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Namwali Serpell: Being Zambitious

Aaron Bady By Aaron Bady Published on April 28, 2017

Namwali Serpell is one of PEN World Voices Festival's speakers for 2017 where she will talk about Gender, Power and Authoritarianism in the Dystopian age. Her latest book is Seven Modes of Uncertainty.

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Photo of Namwali Serpell by Peg Skorpinski

For most of her adult life, Namwali Serpell has been writing The Old Drift, a novel that she once described to me—with a mix of ironic bravado and utter sincerity—as “the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.” We’ll have to wait just a bit longer, alas; she delivered the full 700-page first draft to her publisher a few weeks ago, so, with any luck, we’ll see it in 2018.

It will, however, be worth the wait. Pieces of The Old Drift have been published before, though it takes some work to gather them up. In 2010, the short story “Muzungu” was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, and in 2015, she won the Caine Prize for a section of the novel which was published as “The Sack”. (When she won, she made waves by sharing the prize money equally with her fellow shortlisted writers; “Literature,” she said, “is not a competitive sport.) A few other parts of the novel have emerged in other places—a story called "The Man with the Hole in His Face" is in the 2011 Caine Prize anthology—but if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed they’re all part of the same novel. Or even from the same author, in fact. Serpell’s work is so consistently polyvocal—shifting voices, setting, and tone within and between stories—that one of the only constants to her work is how different it all is. “Muzungu” is a story told from deep inside the maturing perspective of the child of white expatriates in Zambia, while “The Sack” is a story told somewhere outside the perspectives of two people whose relationship, race, and even setting remains elusive. She has also written metafiction about Facebook, riffed on Charlotte Brontë, has a story about a sex robot and most recently wrote about Zambian "Afronauts" for The New Yorker. Her post-apocalyptic story “Company”—a “cover” of Samuel Beckett’s short story of the same name—will be published next month in McSweeney's

In her day job, meanwhile, Serpell teaches contemporary American literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and published an academic book from Harvard University Press in 2014, Seven Modes of Uncertainty. If her students are surprised to be taught American literature by a Zambian citizen, “Who better than an outsider?” is her response, she says, her class’s first lesson: “All the great literature of the US is told through the story of an outsider because being an alien is the condition being an American.”

What ties all these strands together? “Zambia” would be one answer, though it might be the only single answer that works. As she explained to me at a reading in Oakland, her work pushes against the fallacy that African literature must be one, singular thing. You could say the same thing about her day to day existence, as a mixed-race, nomadic Zambian-American, and as African as they come. Like Namwali herself, The Old Drift flows out of the cosmopolitan mixture of different cultures and societies that marked the very beginnings of the country now called Zambia. The book takes its name from an early white settlement established at the narrowest part of the Zambezi river, near the Victoria Falls, in the 1890’s, in the country that was colonized by the British as Northern Rhodesia, but which would become independent Zambia in 1964.

“That hotel had an Italian owner, a French chef, south-Asian workers, and Brits and others coming from South Africa, and of course all the various tribes of Africans who were from that place,” she explained. “And so, throughout The Old Drift there are sections told from the perspective of different voices from Zambian history. Being able to ventriloquize multiple voices and multiple cultures is very key to the novel, and very key to me, as a person. I don’t want it to seem like a diffusion of my Africanness or my Zambianness. I believe that that polyvocality, that cultural hybridity, needs to be understood as an African and a Zambian sensibility.”

The Old Drift has been “steeping,” as she put it, for a long time. “I’ve been writing this novel since I was an undergraduate, technically. The first chapter I wrote in my senior year, in a class taught by John Crowley at Yale; my roommates and friends would joke with me about "The Great Zambian Novel," they would check up on it and say “How is the Great Zambian Novel going?”

“It is an ambitious book,” she admits. “But I was looking at SIM cards I have from Zambia the other day, and one says ‘Be Zambitious!’ And I thought, yes, that’s how to describe this novel: Zambitious. Because Lusaka has always seemed to be this tiny place, you know, and Zambia is really small compared to a place like Nigeria. But I want it to have that sense of sprawl. Lusaka is a small city, but it contains so many different cultures and so many different foods, and it’s the sort of thing that you grow up with, without even thinking about it.”

A recovering academic, Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, California, and a bookseller at Diesel Bookstore.