‘From the historical past to the science fictional future’—Namwali Serpell chats to Wamuwi Mbao about her forthcoming debut novel, The Old Drift

Wamuwi Mbao chats to Namwali Serpell about her debut novel, The Old Drift.

Namwali Serpell
The Old Drift
Penguin Random House, 2019

Namwali Serpell’s blazing debut novel The Old Drift (due out in March 2019) stakes a formidable yet unusual claim: it is a novel taken up with the fabric of Zambia’s history.

Over five hundred and seventy-odd pages, Serpell constructs a labyrinthine tower of narrative, beginning in the muggy past and ending in Anthropocene disaster.

It is a wittily erudite novel, one that abounds with historical detail and techno-fantasy and mixes them so that we can no longer separate the one from the other.

Wamuwi Mbao for The JRB: It would be rude of me not to begin by saying that this is a daunting debut. Reviewers have used epithets like ‘staggering’ to describe your achievement in penning The Old Drift. I want to start off by asking about the novel’s opening. Your introduction reframes one of the British empire’s convenient mythologies—the business of Livingstone and the Falls and all of that colonial sentimentality. You make it quite clear that what is framed as the nexus of Euro-civilising exploration is actually blunder. And as we subsequently learn, blunder is the animating impulse of the novel.

Namwali Serpell: Yes, I wanted to capture this sense of petty chaos I found when I did research on the colonial history of Zambia. There’s a kind of floating prologue to the novel, a story titled ‘The Living and the Dead’, which is coming out this year in New Daughters of Africa (edited by Margaret Busby) and which maps onto the floating epilogue, my previously published story, ‘The Sack’. In the prologue, I delve more into Livingstone’s relationships with his bearers, Chuma and Susi, and the way their voyage to bring his body back to England was beset with little coincidences, resentments, squabbles. The opening of the novel itself recasts the ‘great explorer’ in the form of a working class Brit named Percy M Clark, more wanderer than conqueror, a bit of a cad, blithely racist and with a chip on his shoulder about his lack of money. He makes his way to a settlement called The Old Drift, on the banks of the Zambezi just above Victoria Falls. Feverish with malaria, Percy makes a mistake that harms both an Italian hotelier and a Tonga busboy. This sets off a cycle of retribution between their three families, which I trace over more than a century into the near future. Percy is based on a historical figure, a man who wrote a book called The Autobiography of an Old Drifter. Reading it, I was struck by how chance threw together so many different nationalities and types in that outpost: by how cosmopolitan but also how random colonisation truly was.

The JRB: The Old Drift is being framed as ‘The Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for’. I think Zambia is a country with such a strong sense of its manifest destiny that it deserves a great novel—but it’s also a deceptively difficult country to write about, not for any great exceptionalism, but because the grain of its narrative doesn’t necessarily suggest an easy point of entry. I am curious to know how you write Zambia into being.

Namwali Serpell: ‘The Great Zambian Novel etc’ is my tongue-in-cheek coinage, actually—a joke between me and my college friends. And I would disagree with the idea that Zambia has a strong sense of manifest destiny. Zambia as we know it didn’t even come into existence until 1964—and that was after almost a decade of being combined with two other British territories (Rhodesia and Nyasaland) into The Federation, and many decades before that of being a protectorate called ‘Northern Rhodesia’, and before that ‘Zambezia’, and so on. Borders around this region have ebbed and flowed ever since the Bantu first migrated to the region in 300 AD. President Kenneth Kaunda’s slogan ‘one Zambia, one nation’ wasn’t just a rousing piece of rhetoric. It was necessary to lasso an arbitrary collection of people—who speak seven main languages and over seventy dialects—into some kind of patriotic unity.

But while externally imposed, these borderlines—and their erasure and the tracing of new ones—led to remarkable cultural collisions and combinations. My mother used to say that when the colonialists drew the line between the territories they named North-Eastern Rhodesia and German East Africa, it cut right through the middle of our village near Mbala. So the chief stayed on one side and he sent his sister to be the chieftainess, or Nawaitwika, on the other. And that was how our Namwanga tribe became matriarchal even though we remained patrilineal. Or so my mother claimed. I never checked with the official historians, because it’s such a great explanation for why the women in my family are so fierce!

While the edges of Zambia are generally jagged, there’s an odd orthogonal corner in the north-west. This was apparently the caprice of King Vittorio Emanuele III, who was asked to arbitrate among the other nations battling out borders as they scrambled for African land at the turn of the twentieth century. This intrusion of an Italian hand into the creation of my country—that strange right angle that always came as a relief when drawing maps in geography class—became even more intriguing to me when I learned that the Italians were involved in the construction of the Kariba Dam, the largest ever built in the world at the time. The placement of the dam on the Zambezi River, on the border with what was then Southern Rhodesia (rather than on the Kafue River, as the locals wished), was a matter of political discord. Thousands of villagers were displaced in the flooding that resulted from the dam, an effect rather less charming than the feminist reimagining of my mother’s tribe.

These accidents of history—and the cultural consequences that ripple out from them, for good or ill—have always fascinated me. This contingent quality to the march of human progress, the way things will swerve from a straight path, is one signification of my title.

The JRB: How did you get the idea for The Old Drift? Why embed this story in a kind of epic tradition rather than setting it purely in the here and now?

Namwali Serpell: I’ve been writing this novel off and on for a very long time, and it incorporates many cultures, periods, genres and concepts. So it’s hard to say what the ‘one idea’ for it would be. It was always multigenerational and this yields a kind of epic quality simply because we’re moving through this large sweep of time: the novel goes from the historical past to the science fictional future. And it’s also epic in the original sense—a song being sung, but by a swarm of mosquitoes! While I’m interested in the local scale of a human life, this kind of range allowed me to consider how the sins of one generation affect the next generation and the one after that—in oblique fashion, not as a direct cause and effect, but like a domino effect or a butterfly effect: a small chance swirling into great consequence over a century.

I got the idea for the title when I first encountered The Old Drift cemetery in the small game park at the Victoria Falls in 2013. I was fascinated by the fact that these colonialists had settled and died in this place within such a short span of years. My friend Michelle Quint, who was visiting Zambia with me, is an editor. She suggested I name the novel after it.

The JRB: What are some of the reactions you receive when you tell people you’re a Zambian writer? Do those reactions differ when you’re in Zambia or somewhere else?

Namwali Serpell: A lot of people say, ‘Where?’ They don’t know where Zambia is or, like Trump, they mix it up with Namibia or The Gambia. One of the other historical figures I fictionalise in the novel is Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, who tried to start a Zambian space programme in the sixties. He used DIY training techniques like putting his ‘Afronauts’ in oil drums and rolling them down hills or making them swing from long ropes to acclimate to anti-gravity conditions. At his first press conference, he said, ‘Most people in the world don’t even know where we are.’ It’s a shame that, so many years later, this is still true. Some people incorrectly assume I study and teach African literature; others ask for tips on their next safari. But most people, once I explain who I am and what Zambia is about, are excited to learn more about it.

When I’m home and I tell people that I’m a writer, people usually say ‘Oh-oh? Is that so?’ with a smile that teeters between disapproval and delight. It’s not a very lucrative business, storytelling, but it’s one that Zambians still respect and in fact enjoy every day, at school, on the radio, in the market, at the office, around the supper table or the mbaula.

The JRB: What is your writing temperament? And (this may or may not be the same thing) when do you write?

Namwali Serpell: I don’t know what you mean by temperament but I like to quote a local artist who once described the Zambian sense of irony this way: ‘We don’t have a yes and a no. We have two yesses and one of them means no.’ I aim for that subtle, wry sense of humour in my work, and to be as generous with my characters—heroes and villains—as possible. I am quite interested in experimental fiction, so I expect my reader to make as much effort as I have—to co-create the story with me. I write in the afternoons, when it is hottest and everyone else is blurry or napping.

The JRB: As a literary event, your debut novel marks a significant point in your writing career, but you have a distinct body of writing—essays, short stories, articles—that predates it. The way you flit across form suggests a certain restlessness where boundaries are concerned.

Namwali Serpell: Yes, my writing is rangy, or as we say in Zambia, ‘movious’. It might be because I’m mixed race and an immigrant and a bit of a nomad. I write fiction and essays, mostly—I’m a prose writer—but they traverse many genres and forms. One story I wrote, ‘Zo’ona’, literally circles the globe, moving between four characters connected via international circuits of communication and capital (email, Skype, money transfers, a customer service line). I also experiment freely when it comes to voice, place, and tone. Asked to write about the colour turquoise for an art magazine, I made up a course catalogue with classes like The Blues, Green Thought, and Riddles for Credit. ‘Account’, my story about an avenged date rape, takes the form of a bank statement. My most recent published short story, ‘Company’, is an Afrofuturist riff on Samuel Beckett; its plot involves climate change, time travel, and the ‘harvesting’ of melanin. I think of form as a set of pending questions: What is the canniest way to tell this story? What style would best bear witness to this experience? What form will move readers—to feel, to think, to act? When a wincing reader says ‘The Book of Faces’, in the form of a Facebook newsfeed, ‘felt too much like the real thing’ or when another says ‘Muzungu’ haunted her dreams—that’s when I feel like I’m on the right track.

The JRB: How do you find that teaching and working at an American university affects how you write about Zambia, or Africa? I was watching an interview where you spoke about the creative possibilities of being an outsider. How do you manage that in Trump-era America? How do you claim your space as an African writer?

Namwali Serpell: I mostly teach American literature, so while I sometimes talk about, say, Nkoloso as an Afrofuturist who had a lot in common with Sun Ra, I rarely assign anything related to where I’m from. I’m sure that being away from home affects how I write about Zambia in my fiction—how could it not? But I’m not sure whether being immersed in a place or far enough to have some distance from it is better when it comes to writing. Many writers don’t suffer exile but actively choose it, precisely because of the creative possibilities of being an outsider that I describe in that interview. Trump-era America is actively engaged in the project of expelling those it deems to be ‘outsiders’, but it’s futile. Hybridity, syncretism, admixture—it’s built into this country, and every other one in the world, for that matter.

I’m an African and a writer, ergo I’m an African writer (the same goes for ‘a Zambian’ and ‘a woman’). I don’t really know what it would mean to ‘claim my space’ in any way. My highest aspiration, as I once tweeted, is for my name to become an adjective: Namwalien.

The JRB: You’re also a writer who locates herself in the academy—your published academic work speaks to your interest in what happens during the reading encounter, its affective dimension and so on. How do you find that this work intersects with your fiction, if at all? Does thinking about modes of reading and writing change how you relate to your own work?

Namwali Serpell: I always say that while I’m sure my creative writing and my scholarly work speak to each other, I am not privy to that conversation. I like to compare the relationship between these two sides of myself to the moment when Dr Jekyll complains that Mr Hyde has been ‘scrawling in my own hand blasphemies on the pages of my books’. I’m not sure whether the writer or the critic in me is the scoundrel, but I know that these figures in me speak to each other—sometimes rudely—through the books I write. Importantly, both Jekyll and Hyde are readers in that moment. To be a critic and to be a writer both essentially come down to being a reader. My only piece of advice for aspiring writers is read more. And I often feel that, when the writing is going well, I am essentially reading a story into being.

The JRB: I get the sense from the broadness of your writing interests that you keep a lot of things on your radar simultaneously. But at the same time, you’re not one of those writers who feels the need to show people that you’re keeping up with everything—you don’t have a visible Instagram account, for instance. Is that deliberate?

Namwali Serpell: Well, I’m on Twitter. A lot. Instagram bores me. Facebook is evil. I’m thinking about writing an essay—or more likely, an expandable tweet thread—about why I like Twitter so much. It has less to do with feeling the need to show people anything or to keep up with everything, and more to do with the fact that Twitter reliably makes me think, learn and laugh.

The JRB: How are your bookshelves organised?

Namwali Serpell: I keep all the books I’ve read in my office, sorted by geography (birthplace of the writer), then last name. At home, I have separate shelves of signed books; books I ought to read for professional obligation reasons; old paperbacks with great covers; antiques handed down from my grandfather and father; and books I’ve read and now need to take to my office.

  • Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.

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