Namwali Serpell on Doing the Responsible Thing — Writing an Irresponsible Novel

“I joke that this is the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.”

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,830 words)

Namwali Serpell’s first novel, The Old Drift, tells the story of several families living in Zambia, encompassing over a century of their interwoven lives. The novel takes its title from a region located near Victoria Falls (otherwise known as Mosi-o-Tunya, which translates to “The Smoke That Thunders”), which is also where the novel begins. Along the way, The Old Drift touches on many moments in history, from the Second World War to Zambia’s foray into space exploration.

But Serpell isn’t content to simply tell the story of a nation through several generations of its residents. Instead, her narrative extends into the near future, and each of its sections is paired with a short passage written by a strange collective voice — one which doesn’t seem to be human. It’s a bold narrative choice, but it’s one that pays off brilliantly at novel’s end.

Serpell’s bibliography covers a broad range of styles and territories, from the theoretical to the metafictional. Her first book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, explored the works of writers like Tom McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Ian McEwan. She’s contributed the introduction to Penguin Classics’ edition of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel Devil on the Cross. And her short story “Company,” published in the “Cover Stories” issue of McSweeney’s, reimagines a Samuel Beckett narrative along Afrofuturist lines — a process that Serpell described in one interview as “a Janelle Monaé cover of a Philip Glass song.”

I talked with Serpell about the process of writing The Old Drift, of bringing together the historical and the futuristic, and how the novel evolved over time. An edited version of our conversation follows.


Tobias Carroll: When you’re writing a novel like The Old Drift that covers over a century of time, how do you figure out what you’re going to put into the novel and what you’re going to leave out?

Namwali Serpell: I tend to write long, and so the novel has already been cut by a couple of hundred pages. There were points in the novel where I had included interstitial chapters that delved into much more depth on the history of Zambia, so there were longer chapters on [Edward Makuka] Nkoloso and longer chapters on Alice Lenshina and the history of the Kariba Dam and that sort of thing. And there were also longer explanations of some of the scientific basis for the sci-fi elements in the novel — in particular, the micro-drones. I have longer quotes from the research that I did on the kinds of problems that engineers have had trying to design them, and also some of the possible solutions.

Those all got pared back considerably, and I had to telegraph some of that information in different ways. There was this balance of narrative and historical background that I had to work to achieve. That’s true for some of the history of World War II in Italy and that sort of thing, as well. There is this back and forth oscillation between narrative and description, one might say, or explanation. And in terms of how to prune back those larger digressions, I relied on my editors and my readers [to tell me] what they strictly needed to understand what was going on. And, of course, novel readers tend to favor story over fact and history, so that’s how I achieved the balance in that regard.

I wanted to resist the idea that this book was an uncovering or a discovery of previously obscured histories.

Especially in terms of the novel’s historical elements, do you find it to be an advantage that, if someone is curious about something, they can pretty much find certain details about moments in history through Google and Wikipedia searches? Or is that more frustrating for a novel that actually dives into addressing the question of who gets to write history and whose history is being told?

I just think writers now have an advantage in terms of having this information at the click of a button. It’s sort of like having virtual footnotes hovering around the book. I wanted to resist the idea that this book was an uncovering or a discovery of previously obscured histories. I’ve done a lot of archival research on Nkoloso and I wrote a non-fiction article about him that was in The New Yorker. And I have a lot more information about him that I’m hoping to put into digital form — to digitize some of the materials that I saw and map out his life, map out some of the events that took place around Luingu that I describe in the novel. But, I see those as fundamentally different projects than the novelization of those events.

Every life is captured in snapshot when you write a novel. I think Jennifer Makumbi says this in her blurb, that the novel precedes a series of snapshots of particular lives. I wanted to get this broader sweep of history, so I was more interested in the dynamic relations of events and people over time than I was in the specific facts or events, or details of specific historical moments, if that makes sense.

So, if I’m trying to capture two centuries, I don’t have time, really, to dwell on the specific history. But that’s why I have these other genres, like a non-fiction essay or digital archives, that can allow you to access that, but I think they have different purposes.

Your first book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, was a book dealing with literature. In terms of having a foot in literary criticism before you have a full length work of fiction out, is that a particular challenge?

Well, I started this novel when I was in college, so I’ve been writing it off and on for 15, 16 years. I can’t really say that Seven Modes of Uncertainty is The Old Drift‘s older sibling. They came into being over the same long period of time, off and on.

I wouldn’t say it poses a challenge per se. I do think that switching back and forth between critical and creative modes of writing is a skill I’ve had to learn, and it’s something mostly [that] just [helps] to schedule my life, being able to immerse in one project or another at a time. It’s a different way of thinking, and something that I have a lot of anxiety about. I think academics or scholars who also write fiction often talk about this particular tension, because it is a very different mindset.

I often have this anxiety about writing a meta novel. I’m writing about the novel that I wish it was, rather than writing the novel itself. But something that’s been very pleasing and surprising to me is that, when people ask me specific questions about my fiction, I often don’t know the answer. So clearly, I didn’t plan it that way, and those kinds of surprises suggest to me that a work of creative writing is of just a very different nature.

If someone asked me about an argument in my academic book, I absolutely know where it came from, I know the exact sources to cite, I know exactly the logical steps that got me to that argument and I can expand that argument and apply it to a different text. But for example, someone asked me recently about the interest in The Old Drift in hierarchical relationships, and how they seesaw over time between people, and I totally did not realize I had done that.

That’s one of the wondrous things for me about writing [fiction], is not realizing I’m doing something until after I’ve done it, which is very different than scholarly writing.

Early in the novel, there’s a scene where Agnes is being told about the region’s history, and you raise the question of what’s being put in, what’s being left out, and how best to tell this story in a way that is interesting to a listener. When you were writing that scene, did you find that there was a parallel to what you yourself were doing as you told this particular story?

No, it’s sort of the opposite. I knew that I needed to convey certain information to the reader about Shiwa Ng’andu, but I actually feel as a reader myself, and I feel that several of my readers, would have found the history of the Bemba Migration into the region — which I tell in about a paragraph as what Ronald doesn’t say — far more interesting. But it’s less studied, there’s more contestation. One of the interstitial chapters that I mentioned that I cut went into that history of the Bemba and the mythology around it, which is fascinating, in much greater detail, and then I pulled it out.

And so part of it was, I don’t think it was necessarily geared to what I think a reader would find more interesting, that I had to make these kinds of surgical cuts. It was more that the particular kind of story that I was telling, the particular version of my country that I wanted to emphasize, meant that the story of Sir Stewart Gore-Browne and his intersection with the local population — because my book is so interested in contact between people from different cultures — that that was going to be more pertinent to what was going to come ahead in the novel than the long history of the Bemba and their first encounter with Lake Shiwa.

Something that’s been very pleasing and surprising to me is that, when people ask me specific questions about my fiction, I often don’t know the answer.

Both Sir Stewart and Lionel, much later in the novel, seem to have this aspect of themselves which is almost idealistic in one way and very destructive in a very different way. Was that echo intentional?

It wasn’t but I like that you saw it. This is one of those instances where in both cases it was oriented toward a notion of enlightenment progress, one might say. But [Sir Stewart’s] efforts were much more geared toward the social and the political whereas of course, Lionel’s are oriented towards science. I hadn’t actually put that together but I do think that, that double impulse is present. I also see it in Percy with whom I begin the novel, although Percy, I think, is much more oriented toward himself and his own life than he is toward the idea of a nation state or people.

I also thought it was interesting that in the later sections there’s a section where Jacob is working on repairing a camera, and how that hearkens back to Percy’s work as a photographer.

There’s also a scene that I think I was more aware of riffing on photography, which is when Thandi and the American girl are on the bus coming from Livingston, and the girl is showing her photographs of the falls on a camera. I was thinking about the relationship between these kinds of touristic photographs that Percy turned into postcards that he would sell, and the ability to have that in the palm of your hand, so to speak, as the novel progresses.

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You had mentioned earlier that you had been writing this novel for a long time. There are certain elements in there that are fairly contemporary, like the protests over the statue of Cecil Rhodes. What was that like, having real events taking place as you were writing about them and figuring out what you needed to fold into the novel, or not?

It’s interesting. I sold the novel when a third of it was written, numerically in terms of proportion, but I did not write chronologically. I wrote chapters that ended up in the middle of the novel first, and that sort of thing. And when I was writing the part that set in the 2000s, especially with the scientific stuff, I had this perpetual desire to incorporate more of the political stuff. For example, there have been arrests in Lusaka recently, of protesters. There have been these big scandals involving government spending a lot of money on buses, and, I think, fire trucks. Just, clearly, using that as an opportunity to skim a lot of money off the top. There’s this idea of corruption as something that’s encroaching in this new phase of the Presidency, [and it] was something that I felt very tempted to include more and more up-to-date details about.

And, at a certain point I just had to stop myself and really just determine where I was going to stop the novel. I think the process of including these elements, the timeline for the novel was quite tricky. It was one of the hardest things to do, and it’s the thing that I wished that I had done earliest, which is to create a global timeline across all of the characters, and to map them across where each of them were and also what was happening in time. Certain things like, when did the He-Man Toy come to Lusaka? When did bungee jumping first happen at the Victoria Falls? These are all things that I had to square away and make sure that they fit with the timeline that I had already created.

It was tricky, and things felt slippery often, but I wanted to get a balance of timeliness and of abstraction. You can see that just in something as small as my decision to call HIV “the Virus” with a capital V, and to use real science about HIV/AIDS and real science about the vaccine that Joseph and his father together bring to fruition.

Part of that is because I wanted there to be a sense of how this could exceed its time, and the novel is set in the near future towards the end. And it’s actually really eerie, I’m writing an essay about this right now, but the mechanism that Lionel and Joseph use to create a vaccine is the same mechanism that just was used to create the first Crispr babies in China. It’s the same gene sequence, it’s the same technology, and it’s ostensibly for the same reason. The Chinese scientists say that it’s an AIDS vaccine.

It was very uncanny for me to see that. It’s not like I predicted it because I did research and figured out that, of the many different paths towards an HIV vaccine, this seemed like the likeliest. But also it seemed like the most interesting to me, because it changes our bodies, not the nature or the biology of the virus. Having this balance of what’s happening in real time and what could possibly happen felt important to me — to leave that space open so that it wasn’t exact.

Did you know from the outset that this was going to be a novel where the timeline extended into the future?

I remember the exact moment. I was in graduate school and I had a dream about the rally scene that’s toward the end of the novel. And this giant metallic creature, essentially, landed over this crowd of people who were at a protest. I didn’t realize until after I sold the novel that that was a giant mosquito, and that it would be releasing micro drones, but I knew that that scene was going to happen.

And so, I think in that sense, I knew that that was some aspect of science fiction, and it had to happen in the future. Plus, I knew, I was writing these characters at an age that, by the time they were adults, it would be in the future when I was writing, if that makes sense. I was writing Jacob as a child, and so I knew that when he was an adult would happen in the future.

If there’s anything that I want to convey with this novel, it’s the virtues of the syncretic, of the way that cultures combined to create new and wild and kind of unimagined products or artifacts or works of art, and feelings, too. And I think I was forged that way.

You’re writing about so many characters, in some cases, from their childhood to their old age. Was there a particular period of time in which you enjoyed writing the most, in terms of writing them as kids or writing them as adults?

I think I enjoyed all of the different ages. I probably found it easiest to write the period of time, the second generation, the 1990s to the early 2000s. Writing the future section, writing the youngest generation, involved trying to make certain guesses about how young people will interact with each other that are not necessarily like the way millennials interact with each other. And writing the older parts, you just are at risk of anachronism all the time. I think, in terms of what I felt most comfortable with was writing the period that I knew very well, having lived it, at a relatively grown enough age to recognize what was going on.

Because I wrote the book over such a long period of time, I think the question is less about the content of what I was writing and more about where I was in relationship to the book. I was first writing this in a college course when I was 20, and was trying to deal with feedback from people and not really having any kind of backbone about what I was doing, not really knowing which of my instincts to trust. And then I wrote some more of it when I was in graduate school, and there it was really about these mentors and whether or not I could trust them, and whether or not they were going to give me genuine mentorship.

Then when I was writing it while I was on tenure track it was about, “Do I actually have time to write this?” I don’t know, it’s like each moment of the book has had a different life context in which I was writing it, and also writing it before you sell it as opposed to writing two-thirds of it after you sell it, is very different.

I will say, the part that feels like where I am most indulgent of the things that give me pleasure as a writer, was in writing the mosquito sections, because I get to make really nerdy puns, I get to make allusions to all of history, I get to talk about science and entomology and nerd out about how mosquitoes mate and have babies. That was just really fun because there were no rules, because there was no precedent, really, so I could be as outlandish as I wanted to. That was really fun.

Was there one particular character where, over the course of writing the book, you found that your relationship to them had changed unexpectedly

All of them, to be honest. It’s funny, I was going to say Matha. When I first conceived her, I didn’t know about Nkoloso. I hadn’t learned about the space program, I didn’t know about Matha Mwamba. And so I had this character named Chilombo. I began writing about her at the point where she begins crying. I learned about Nkoloso, I learned about the space program, and I was like, “I really want to incorporate this into the novel.” And then I learned about Matha and I learned that she was pregnant in the same year that my character was pregnant. And I was like, “Oh, this is who she is, this is her backstory,” which I had never really imagined before. I’d imagined her after she begins crying, and I had imagined her all the way through her relationship with her daughter and her grandson, but I had never actually understood Matha’s childhood, except I knew that she was Bemba, or possibly Mambwe.

Figuring out that this was who she was and then learning about who she was as a child, that was wonderful. It’s one of those weird coincidences between elements of her character and of her grandson’s character — Jacob being obsessed with airplanes and her helping him. I knew that she was unusually educated for a woman of her generation. But, then learning that Matha Mwamba, in the space program, was — according to the other astronauts, who were interviewed later — the brightest one. And figuring out that she would have known Nkoloso as a child because they came from the same part of the country, all of it just came together in this beautiful way.

I knew that she would stop crying when her daughter died. I didn’t know that she would become a gogo of the revolution, as I call it. It surprised me and it actually gave me chills when I first wrote that happening, when I first wrote her coming on to the stage at the rally, because I didn’t see that coming. And so that was an incredible feeling for me that I got to give this woman her full arc across the novel.

I knew Lionel was a bit of a cad. I didn’t know he was a scientist until I wrote his part. I knew he was a doctor, but I didn’t know that he was a scientist. Thandi, I first wrote her when she was at the game park, but I didn’t know where she would end up as a mother, that she would end up in England caring for the sick baby.

I think very few of the characters came out exactly as I imagined them.

The first time I saw you read at a literary event was a couple of years ago at PEN World Voices, where you were talking about your cover version of a Samuel Beckett story. So, you’ve done work in relation to Beckett and then you’ve written the forward for the new edition of Devil on the Cross. I initially knew of your work in relation to these two very significant writers, who are also two very different writers. Would you say, as a reader, that having these very disparate literary interests has shaped you?

Yeah. Like if there’s anything that I want to convey with this novel, it’s the virtues of the syncretic, of the way that cultures combined to create new and wild and kind of unimagined products or artifacts or works of art, and feelings, too. And I think I was forged that way. I’m mixed race, my father is originally from England and we moved to England for a couple of years when I was a kid, and then we moved to America. All of my favorite art forms have this quality of combination.

And it’s what I wanted people to understand about Zambia. [The other day] I was recommending Ellen Banda-Aaku’s novel called Patchwork, and someone asked me, “What are some other Zambian writers that you like?” And it’s occurring to me now that Patchwork is actually a really good word for it,  this idea of patching different things together.

It’s very much a characteristic of the way that I’ve always been as a reader and as a critic as well. I have a really hard time making my work fit a kind of teleology, because I never read in order. I never read from beginning to end. So I was always doing things like writing about Toni Morrison and Nathaniel Hawthorne together and Thomas Pynchon and Henry James together. I was always interested in unlikely juxtaposition as a critic and as a reader. So I think that’s definitely manifesting in my work as well.

It’s not a very responsible book. It’s not a responsible portrayal of my country in the sense of being pedagogical or being a good tourist guide … So it’s irresponsible in that way, but I felt a responsibility to tell the story of my country because it hadn’t really been told very much.

Because you’ve written work with science fictional elements, do you also, as a reader, find yourself drawn to that?

It’s always hard, because there’s a credibility thing with sci-fi and fantasy. To have a certain kind of credit, you have to have been really immersed in a certain canon, and I cannot make claim to that at all. But I love the classics, I love Frankenstein and H.G. Wells and [Aldous] Huxley, that kind of British tradition. My introduction to sci-fi was this series called the Tripod Trilogy, which I read as a fifth grader when I came over to the States, that was my first real interaction with it.

Although I did see Gremlins as a kid in Lusaka. It was like my first really scary movie. And then in middle school, I got really into Michael Crichton. I just taught Jurassic Park last semester in a graduate seminar. I think it’s possibly one of the first times it’s been taught at Berkeley in that way. We taught this course on genre fiction and going back I was like, “You know, this is great.”

I also realized how much influence Crichton has had on the way that I do sci-fi, in that I’m very interested in the actual science, and I’m also very interested in the near future of where that science is going to lead us.

Also, I’m super-interested in bio-fiction. And so, the sci-fi writer I’ve encountered more recently, but who I’m most obsessed with right now, is Octavia Butler. A lot of her works involve biology and biological deviations and conglomerations and alien creatures whose biology is of interest to people.

I like Samuel R. Delany a lot as well. I teach a black sci-fi class at Berkeley, so I’ve learned a lot more about black science fiction and satire as well. I would hesitate to call myself a true sci-fi nerd. I don’t see myself being invited to the conventions or whatever because I think that my sci-fi is of a very particular nature.

One thing that I don’t know that I’ve been wanting to ask some big sci-fi people is whether people look askance at Michael Crichton, if they don’t consider him really sci-fi.

I feel like most of the criticism I’ve seen for Crichton in recent years has been more about his politics.

Yeah, which are wack for sure. I’m really curious about it because I feel like it was very formative for me. Again, I like the others, I like Bradbury and stuff, but I was never like a huge Trekkie or Star Wars fan. I didn’t see the original Star Wars until it was re-released in the 90s.

Has the process of writing this novel over 15 years had any impact on the fiction you’ve written since beginning it, or since selling it and beginning to edit it?

I joke that this is the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for. I’ve been making that joke probably since college, because I remember my, my college friends every once in a while asking me, “How’s the great Zambian novel going?”

I do think that part of me felt like I had a responsibility to write this book. And it’s not a very responsible book. It’s not a responsible portrayal of my country in the sense of being pedagogical or being a good tourist guide. It’s not a book you’d necessarily give to someone who’s going to come to my country on a vacation.

So it’s irresponsible in that way, but I felt a responsibility to tell the story of my country because it hadn’t really been told very much. I knew that I could write a book that was just about Zambians and about what we’re like and how we speak and how we think from my perspective. Because I felt like I was doing that, it felt like every other book that I want to write didn’t have to be that. So it was a place where that sense of responsibility, and even the beholdenness to actual history — it was like a place that I could do that and fulfill that desire that I had.

And so everything else [I wrote] could be completely different from that. In that sense, it’s like the responsible older sister of the other books. I have five books that I want to write; this is one of them. And a sixth one just kind of snuck up on me as soon as I turned it in, which is about the countries that formed what’s what was known as the Federation, which I talk about in the book, for 10 years. Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were combined into the Federation and then became Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. But they all achieved independence at different times and in very different ways and have very different relationships to the British.

I want to write a book about those three countries, but it’s an entirely speculative book. It’s set not in a future or in a fantasy past; it’s sort of set in the way that Nabokov put Terra and Antiterra together in Ada or Ardor, making Russia and America these reflections of each other. It’s sort of like that. It’s like an alternative geography.

That sounds great.

The only thing that I can really say for sure about it is that I wanted to make literal the problematic policy term “uneven development” by making time move at different speeds in these three different places. But I haven’t gotten much further than that. I’m just figuring out the characters. So in a weird way I’m still ending up writing about Zambia, with even less of a sense of responsibility, even more irresponsibly. And that book I’m sure won’t come out for a while because I have these other books that I want to publish in the meantime.

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Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory.

Editor: Dana Snitzky