For nearly 20 years, Namwali Serpell has been writing “The Old Drift.” If you don’t find that fact alone to be staggering, consider this: The 576-page book blends English with a multitude of Bantu languages spoken in Zambia. Incorporating elements of historical fiction, sci-fi, magical realism, Afrofuturism and romance, the text defies genre classification — putting forth a wholly original, hybridized form.
This debut novel is astounding not just for its scope, but also for its nuanced rendering of romantic and familial relationships shaped by colonialism, homegrown political movements, post-racial fantasies of equality, and deeply rooted paternalism. Narrated in part by a swarm of mosquitoes, the epic is charged with a mixed sense of fatedness and random chance that mirrors life itself as characters’ lives meet, intersect and diverge.
“I was very keen to create a sense of a homegrown revolution that could happen in Zambia,” says Serpell. “Not just a technological revolution, but a political revolution that would be about Zambia — and not about other places coming in to save us.”
In her academic work, Serpell, an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, explores concepts of cognitive psychology, literary uncertainty, and the relationship between ethics and the novel. We talked about models of empathy, fractal-shaped narratives and the 1960s-era dream of a Zambian space program.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
I envisioned the story line to expand like an accordion — or maybe an intricate, wildly sewn zipper. How do you conceive its shape?
I wanted the reader to get a sense of circulating between three families, and I knew that I wanted to move generationally from the oldest to the youngest generation — with hinges from the grandmothers to the mothers, and from the mothers to the children. I figured out that if you were to sketch out the movement between the families as a triangle it forms a spiral.
What books informed that structure?
I was very much influenced by “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, and “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie. Also “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith.
How did you keep track of all the characters?I work on planes and trains a lot, so there are lots of cocktail napkins with A, B, C, C, B, A and spiral drawings.
Then there’s a large Excel document that describes the entire plot — each scene, each episode, each sequence — in a synecdochic fashion, like fractals. I also had timelines, to make sure that one character reached Victoria Falls after bungee jumping started — or that another character is the right age to play with He-Man figurines as toys. There’s a mix of Bantu languages woven into the text.
How were those parts edited?
I wanted readers to get a sense that Zambia contains a multitude of cultures that are lassoed together. The local news is still delivered in seven languages. My parents speak two different Bantu languages, and even my sister and I speak different languages; so we all speak to each other in English. We speak Nyanja, Namwanga, Mwambe and Bemba. I tend, when I think in Zambian words, to think in Bemba, not Nyanja.
In “TOD” I included Tonga, Nyanja and some Shona from Zimbabwe. It’s really hard to find even one person who speaks all of those languages, much less a person to cover the entire book for spelling errors. We don’t have an official Bemba dictionary — and the orthography of Zambian languages is also pretty inconsistent. I had to do a lot of my own fact-checking. The French and Italian words are easier for people to check because that’s what they’ve been educated in. That’s just about proportional representation in publishing. No one is to blame except the dominance of Western culture, where a copy editor can point out that we would never refer to Lady Vyvant as Mrs. Vyvant, or that in Surrey of the 1960s a certain word would not be said — but they can’t know the correct spelling for a Bemba word spoken in 1962.
What research was necessary to ground the story to certain historic and geographic truths?
It was not systematic. A lot of my research was post facto, in making sure that what I had imagined felt right to people who had had some of those experiences.
I interviewed my mom, dad and their friends — people of their generation. What emerges is very small details — like how my uncle, when he first went to England, was struck by the escalators because he’d never seen moving stairs before. Or the fact that my other uncle and his wife met by the Boma temple in India, a three-sentence description of how a couple met that I incorporated: She was wearing a miniskirt. He was wearing shorts. Both of them saw each other and thought: nice legs. And I went to India — to Tirupati and Tirumala — to see what the temple was like and to see people getting their heads shaved.
In order to write a nonfiction essay about Nkoloso’s space program and the Afronauts, I did two years of archival research in Lusaka with a lot of interviews. To research Percy, I read his autobiography.
There’s a lot of sci-fi in the third part of the book, so I researched microdrones and HIV vaccines, speaking with a biologist at NYU who is developing the HIV vaccine. And I have an amazing colleague, Georgina Kleege, who read the parts of the novel about Agnes to make sure that my characterization of a blind woman was not patronizing or incorrect or had false notes.
Sibilla is a character covered in hair, which is treated as a charm, a curiosity and a curse. How did you come up with her condition?
When I was researching for my dissertation on literary uncertainty, I came across a theory of reading that we are possessed or impregnated by text. I found a book about Italian pregnancy mythologies and learned this superstition: If you pass by a barbershop while pregnant, your child will come out hairy. The idea is part of a broad, wide-ranging myth in all cultures that whatever the mother experiences impresses itself on the child.
My understanding of Sibilla as this hairy girl and as Italian came out of this reading. Then I learned that Italians came to Zambia to help build the Kariba Dam. Things that felt like they’re fated came together in this odd way.
In an essay for the New York Review of Books, you wrote about “ethical slumming” as an extension of cultural appropriation. Can you explain what that means?
A lot of people have turned the empathy model of art — whereby a reader or a viewer feels empathy for figures in a work — into a kind of vent. A way to feel feelings and to believe that you’re doing some kind of political or ethical work, because you’re shifting outside yourself. But there’s a kind of refusal to acknowledge that it’s a temporary, bound and hierarchical experience that doesn’t necessarily translate into political or ethical action.
I really did not want to practice what people call “poverty porn” — by creating a depiction of an African country that is so impoverished from war or famine or disease that anybody who is experiencing the representation of that society is basically engaging in a politics of pity. I wanted to resist that as much as possible. Someone recently said that one of my characters makes their way out of harrowing poverty, and that’s a misreading. There’s no one living in harrowing poverty in my book.
I wanted to push representations of stereotypes toward this exaggerated, intense space rather than just eliminating them altogether. So, say, the crying woman who lives in the compound. The source of her grief is not living in a war-torn country or because she’s starving, but because she got her heart broken.
What are the most common misconceptions that people have about Zambia?
I don’t think people in the U.S. know anything about Zambia. They mix it up with Namibia because it sounds like it, or with Zimbabwe because it’s right next door. Zambia and Zimbabwe were brother or sister nations with Malawi and for about 10 years in the 1950’s as one nation called the Federation — but we have radically different histories and postcolonial histories.
When people think about Zambia, they maybe think of the Victoria Falls or the wildlife game parks, but worldwide, an understanding of our culture is very minimal.