortening them and decided that, tonally speaking, the book felt more itself with those two pieces floating out there for readers if they’re interested, rather than being part of the whole.
Rumpus: What’s the one thing you want readers to take away from The Old Drift?
Serpell: That Zambia is a much more complex and beautiful place than you might imagine from other depictions, and that we were always Afrofuturist. We were always Afropolitan. These terms that have been coined to name certain phenomena are built into the culture in my country. That’s what I want people to take away.
Photograph of Namwali Serpell © Peg Skorpinski.