interview: Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and literary scholar living in San Francisco. We first met when she came backstage after a City Arts and Lectures event with Angela Davis, in pursuit of a quote for a San Francisco Chronicle article. She shared news of her forthcoming novel, giddily describing it as “multi-genre and multi-generational” and fanning out business cards emblazoned with the book’s undulating cover like a multi-talented psychic, touting her tarot deck of books-to-be. A professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, she has just published her first novel, The Old Drift. The book tells the stories of three generations of a family, moving through space, genre, and time to end up in Zambia a little ways in the future. We met at Serpell’s co-working space, The Ruby, in San Francisco, and sat outside on the patio on a gloriously sunny afternoon in early May to discuss unintentional feminism, sci-fi dreams, the crisis of irony, and blood, hair, and tears.

The whole time I was reading The Old Drift, I was wondering how you were thinking about eyes and seeing. It was so fascinating to see the different ways those topics came up with different characters. Multiple characters are blind or develop trouble seeing, and of course there’s the character that maybe has eyes all over her body. Could you talk a little about that?

NS: I've had a hard time explaining the exact origin points for the three magical realist elements in the book, which correspond largely to the three grandmothers. Sibilla is covered with hair. Agnes goes blind, and it seems as though sometimes certain people see eyes all over her body, like the Greek monster Argos. And Matha cries all the time, for decades. There's magical realism that's very focused on the natural world, and then there's magical realism that is very focused on the body. I'm interested in the body, and I think that's because my interest in speculative fiction very often involves biology, and the places of the body where there's a border between the dead and the living—hair being one, tears being another, and sight being this curious sort of switch between off and on, between sight and no sight. As if the blink itself is a strange, brief enactment of death that we experience hundreds of times a day. I think that's why it's all about things on the surface of the body, where we interface with the world. And it's all female bodies, which is also important with regard to what I've learned is a much stronger feminist bent in me than I had ever imagined. 

Sight and blindness operate as metaphors, of course. But, in the case of Agnes, I had heard this anecdote about a woman whose blindness had taken her by surprise, and who was so in denial that she was going blind that it took the doctor turning off the flashlight and her claiming that she could still see the light—that was the moment everyone else registered what her actual internal perception was. When I started to write, within a paragraph that idea had become too glib. I was in my early 20s when I was writing these first three characters, and then I spent years with them, enough time that it was no longer enough to just treat it as some kind of metaphor. I became more interested in Agnes's self-awareness, her self-understanding of her blindness, than I was in blindness as an idea. What would it be like for her to be in a classroom? What would it be like for her to recognize a place by smell? What would it be like for her to experience an entirely different class structure and entirely different geography without the things that we usually think are necessary to grasp those distinctions, those hierarchies?

It's interesting how that then starts to bleed into those other two grandmother figures, who at different points of their lives start to have some sort of obstructed vision.

NS: It was important to me that it be distinct, that they each have different relationships to sight. Matha's self-indulgence is really what leads her to “cry herself blind,” and that she can undo that—with this violent slicing through her eyelashes when she decides to—is very different from Agnes, who doesn't have that agency. And for Sibilla, having that veil of hair feels like a protection to her, and when it's gone is when she feels most vulnerable. She's not just seeing, but is seen, in a way that makes her “blindness” different from the other two characters.

What did you mean when you said you feel as though you ended up having more of a feminist affinity than you’d thought?

NS: Well, it's just that the book has been read as a feminist book. The emphasis on women in readers’ comments has been really strong, so much so that sometimes people mistake the third section, which is called “The Children,” for “The Daughters”—which is not to say that they couldn't have been daughters, but they aren't in this book. The book begins with three patriarchs, but people often talk about this being a matrilineal line. Pietro Gavuzzi, Percy Clark, and N’gulube—it's their interaction at the Victoria Falls Hotel that sets off this entire set of spiraling consequences over the course of the century. So to call it strictly matrilineal or matriarchal isn't correct. But I think there's something about the way that I write the female characters—maybe the fact that there's more of them than male characters among the main characters, although I haven't done a full analysis of the novel’s population—seems to have led to a discussion of this as a woman's book. That speaks to a kind of unintentional feminism in me. I didn't plan it that way. That was just where my interests lay.

When I was revising earlier parts of the book that I wrote as a young woman, I was often surprised by how aware I was of the oppression of women in my characters, given the way I was living my own life. I spent probably a year writing love letters to men instead of writing this novel. I was also aware, for example, that Matha’s heartbreak over losing Godfrey, would in the end be swamped by the greater heartbreak that comes to her later in life. But I had never experienced the grief she experiences later in life. The writing always had this distant, or ironic, or parodic sense of her heartbreak. But if you actually look at the way I was living my 20s, you wouldn't imagine that I knew that heartbreak wasn't that deep! 

In your piece for The New York Review of Books, “Glossing Africa,” you discuss the ways that different African writers have thought about glossing their texts, and you bring up one author, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and the way that she defines the least important non-English terms. I found, while reading your book, that it operated in a similar vein, though you do have you have a family tree at the beginning—something that you note that she doesn't. How you were thinking about glossing, and did that change and evolve as you were writing?

NS: I'm still a little bit torn on the question of italicization, because on one hand, I do think it marks certain kinds of text as “other” on the page, but on the other, I enjoy that visual hybridity, where some words are in roman, some are in italics. And I insisted that words that are foreign to English, regardless of whether they’re from Zambian languages, also be italicized. I insisted on not explaining certain kinds of idioms, on not defining them in a heavy-handed or didactic way. There are some writers who will write the italicized non-English word, and then put a comma, and then define it, and I wasn't going to do that. I wasn't going to have a glossary.  

I've always liked family trees. I especially liked the family tree in Wuthering Heights, which is two trees, basically, because there's so much doubling, and there's so much repetition of names. But I also felt like my novel was an opportunity to play with the family tree. So having a dashed or dotted line indicating the uncertain paternity of the final descendant that Naila gives birth to, as described in the last two pages of the novel—that was fun for me, because it felt like a way of subverting what we expect a family tree to tell us. One would think there would be a clue there, that the author knows who the father is, but because I decided I didn't want to know, I was able to embed that uncertainty into the paratext. Also, certain people are on the tree that we barely meet, and others, like Carolyn's sister, or Naila’s sisters, are not on the tree even though we spend time with them. So there's a certain arbitrariness to the family tree that I also enjoy. 

I think in the future I might not italicize non-English words. Because parts of the book had been published already with those words italicized, it made sense to just continue doing that. And I don't mind having some of these words list or drift in one direction as a visual sign of hybridity.

I was curious about the few moments where you did use written accent for some of the characters. 

NS: I tried not to do it with a lot of the characters, but there were some moments where to show how characters of a different class or education would hear what others were saying was really important to me—and also because it becomes an issue in the plot, for example, when Agnes is interacting with Grace, her worker. Part of Agnes’s transition into becoming Zambian is letting go of some of her biases about the Queen's English. She and her husband have an argument about whether Grace’s malapropisms are acceptable. It comes up again later where Agnes tries to correct his English when they're older and he says, “you know I know English right?” And then there’s Dr. Musadabwe, who is a bit shady, but is very smart. When he and Lee are interacting with each other, Lee's initial impulse is to dismiss Musadabwe as uneducated because of the way he speaks, because of his very broken English. But as Lee has more conversations with him, he realizes that the man's science is on point, that that's just the way he speaks. And so Lee gets the sense that only by working with local Zambians can he really make this scientific project work. But that also involves Lee casting away some of his class biases as an educated “colored,” or mixed-race, Zambian. 

The other piece of yours, also in The New York Review of Books, which I really loved was “The Banality of Empathy.” You discuss Hannah Arendt’s theory of representative thinking, which suggests that humans can make a judgment by detachedly considering one’s viewpoint from afar, rather than assimilating or erasing difference to empathize with others. And in reading your book, because there are so many different characters and there's retelling of some of these same stories over and over from different viewpoints, as a reader we're almost obliged to have some distance, and we have to detachedly consider all of their viewpoints. Were you thinking at all about this idea of representative thinking while you were writing the book?

NS: I wasn't, but I was trying to write against a tradition of African literature being used as an empathy vehicle that is often directed toward philanthropic efforts or self-congratulatory, commoditized morality in white readers. The book parodies the idea of empathizing with the suffering of Africans, and Matha is probably the key figure for that. When she starts crying, there is this debate among other characters about whether she's Mama Afrika crying for her children or a witch or Mary crying for Christ. But no—she's crying because her heart got broken, because, guess what? Even poor African people fall in love and get their hearts broken. 

One reader of the book said that they thought that Jacob makes his way out of “harrowing poverty” by becoming Engineer, as his friends call him. And I thought, no matter how hard you try to shift the way that people perceive Africa, there's just this constant bias, because Jacob is not harrowingly poor in the novel! There are poorer kids than Jacob. He has a roof over his head. He sleeps on a sleeping mat, he has food to eat, he doesn't have diseases all the time, he's not constantly ridden with ringworm or measles or anything like that. But because he lives in a compound, there's a sense that he must be suffering and in harrowing poverty. Obviously, compared to the poverty that we see in the West, he's poor. But the idea that the point of representing people who live their lives with fewer resources or with less money is to make people who do have those resources feel bad so that they can donate to charity—I was really trying to write against that. So while I didn't have Arendt’s theory in mind, because I learned about it relatively recently, I did have this will, or this wish, to push back against the particular hierarchy of empathy that currently exists when it comes to readers of African literature.

My research field as an academic is ethics and literature. I've done a lot of reading about the empathy model of literature, and I argue in my first academic book, On Seven Modes of Uncertainty, that the literature that best engages our ethical consciousness is the kind that is negotiating between this distance from the “other” and this proximity to the “other.” So whether that's through standing next to someone instead of facing them, or whether it's about oscillating between identifying with someone and recognizing how different they are to me, this negotiation of similarity and difference produces the most interesting ethical models for engaging with literature. I had been thinking my way through that set of ideas at the same time as writing the novel, so I'm sure it made its way in there somewhere. 

I was always interested in having multiple perspectives. The novel is in the third person, but chapters are focalized through different people because I did want to speak to the inherent subjectivity of truth—that if you see an incident from multiple perspectives, there's no sense that one person’s view on it is the legit or the right one. Rather, you have to see the picture of reality in the round, as [E.M.] Forster put it. 

You've said that you consider this to be a Zambian novel, and you just noted you're working against these kinds of stereotypes or trends that you see in some African writing. How do you see the value of defining something as a national work? Or maybe another way of putting this is, what sort of trends of world literature are you working against or within? 

NS: The idea that it was the Great Zambian Novel started as a joke in college when I first started writing it, so there's a kind of irony built into that phrase. My goal—and partly because I'm super interested in satire and parody—was to take the elements or the conventions that already exist, and to intensify them to the point of exaggeration, or to undermine them, to subvert them, to flip expectations through surprise, and in that way to undo the preconceived idea of a certain kind of novel from within. With the Zambian novel—and I say this in the first paragraph—the idea that this is a “national” novel means that we actually have to start with the people who are not from there. We actually have to start with a white man, because the very notion of the nation comes from the West and is a relatively new concept. One aim in writing the novel was to show how arbitrary that concept is: the sketching of the borders around a country, lassoing seven major tribes together, which then had to be unified by our first president. Our decolonization leaders across the continent often had to say: this is what we have, so we're going to use it as a mode of unifying different people. “One Zambia, One Nation” became the motto of the country, even though the idea of Zambia was one that had essentially been arbitrarily imposed and changed multiple times over the course of the previous hundred years.

On one hand, Zambia, to me, doesn't exist. It's a complete fabrication. On the other hand, we have appropriated that fabrication and turned it into something generative, something creative, and that speaks to the larger philosophy that the novel's trying to pursue. What can be generative about error? I wanted to ask, what do the slips and skids of history and time create? rather than just bemoaning what they destroy. And that is very much a product of my own naïve cultural optimism, maybe my multicultural optimism, as a multicultural mixed-race person. I was literally produced by a collision, an accidental collision between cultures. So I was interested in painting a picture of Zambia that has that same kind of ambivalence. It's a creation, in the sense that it's a fabrication, but it’s also a creation in the sense that it is creative, generative.

You’ve talked about wanting to depict a cosmopolitan Zambia, but I was also interested in these characters as each cosmopolitan themselves: they travel and they learn new languages, and many of them are in mixed-race marriages or life partnerships. And your work is in ethics, so I’m wondering if you were thinking about that on the ethical level—rendering some ideal character as one who moves through the world in this way?

NS: I was raised in that tradition. My parents were both very much of the mind that it was important to cultivate in us a sense of identity as global citizens. That to be multi-linguistic was something to be proud of, rather than something to hide from. But I hope I managed to depict in the novel certain limitations to that utopianism. The longer that I've been in the U.S., perhaps, the more cynical I've become about the utopian idea of basically having sex in order to produce a better politic, like the gradual “browning” of America as a positive thing. For example, there's a complexity to being mixed-race in Lusaka, because there is a category called “colored people,” which was imposed by the British, but which again has been appropriated and adopted as a mode of identity in Zambia, and Zimbabwe as well. You have communities in both countries where colored people will only marry colored people, and so what you have essentially is mixed -race people being ethnocentric, and rejecting non-mixed people. We see this obliquely in Thandiwe’s section. Which is to say, I don't think there's a one-to-one correlation between multiculturalism, multilinguistic capacity, mixing, and positive ethics. I was more interested in describing that than in prescribing it as some kind of solution to racism. 

We see the limitations again with Naila, when she's talking to her two lovers and she describes herself as black. And they both laugh at her, because on what planet could she possibly make a claim to that as a Zambian-born woman of Indian-Italian descent? But for her to say “I’m black” is a mode of solidarity. So there's a contestation about what it means to be mixed, what it means to be a mutt, what it means to claim race, or to deny race. I wanted to stage that as a complex set of debates rather than trying to present it as an ethos, because I do think that, as humans, our ability to be ethnocentric continues regardless of what that ethnicity ends up being. 

I think that skepticism of this multicultural ideal comes through also in how none of the relationships really end positively, or happily. I don’t know—do you see them as ending happily? 

NS: It’s funny because I actually think the happiest marriage is between Isabella and Balaji, but other people think that they're horrible! I'm like, yes, but they're well-suited— they're both extremely interested in money and in their business. There are losses and there's sadness within that marriage, but by the time of his death, they are still there, together. There's not a sense that it's been an unhappy marriage for them. I think it's interesting that the least likable couple is also the best couple. Throughout the novel, though, there are brief moments, I think, of love, of genuine love. This is something I'm like—I don't know how, as a young person, I was able to recognize this, but I might be a bit cynical about the longevity of romantic love. 

Can I ask you about “The Sack”? It's sort of a coda to the book--I actually read it before reading The Old Drift, and then I read it again after, and it was completely new. I'm wondering when you wrote it in relation to the rest of the book and about the decision to leave it out in the end.

NS: I wrote “The Sack” in, I want to say, 2010, rewrote it in 2011, and then it was published whenever Africa39 came out, which I think was 2014. I wrote it before I wrote the majority of the novel. “The Sack” was going to be the final chapter. I later wrote a first chapter, which was very much modeled on “The Sack,” as a prologue, which is about David Livingstone and his two bearers—well, he had many bearers, but it's about his two most famous bearers, James Chuma and Abdullah Susi. So there was this structural echo across the book of two men interacting in a way that is mediated by a missing third person. When we were trying to cut the novel down, we decided to delete the opening and the closing chapters; the opening one has now been published as a standalone short story as well, called “The Living and the Dead,” and it's in the New Daughters of Africa anthology. So the only trace of those chapters is in one chapter of Joseph’s that was meant to mirror the other two. Part of the decision was tonal, because those three chapters are so stark and the rest of the book is so rambling and loose and wordy. My initial idea of framing it with these really dark stark bookends speaks again to my cynicism. But we decided they didn't match the rest of the music of the book. Right now they are sort of B-sides in the ether—floating epilogue, floating prologue, and the chapter that stayed, the residue. 

Also in that last part, it was so interesting how the sci-fi, speculative pieces suddenly emerge. I read you discussing how some of those things have since become real. Do you have other sci-fi thoughts that either you've written or that you've read that you're worried will come true?

NS: I do want to say one thing about “The Sack” that people don't know. I've had students write to me and say, “I have to write a paper about your story or about your book, can you help me?” And one wrote that the assignment was to consider “The Sack” and its relationship to the postcolonial moment, and I thought it was interesting because there are no temporal markers in the story to indicate when it’s set. It is in fact set in the future. I was thinking about a chapter in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” which comes in the middle of the novel and is set in the far future, but seems like it could be set in the distant past. So the idea of a post-apocalyptic story that bridges time was very much on my mind. I think it's interesting that “The Sack” is read as a realist short story when I had a different genre in mind. 

I've written a couple of other sci-fi stories. One is called “Bottoms Up,” which is about a sex robot, and elements of that have come true and are gonna keep coming true. My other short story is like an Afrofuturist riff on Samuel Beckett. It's called “Company” and it's in McSweeney's. That one is set in a very far future where melanin has become a prized commodity. It involves time travel and obviously we're kind of far away from—well, hopefully we're far away from time travel! Although the idea of creating floating satellites that Jeff Bezos just proposed yesterday is obviously bringing us closer to interplanetary travel. I haven't written anything along those lines but we can't hold back from writing about what we think might happen for fear of giving the wrong people ideas.

Usually sci-fi ideas come to me as some kind of image or some kind of situation. And the sci-fi idea appears in order to explain that image or situation, and that's when I realize what genre the story is. I have to wait for the story to feed itself to me before I can really think about its relation to actual science and start doing the research to see how it fits. An HIV/AIDS vaccine and a giant robotic mosquito were always going to be part of the novel—the latter because of a dream I had, HIV/AIDS because it was always going to be part of the plot. The sci-fi explanations that emerged from those ideas came much later in the writing process. 

What was the dream?

NS: I had the dream in 2005 or so. There was a crowd of people and sacks holding sand were dropped down from above with balloons. They were sent parachuting down so they landed very gently at the four corners around the crowd, and those were some kind of pre-message. And then there was this huge shadow, and the people in the crowd looked up, and there was this giant robot with big legs. I think it's because one of the first sci-fi books I read as a kid was The Tripods Trilogy. So I think giant insects and robotic things are just part of my dreamscape now, but when I woke up, I realized that it had a proboscis on either end. And I remember, in the haze of the waking state, I imagined that it was sucking up copper on one end and putting blood in on the other. This didn’t appear in the book, exactly, but the idea of a crowd with this giant robot hovering above it, and that it had two proboscises—that happened in the dream. And those only came together into a set of sci-fi principles in the book after I sold it, in 2015 or so. 

This just came to my mind, but there’s been so much blood in the media recently. Were you following the Theranos story?

NS: I watched the documentary. A friend of mine and I were joking about the fact that there was an episode I think of Radiolab maybe—it was some early podcast. And they were like, “Blood. You never see it. Blah blah blah,” and we were like, Did any women listen to that before it aired? Because we see it every month! It has always been a preoccupation for me, metaphorically, but also literally. Maybe I'll write a vampire book someday.

I want to follow up on what you said before, that satire and parody are really important you. Are there certain inspirations for you in those genres? Or are there certain things you've read and watched? 

NS: My most satirical short story is “The Book of Faces,” which is in the form of a Facebook newsfeed. That story was inspired by some thinking I've been doing around novelists who are brave enough to write satire where they steep themselves in the object of criticism to the point that they could be mistaken for simply writing badly. Madame Bovary is a good example, where the idea of bourgeois romance is parodied so subtly that [Gustave] Flaubert actually had to go to court to explain that it was irony. American Psycho is another one which showcases the willingness to write consumerist, boring, and misogynistic, murderous language in the name of creating this satirical frisson. I thought that was a brilliant move, one that [Bret Easton] Ellis has not actually managed to replicate. Lolita has a similar balance, and parts of Cloud Atlas, too—the Luisa Rey chapter in particular. Everyone's always like, there are so many plot holes, and it's like, that's on purpose. He was writing an airport thriller, a genre which often has plot holes. 

That has always really struck me as the ultimate self-effacement as a writer—to be willing to be bad. In my Facebook story, I tried as much as possible to capture the absolute banality of being on that website by adopting its language. But I realized at a certain point—this is what Beckett does, and I think even American Psycho does this as well—that the repetition of certain kinds of language has certain kinds of rhythmic potential. I found in writing that story a lot of resonance with Biblical rhythm. And so it's about Facebook, but it's also about the Book of Job, and it's using the idea of the Biblical recitation of names as a way to access a critique of Facebook.

Beckett, Ellis, Nabokov, Flaubert: it's all men. But you know who actually also does it, and people I think don't get it, is [Jennifer] Egan. A Visit From the Goon Squad—there are parts of it where the satire is so fine-grained. The ability to write satirically in a way that does not suggest that you have disdain for your characters is really hard to do, and she does it really well. Her characters don't feel unreal or like she hates them or is disgusted by them. But there's an ironic quality to the prose, particularly the last story in that book, that I think she does really well. 

Irony is in crisis in the 21st century. People can make mistakes and then present retrospectively them as intentional irony, which is happening on the alt-right all the time—they say horrific things and use irony as an excuse. The line between reality and fiction has become weaponized in such a way that even to delight in irony as a fiction writer feels dangerous. 

I wonder if irony as a whole is ingrained in a certain generation of kids who grew up with the Internet, as a way of posturing, at least online, or maybe in the world, too?

NS: It’s thought of as generational, but also there's a cultural aspect to this. All of the people I was just speaking of are white, but the tradition of irony in black literature has this subtlety as well, and [Charles] Chestnut is really good at it, and [Zora Neale] Hurston is really good at it, and James Weldon Johnson is really good at it. There's this passage in Beloved that I think about all the time. It’s after Beloved has been sent scampering off into the woods by the women in the community and Sethe showed up at the door with an ice pick because she was going to murder the man who had come, she thought, to take her daughter away again, when in fact he was just picking up her other daughter, Denver, for work. Point being, after that climax, Stamp Paid and Paul D joke about the fact that Sethe had an ice pick. They laugh about it, they tell jokes about it, and no one ever talks about this moment because it's like, how can you have a joke in Beloved? Like, how can you have humor in this book? But to me, that ability both to carry the horror and have a sense of humor is so built into black American literature. And I see it as built into my cultural legacy in Zambia as well: the ability to laugh and take something seriously at the exact same time, which I think [Edward Mukuka] Nkoloso, who created the Zambian Space Program, so perfectly encapsulates. There's a complexity to irony that I think we're losing in the 21st century, because it feels too risky.

People are like, We have an empathy deficit. I'm like, No, we have an irony deficit. It hurts my heart that people think that it's too dangerous to play with irony now just because the other side is distorting the truth, and therefore we must be all about truth and fact and authenticity. I think that's the wrong direction. Because irony and satire are some of the best tools for resistance that we have.

Interview by Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo.
Photography provided courtesy of the author.