Mar 12, 2021 | LIFE | By Joshua Kalenga | Illustration by Xixi Qin & Photo courtesy of Joshua Kalenga
Namwali Serpell’s nickname for her debut novel — “The Great Zambian Novel You Didn’t Know You Were Waiting For” — was always tongue-in-cheek.
Yet “The Old Drift” was released to critical acclaim. The New York Times listed it as one of the 100 most notable books of 2019, while Salman Rushdie described the novel as a “dazzling debut.”
“The Old Drift” is an intergenerational novel set mostly in what is now Zambia, a vibrant, landlocked country in southern Africa. In following three families (black, white, brown) across four generations, the novel comments on the past, present, and future of the nation.
Spanning genres as easily as generations, “The Old Drift” is everything from historical fiction to magical realism to science fiction. In just 568 pages, Serpell touches on Zambia’s colonial history, afronauts, Zamrock, HIV/AIDS, micro-drones, and an age of hyper-surveillance.
Serpell’s writing mirrors Zambian conversation — rich, playful, and fluid, but not always ‘to the point.’ Her characters — including a blind, tennis-loving British woman, an Italian woman born coated in hair, and a former Zambian afronaut who weeps all day — are lovable yet flawed, as multidimensional as the story itself.
After all, as one character in the novel puts it, “What ruined [Zambia] was efficiency — the British worship of efficiency.”
But are there ever enough words to tell the story of a nation? I reached out to Serpell on behalf of The Catalyst to speak about “The Old Drift.”
There are not many world-famous books set in Zambia. Given the international success that “The Old Drift” has achieved, how do you feel about your novel being perceived as a representation of the country?
I am pleased that many Zambian readers have said that they feel “seen” in “The Old Drift,” that it resonates with pieces of their experiences at home, and that they’ve learned a lot about Zambian history, which isn’t always taught in great detail. My nickname for the novel, “The Great Zambian Novel You Didn’t Know You Were Waiting For,” was always tongue-in-cheek — my hope is that this will be a “great” Zambian novel among many. No one book can represent Zambia, especially a book with episodes set in Italy, England, India, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.
Which target audience(s) did you have in mind when writing “The Old Drift”?
To quote Vladimir Nabokov, “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”
One thing I loved about the novel was its abundance of Zambian imagery, language, and mannerisms. How did you go about authentically capturing certain aspects of Zambian culture? How difficult was it to do so having spent most of your lifetime in the U.S.?
I grew up as a kid in Zambia, went back for a year as a teenager in 1995, and went to visit every (other) summer when my parents moved back to Lusaka in 2002. So I absorbed a lot of details about Zambian life while there, but I also did a lot of research by reading books — history, folktales, novels — and (my favorite method) by interviewing family members and friends.
Personally, I found the opening chapter — featuring Percy Clark — particularly difficult to read. As you noted in a prior interview, Clark initially comes off as charming but his condescension toward the Black population soon becomes evident. Why was it still important to you for readers to engage with Clark’s perspective?
One of the books I read for research was the real Percy Clark’s memoir, “The Autobiography of an Old Drifter.” I was enjoying it immensely — he’s quite funny and daring — until I reached his first offhand use of the n-word, which shocked me. I wanted to replicate this for the reader, because it’s important to experience not just how racist and violent many of the colonialist settlers were, but also how casually racist and violent they were — this fitting with my overall theme of error, something that isn’t quite intentional (“it was just a mistake!”) yet has enormous consequences. Making a reader engage with the point of view of someone who turns out to be horrible is one of the many affordances of literature, one that can teach us something about people beyond the platitudes of “empathy.” (See my thoughts here and here.)
As a Zambian currently living in the diaspora, I sometimes feel disconnected from the country, particularly the economic suffering that many Zambians are currently experiencing. What does it mean to you to be Zambian?
I used to suffer pangs of anxiety like this when I was younger. One day my older sister said to me, “But why do you feel that your experience makes you less Zambian? Why do you think being Zambian is a monolithic experience?” and it clicked for me — there are many ways to be Zambian, including being educated abroad. I’m unable to go home at the moment due to the [pandemic], so I have found that I feel most Zambian when I’m reading history — looking in the archives for more tidbits about Kariba Dam or about Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, for instance. Other Zambians’ words or actions will capture a sensibility or recall a sensory memory for me (a song, a kind of food, the nature of certain friendships, a painting) that is quintessentially Zambian and that reminds me that I’m Zambian whether I like it or not!
Following the previous question, how did you go about taking on the perspectives of Zambian characters whose life experiences may have been vastly different from yours?
This is what all writers try to do as best we can. I tapped into my memories and I did research and I traveled to places (Shiwa Ngandu, Vic Falls, Tirupati) and I talked to people and asked people to read the book to see if anything was glaringly off. But for the most part, I imagined.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring Zambian writers (or writers from other under-represented areas in the world) about writing about their home country/town?
I advise all aspiring writers to “read more.” For those places in the world where there aren’t as many historical or literary books, I would say: interview your relatives, friends, people on the street. It doesn’t have to be formal, but sit down and have conversations with people, ask them about their lives. It’s so delightful, even if you end up using only one or two details. And people love to talk about themselves!
This interview took place via email. Namwali Serpell is an award-winning Zambian writer. Her first published short story, “Muzungu,” was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize and she later won the 2015 Caine Prize for “The Sack.” She is currently a Professor of English at Harvard University.