I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Zambian novelist on using tropes to upend them, the power of mistakes, writing female desire, and more.
Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (Hogarth) sends one to metaphors of endurance and excess. It’s a decathlon, a ten-course meal, a collapsing star. The Zambian author’s debut concerns three generations of three families in Zambia, Italy, England, and Zimbabwe, beginning in 1850 and ending two centuries later. The families intersect with colonialism, capitalism, independence, the AIDS crisis, and each other—plus short passages voiced by a swarm of mosquitos, as one does. Name a literary genre and you’ll find it in The Old Drift. Hell, name an author from the Western canon and you’ll find them there, too: Conrad, Vonnegut, Austen, Joyce, Marquez, and dozens more hover over the book. This may sound like Adderall-fueled pastiche. It’s not. Serpell’s six-hundred-page novel is best thought of as three novels in one (or nine, if you squint).
Serpell currently teaches at UC Berkeley. In 2015 she won Africa’s Caine Prize for her short story “The Sack,” which can be read as an epilogue and coda to The Old Drift. (Serpell split her winnings with the other finalists.) The following interview was conducted over email.
Ryan ChapmanThe Old Drift is something of an omnivore, spanning colonial atrocities, romance, the supernatural, revolutionary politics, even afrofuturism. One doesn’t often see this kind of scope and ambition in a debut. How did the novel come about? Did you have a concept of its structure going in?
Namwali Serpell I’ve been writing this novel off and on since college, around 2000. Even back then, when I workshopped excerpts of it in a creative writing course, some of the students were baffled that I included references to Coke bottles and Venus flytraps in this Zambian setting. There was always a kind of structural pun between cultural hybridity and genre hybridity. This was probably inspired by Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the first novel I’d read that captured the mash-up of cultures I’d experienced growing up in Lusaka with a black mother and a white father and mixed race sisters. There was also always a kind of working pun in my mind between genre, gender, and generation.
In that workshop, some of the students were puzzled that my grandmothers had “magical” properties (endless hair or tears) while their children did not. Since then more models for playing with multiple genres have come out—David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in particular—and this felt very liberating to me. Learning about Zambian history as I wrote—the Italians involved in building the Kariba Dam, the short-lived Zambian Space Program, the cosmopolitan colonial settlement called the Old Drift—only ramified the sprawling spirit that was already there from the start.
RC How much of the writing of the book was in conversation with Zambian and American texts or working against certain genres?
NS Zambia only came into existence in 1964, so it doesn’t have a very thick literary history. But I heard and read many stories—fables about Kalulu, the hare (our Brer Rabbit), tales about family history—from my parents growing up. And I have delighted in how recent works by Ellen Banda-Aaku, Efemia Chela, and the writers of the short stories I just judged for the Kalemba Prize, including the winner Mali Kambandu, have reminded me of specific Zambian quirks: our love of kachigamba (patching things together); the heady thrum of sexuality in our youth; the daily moral reckoning with HIV/AIDS; the complexity of our relationships with servants. The American works I’m engaging with are sort of all over the place—Melville makes a showing in The Old Drift, for example, via the “dumb blankness full of meaning” in the billboard hovering over the rally. But I’d say Barbara Kingsolver’s epic portrait of family life in The Poisonwood Bible and Jennifer Egan’s multi-genre A Visit From the Goon Squad were the most influential.
The Old Drift takes up genres as lenses, and this means that I intensify certain tropes—ones I might not even enjoy myself—to the end of refracting and layering our view of Zambia. Rather than trying to escape from certain genres—say, the divergent trends toward “poverty porn” and “middle-class immigrant life” in recent African novels—I kept them and exaggerated them to the point of overturning them. The compound kid building wire cars is actually inventing cutting-edge technology. The “Mama Africa” figure doesn’t cry endlessly because she is starving but because she is heartbroken. Christianity doesn’t inspire humility in her but political fury. My “immigrants” are Europeans who come to Zambia and stay, and even intermarry, instead of refugees who are trying to flee to the West. I tell an “inverted” safari story, not from the perspective of the tourist, but from that of a Zimbabwean woman who works at a backpackers lodge—the only animal she really “sees” in that chapter is a bug that flies in her eye. And so on.
RC The notion of “the mistake” is interrogated through scientific and technological frameworks in the book, and the reader can see how “mistakes” have beneficial, century-spanning effects. The concept can be read meta-textually: you had freer rein to inject disorder and surprise into the novel.
NS The relationship between the three families was always going to be a matter of what I call “a cycle of unwitting retribution.” An oblique, slant relation rather than a direct Montague/Capulet aggression. I explored different ways of explaining this. I considered the notion of a “curse,” but that didn’t seem right—too fixed to a supernatural cause. I have long had an interest in the way that the hamartia—or tragic flaw—of the hero in Greek tragedy often manifests in a mistake where you don’t know who to blame: Is it the fault of the Fates? The gods? Your unconscious? Your blood? But I had too many heroes and heroines to land upon a single flaw.
Eventually, writing about uncertainty as a literary critic; reading and teaching theory (Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler); learning about this brief colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi called the Old Drift; and remembering this piece of etymology that I’d learned when reading Paradise Lost in college—error comes from errare, to stray—all came together. Error was the name for the way my plot was already working—it best captured that sense of contingency, coincidence, and unexpected creativity. A colleague once told me of my writing: “It’s like every sentence is a black hole. I never know what’s coming next!” So, rather than inserting disorder and surprise, I actually had to go back to insert a greater sense of desire, agency, foreshadowing, and dire consequence (Thandiwe’s decision in the salon, for instance) because I knew that readers would crave that sense of purposive action.
RC Can we talk about the mosquitos? I don’t even know how to describe their interstitial chapters: Greek chorus? Soul of the novel? Future robot uprising?
NS The Moz! The Moz came to me very late in the process—maybe even last?—though their first words about David Livingstone’s journey were written in 2001 or so. They were an utter indulgence for me to write. I got to nerd out about entomology, engineering, etymology! I got to write in a strange sort of ballad-y meter, with a pinch of humor, a hum of unreliability, a touch of grandeur. I had to work with my editors to make them less annoying, but there was always this escape clause: mosquitos are profoundly annoying. I did want them to act as a kind of Greek chorus that comments on the events, digresses once in a while to tell some anecdote about history, reacts to what’s going on as if they were in the audience, gets pulled into the action at random, and so on. I especially liked that they get to assume different forms of existence depending on what genre you see them through: historical actors, biological insects, magical creatures, futuristic microdrones, or even—as the epigraph hints—ancient shades. The Moz aren’t necessarily the soul of The Old Drift—they are too scattered and movious to be a center—but they are definitely its ministering spirits.
RC Your note about using genres as lenses speaks to the polyphonic and polymorphic nature of The Old Drift. I want to make explicit to readers of this interview: when you hear multi-generational epic, you might think of a funnel winnowing themes and coincidence into a spectacular climax. This is not that book. It’s a glorious rhizomatic everything.
NS It’s funny that you say the novel is less a funnel and more a root-system, because both of those were models I was thinking about as I constructed it! Once, when I was on a game park walk with a friend, our guide told us that there was a particular kind of tree that could activate its toxicity when triggered. So if an elephant began to rough up its bark, it would release a poison and not just within its own structure—it would also send chemical signals around the roots of the whole grove so that all the other trees were forewarned—they would release poison as well. I ended up not using this image—I’m saving it for another novel, actually!—but you can see how the idea of a cycle of unwitting retribution between three families down three generations could map onto it. And you can also see how even this version of a rhizome is less of a outward-spreading movement than an enclosed, internal, centripetal one—a spiraling in.
The idea of a funnel or a vortex or a spiral became more clear to me once I decided how to order my chapters. There’s the incident at the Victoria Falls hotel, where these three families collide accidentally for the first time. A little flurry. Then things spin very wide and there are very loose oblique relationships rotating between the three Grandmothers. Things start to tighten in the next generation—at the end of that part, multiple members of the families converge at a hair salon—and by the time we have spiraled down to the Children, we have a love triangle—one which is as much about politics as it is about sex. “The Sack,” which is set in the far future (unbeknownst to most readers!) is about the aftermath of that love triangle. We’re left with these two men locked in a love-hate relationship, mourning the woman they both loved. It is a very stark ending, so my editors and I decided to leave off the novel at an explosive moment instead, one that suited the rather riotous mish-mash of cultures and genres and languages and people that characterizes the majority of The Old Drift.
RCThe Old Drift is a corporeal novel, a novel of blood and hair. Can I say it was refreshing to see so much menstruation? Writing on menstruation is conspicuously absent in so many novels, where the expression of the body is limited to sex or violence.
NS I’m so glad you noticed and felt and appreciated this! I often teach E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and he has this wonderful bit where he breaks down the various activities that comprise human life—which is the scale of most novels, though not all (see Moby-Dick). Forster points out that the proportion of time we spend on eating, sleeping, sex, and so on, does not correspond to the proportion of novels that dwell on those activities. So we dedicate a lot of real time and very little novel space to the topic of sleep, for instance; and we write about love a great deal more than we experience it in our daily lives. This is all fine and good, but it does beg the question of how “realist” the novel is if we focus so squarely on some experiences over others.
James Joyce’s Ulysses broke a lot of ground in this regard—that novel is full of shitting and pissing and fucking and menstruating. But that was a century ago! So much contemporary fiction is prudish about the body. Most women spend a quarter of every month on our periods. It seems absurd to ignore that physical and psychological reality. I’ve received one review that says the novel has a lot of racy sex scenes, which I find amusing because, again, proportionally speaking, I don’t think it’s outlandish. The body is important—we don’t just feel through it, we think through it as well. It was especially important to me to invoke female sexual desire—the curiosity and pain and pleasure and agency and complexity of it—rather than relegating women to being only objects of desire or victims of abuse or assault. Those horrors happen, of course, but the sex lives of women are more various than that.
RC Shifting a bit, I’m curious about how you arrived at the novel’s tone. Critics have invoked Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and there’s the nod with the One Hundred Years Clinic). Marquez’s sentences lean toward fable—which can feel distancing after a few hundred pages—whereas Drift’s style is knowing and protean.
NS I love the word “protean” for the style—I did want it to shift gradually, shedding certain tics, taking on others, as the novel progressed. The mosquito voice was always meant to be “grand,” but I wanted a kind of avuncular feeling to the tone, a wry fondness. Some of my early readers surprised me by responding very positively to lines that felt the most “knowing”: pronouncements about marriage, skin color, love, sexism. I assumed people would prefer to be locked in the POV of certain characters—this is the more common contemporary style—but the moments when I step outside them and speak more broadly (even if what I’m saying is unreliable, as with the mosquitos) seem to comfort readers. I think of this as the aspect of the novel most indebted to the classic phase of the novel in the West: Austen, Eliot, Dickens. I recently spent an entire summer rereading all of Jane Austen, and it was primarily to swing in the hammock of that voice.
RC Austen and Dickens: you display the intimacy of the former, and the sweep of the latter.
You’ve been teaching American lit at UC Berkeley for a bit now. Are you seeing certain emphases or currents (pun!) in the students’ writing, or in the writers they respond to? I’ve heard video games are an increasing influence.
NS Thanks, that’s very flattering!
My most recent creative writing workshops haven’t seemed to be headed toward video games, although I have had some students experiment with Instagram—both its form and its surreal atmosphere. They’re still trying to work out how realism achieves its greatest effects—aren’t we all?! But I’d say fantasy is definitely the most powerful contemporary influence I see in their work right now. There are a lot of budding J.K. Rowlings! I enjoy blowing their minds with science fiction—contemporary works like Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, Octavia Butler’s Dawn, and George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” as well as earlier ones like George Schuyler’s Black No More and Du Bois’s post-apocalyptic story, “The Comet.”
RCThe Old Drift arrives amidst one of the most highly charged political moments in recent memory. Trump and Brexit have reconfigured many people’s sense of the world; literature must naturally follow suit. Martin Amis often says—and this may be him quoting Updike or Mailer—that world-historical shifts need a five-year window before novelists can write on them well. On the other hand, there’s Olivia Laing’s Crudo, written in nearly real-time. What are your thoughts on the relationship between fiction and political tumult of 2019?
NS Because I was writing about Zambia in the near future, it’s been interesting to compare what actually is happening at home now with the events in the novel—they coincide in interesting ways (political protestors being arrested, a kerfuffle about free Wi-Fi in Lusaka) and diverge in others (I had no idea we would suffer a cyclone in the region, though I do talk in the novel about climate change and flooding). Writing about the present is a worthwhile endeavor, but it depends on the interests of the author. (Toni Morrison most often writes about the past and I think that is a very good choice for her.)
I am very engaged in thinking on the cusp of the “now”—especially when it comes to technology—but it delights me to write about the past and future, speculate about alternate histories and spaces—all of which can yield political projects as well. TV shows like Veep are showing us the limits of writing about the political present—there’s a suspension of disbelief problem and a competition problem: the news is so outlandish and so ubiquitous that it’s hard to get an imaginative spin on politics into the mix. This is one of the very minor ways that the creep of fascism is ruining us: there’s no room. The renaissance of black artistic production during the Obama administration—much of which we saw come to light after he left office—is less because he was inspiring and more because we weren’t perpetually under crisis. In this sense, I see the political tumult as a practical problem rather than an aesthetic one. Where is the space for art when we’re trying to survive this insanity? How can we create when, as Morrison says, we’re constantly “distracted” by the onslaught of racism and oppression?
Ryan Chapman’s work has appeared in NewYorker.com, GQ.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, and BOMB. His novel Riots I Have Known arrives in May from Simon & Schuster.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee