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.” Read more…