Stranger Than Something That Is Already Strange: A Conversation with Namwali Serpell

By Anastasia NikolisNovember 11, 2020

Stranger Than Something That Is Already Strange: A Conversation with Namwali Serpell
NAMWALI SERPELL HAS HAD a remarkable couple of years. Before releasing her superb collection of speculative essays, Stranger Faces, this October, she published her debut novel, The Old Drift, in March 2019 to great acclaim. A sprawling multi-genre work that follows a Zambian family over many continents and through the 20th century, the novel has captured several 2020 literary prizes, including the Windham Campbell Literature Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. This success builds on her 2015 win of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing.

Serpell was born in Zambia and frequently returns there, but she has lived, attended school, and worked in the United States since she was eight years old. She earned her PhD in American and English literature from Harvard in 2008 and taught at UC Berkeley until this past summer, when she returned to her alma mater as a full professor of English. When speaking to the relationship between her Zambian heritage and her study of American literature, she recounts how she begins all of her courses by saying:

You might be wondering why a Zambian citizen and a resident alien of the United States is teaching you the history of American literature. But who better than an outsider to teach you about American literature? All of the great literature of the US is told through the story of an outsider. Nick Carraway in Gatsby, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Being on the outside, or being an alien, is the condition of being American. And it’s a way to see the country from within, but also with a different perspective. 

These remarks help convey why Serpell’s writing is so compelling — she is almost always simultaneously inside her object of study looking out, as well as outside looking in. More importantly, Serpell considers each position to have its own particular expertise, an ethics that is deeply influenced by her scholarly work on Toni Morrison. At a time when literature and criticism have a tendency to fetishize either the outsider or the insider perspective, Serpell’s approach nimbly argues, “Why not both?” and ultimately questions whether the heuristic structure of inside versus outside is really useful at all.

Though her most recent acclaim has been for her fiction writing, Serpell has been an established literary critic for many years. The collection of essays that is the subject of this interview, Stranger Faces, is representative of that work: it incorporates threads of ideas pulled from her first academic book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014), as it pushes against the conventions that typically govern academic writing. The essays in Stranger Faces tackle the large, knotty questions that good literary criticism loves to engage, but they do so more conversationally, in lucid prose intended for a wider audience. If pushing against ethical convention is a hallmark of Serpell’s writing — and it is, in her fiction, criticism, and essays — then so too is pushing against genre conventions. Yet despite her many achievements to date, it is clear that Namwali Serpell is only just beginning.


ANASTASIA NIKOLIS: How did this project start?

NAMWALI SERPELL: The genre of this book is unusual when thinking about audience and thinking about what’s readable but also conceptually rigorous. It’s been a tough combination given the origin story of the book. I started writing this book when I got to UC Berkeley as an assistant professor in 2008. I was revising my dissertation into my first academic book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, and I had encountered there a couple of philosophical subjects that I was interested in but couldn’t pursue in as much depth as I would have liked. One was the idea of the face as the locus for ethics in the work of Emmanuel Levinas and one was a persistent question for literary criticism, the question of intention. How do you determine authorial intention when you are reading a work of literature? And both of those were important questions for Seven Modes of Uncertainty because that book is in the field of ethics and literature.

I wanted to think more about faces and I wanted to think more about intention, so I started reading around and watching various films. I think Psycho was the first film that landed squarely in my lap for this book. I taught a course on literature and evil in my second semester, and while rewatching Psycho I was really struck by the doubling of faces there and what that meant. And then, I think there was a screening of Grizzly Man held by a friend of mine teaching a comp lit course. So, it started with my teaching, but also by following a few threads still hanging off of my first book.

What brought you to study the tensions involved in ongoing efforts to dismantle the idea of the “Ideal Face”?

So, if we go back to my book Seven Modes of Uncertainty, there’s a chapter there on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I was interested in the religious inflections of that novel as well as the religious inflections of Levinas’s theory of ethics (he was a Jewish philosopher). But what I found interesting when he was writing about the face was his interest in this frontal view and the kind of glow from the human face — he calls it its “nudity” — the way it addresses you and the way it makes you feel a sense of responsibility.

What I noticed in Morrison’s work was a really strong interest across her oeuvre in profiles — in people seen from the side. Such as the moment that Sethe recognizes this woman, Beloved, as the ghost of her dead daughter, and it’s staged as a kind of uncanny recognition, she’s looking at her from the side. She’s looking at her profile. I noticed that there were lots of other images like this in Morrison’s other works, in Paradise, in Love, and that there was also a strong emphasis on things being next to each other, adjacent to each other. So, in that chapter, I wrote about this as a different kind of model of ethics. The very simple version of it that I think we know from pop culture is when people say they don’t want to have a relationship with someone that’s face to face; they want to be standing next to each other looking in the same direction. It’s not necessarily better or worse, it’s just a different understanding of how we relate and perceive the world.

That’s how I started getting interested in ways of thinking about the face that did not correspond with the common model — what I call the “Ideal” face in the book. I think Levinas’s description is the closest approximation, but we can see in our culture’s obsession with things like authenticity, truth, transparency, being able to see someone’s face as a mark of identity — on our passports, drivers’ licenses, but also mug shots. There’s this sense that the full-frontal view of the face is the model we rely on as a default. But when you look at art — paintings, sculptures, Morrison’s work — we find a different model for the attitude toward the face that is much more about play and pleasure.

That leads right into one of my other questions. The central claim of the book is that, rather than being all that interested in the Ideal Face, we actually “love to play with faces, to make them into art.” Why do you think it is so important to emphasize art and play when thinking about the face?

I think that, when you have a very dominant model of something, like the face, you have to undo it not just through examples of things that contravene it — not just through counterexamples — but you have to actually build a positive model. In thinking about what playing with the face gives to us, I needed to present it not just as a kind of denigration or a sacrilegious desecration because we have this deification of the ideal face. So, I started thinking about what playing with faces actually grants us. And I thought, well, it actually starts shifting us to entirely different models of aesthetics and ethics and emotion.

So, the example I just gave in Morrison, on one hand you can tell there is a strength and an emotional force to the idea of standing next to someone looking out together. Rather than just a counter model to the face to face, it’s its own strong model. In Morrison, the ethics of being next to each other instead of facing each other is presented as a way to preserve people’s integrity because the face to face is considered something that can actually devour you. It can make you feel displaced from yourself because you are so absorbed in that other person and vice versa. But if you are next to each other, you’re proximate, you have a kind of aesthetic relation — the silhouette is a beautiful thing — and you have a different kind of affective relationship. You have a different ethical model.

What I wanted to do is to find, in each of these faces that are not like the Ideal Face, a positive model for what they afford for us. In each case, there is a different kind of pleasure, but that pleasure isn’t just casual, if that makes sense, it has built into it a different kind of disposition toward other people and the world.

So, if you just go through the subjects of each of the chapters, you can see it. In the chapter on Joseph Merrick, I wanted to think about the pleasures of catachresis or hybridity — the pleasure of things not being all consistent, of things being multidimensional and multitextural, that allows us to perceive Merrick as a work of art, rather than as something distorted. For Psycho, it’s the play of the fetish, the pleasure of turning objects into faces — which we all do all the time, there are whole websites and books devoted to it. In Grizzly Man, it’s the pleasure of the sublime, the blank sublime specifically. In emoji, it’s the pleasure of stacking and staggering and with the GIF; it’s the pleasure of anonymity.

In The Bondwoman’s Narrative, it’s the pleasure of lying, which sounds unethical, but wit as a way for Black people in America to use context in order to achieve a kind of freedom. Lying is signifying, in the sense of Henry Louis Gates’s seminal work on semiotics from the 1980s. Lying is not just a way to deceive in African American culture — it’s to “turn words,” which is the origin of the word trope. I remember, when I first gave a version of this talk, one of my mentors took me aside and asked, “Do you really want to argue that this woman is a liar?!” And I think it was really important for me to hear that and understand that, when you are looking to provide alternate ethical models, you have to think about how you are going to be heard. So, it was really important for me to find work that could frame lying as an aesthetic practice. I could have run with Oscar Wilde, but I chose to go in the opposite direction.

This impulse you are describing is actually one of the things I found most pleasurable about your book — the impulse to say something that sounds unethical or questionable on first read but isn’t once you explain it. One important example for me was when you say that, if we start to really dislodge the notion of the Ideal Face, we “might even traverse that ultimate taboo: treating the face as a kind of thing.” Since we certainly don’t want to think of people as things, why is it worth traversing the taboo of thinking of a face as a thing?

Yeah, so I added a little bit in the book there about Paul Bloom and Barbara Johnson as theorists who have done some really provocative and persuasive work decoupling our association between objectifying people, thinking of them as object-like or thing-like, and dehumanizing them in the name of racism or sexism or any kind of cruelty. I think one of the reasons I find that important is because it has become a kind of trope — and this is evident in an essay I published a couple of years ago on empathy in The New York Review of Books: we think that, if only we humanize people, then we can somehow reverse the cruelty committed against them. There’s a sense that these things are so tied together in our imagination — to treat someone like an object or an animal and dehumanize them is the reason we are cruel to them — that we think we can reverse it. I think it’s a bit of a red herring, ethically speaking. We have a long history of trying to humanize, for example, Black people and women, and it has not yielded less violence. Violence against other people seems to me to be about power, and Bloom points out that, if the people who were dehumanizing others really believed that those others were objects or animals, they wouldn’t bother to do it because objects and animals wouldn’t feel the humiliation of it.

It seems important to me for us to move away from what has really only become a dominant liberal ideology in the last few centuries, since Adam Smith and George Eliot. I think my work is somewhat in line, not part of the school of but in line with, efforts within the humanities to rethink our relationship to animals and objects as a kind of coextensive existence. We are all animals, rather than animals being worse than us and so to be treated like an animal is bad. We are all objects. We are all material in the world. Object-oriented ontology is very interested in this — how do we coexist with the natural world, the literal, physical world? So, thinking of razing the hierarchy so that we are all on a level playing field seems to be a different model of ethics, but one that has a history. In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham’s vegetarianism and animal rights activism was very interested in undoing this idea that we are better than animals. Instead of “Can they think?” he wanted to know “Can they suffer?”

If suffering becomes the basis of our coidentity with other beings, then being an animal isn’t a bad thing. The same way with objects. If you think about the care we give to certain objects, especially artworks, why would it be bad to be treated like one of those? There are obviously ways that being treated like a thing that is tossable and feels no pain is a bad thing, but I think it really depends on what kind of object you are being compared to. It depends on what kind of perspective and attention you are giving to another person.

How did you land on the term “strange” as the oppositional term to “Ideal”?

The book went through several titles. Most of them kind of punning, “about face” and “about faces.” There was a point when it was “weird faces,” which didn’t quite work, and “non-ideal faces” didn’t seem very punchy. But eventually I lit upon thinking about the idea of strangeness as correlated with the “stranger,” because a lot of what I was interested in is how we relate to “the other,” as it is called in literary studies. In fact, this goes back to the Morrisonian origin of the piece because the analysis that I was doing of Beloved was very interested in how that book talks about neighbors and strangers, and the religious inflection of that: how you are supposed to treat the stranger and the other. It also goes back to some of the earliest philosophical work on what we now call “alterity” in these religious texts that Morrison picks up on and Levinas expands upon. So, this idea of the stranger’s face and then the strange face seemed like a good way to coordinate both of those interests.

That makes sense. While I was reading the text, it felt like you were circling around the term “the other,” and I was curious why not use it?

Well, I think “other faces” could have worked. One thing that’s been really interesting to me, and this is just what humans do, is you get an idea, like empathy, and you run with it so far that it ends up in a distorted version of its original intent. With “otherness,” I think we’ve had a similar thing. It gets turned into a fundamental divide between self and other. So, the idea that you yourself could be an other seems to be dependent on your identity rather than your positionality. At this stage, it’s more common for people who move to a new town to say they are the stranger, rather than they are the other. I think otherness has become a marked category. It’s a category that only applies to Black and Brown people. Whereas “stranger” still has a bit more of the semantic flexibility that I want.

Also, I was pleased to use “stranger” as an adjective rather than “strange” because if something is stranger then it is stranger than something that is already strange.

You often make the distinction between the “surface” of the face and a face’s “depth.” Because you are talking about faces and people, this made me wonder about a person’s appearance versus a person’s biography. What is the role of biography in encountering or responding to “stranger faces”?

There’s a passing quote in a letter from the literary critic William Empson, in which he says, “I feel strongly about intentionalism, but in a psychological not a theoretical way.” What he meant by that is that he was not interested in determining intention in a text, but in understanding why we want to do so.

I would say my interest in biography, in knowing the actual person behind the face or knowing their intention or knowing what they’re really thinking or what they really mean, is something I am interested in in a psychological way (why do we want to know that?) rather than in a theoretical way (we have to know that to understand the face). Actually, I think it is the fact that we don’t know it — that we can’t know it — that is the source of our pleasure in faces.

Basically, I think we have a biographical impulse, and I say in the book that we want to put a face to the name. That impulse itself is a source of pleasure to us, but I don’t think we can actually know what someone is thinking or saying. In some ways, it’s a relief to understand that we can’t really know. This is one of the ways that my work always tries to coordinate the desire for empathy with the desire to respect another person’s difference. Which is to say that our desire to know their biography is a matter of empathy — we want to know what someone is like and we want to feel that resonance with what they’re like and what we’re like. At the same time, it’s really important to preserve that person’s integrity, to say I respect that I can never actually really know you. But the coordination of those two impulses, I think, isn’t just ethical, it’s also pleasurable. It’s like the idea of not being able to fathom the depths of your romantic partner and yet always wanting to.

Should the book be read as a theoretical text, a psychological text, a thought experiment, a call to change how we interact with one another, or something else? How would you suggest a reader approach the text?

The series at Transit Books is called “Undelivered Lectures.” So, it’s a set of essays, but they are derived from a teaching context — the lecture. The chapters all come from talks that I gave at the American Comparative Literature Association or they derive from lectures I gave in class. I like the idea of a thought experiment in the way that a literature lecture isn’t an attempt to change everyone’s mind about something. The book isn’t just an essay either because it does have a kind of “I’m going to teach you something.” It’s more like, “What if we thought about it this way?” So, I think a thought experiment is the closest combination of the teacherly and the essayistic.

There are actually a lot of theoretical texts that I teach and that I read that were originally talks or lectures. In fact, almost all of the most famous ones, J. L. Austin’s “Performative Utterances” was a lecture, a lot of Wittgenstein’s work was delivered as lectures. I think the one that is closest to me now is E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which was originally a series of lectures. Again, he’s trying to give us a new way into the novel, but it’s loose, it’s not a grand statement. So maybe people should approach the book that way.


Anastasia Nikolis is the Poetry Editor for the literary translation press Open Letter Books. She teaches courses in writing, literature, and gender studies at St. John Fisher College and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

LARB Contributor

Anastasia Nikolis received her PhD in post-1945 American literature from the University of Rochester. Her research focuses on the poetics of identity in the post-confessional tradition. She is the Poetry Editor for the literary translation press Open Letter Books and teaches courses in writing, literature, and gender studies at St. John Fisher College and the Rochester Institute of Technology.


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