When They Blur: A Conversation with Namwali Serpell, Author of “The Old Drift”




NAMWALI SERPELL’S DEBUT novel, The Old Drift, has the scope and depth of a full lifetime’s work. Serpell combines history, science, magical realism, and social commentary in her multi-generational story, which begins in a colonial settlement called the Old Drift and ends with a social-technological revolution in near-future Zambia. She begins with an Old Drifter named Percy Clark, then splits the novel into three families and three generations: first the grandmothers, then the mothers, then the children. Each generation has heartbreak, drama, and magic enough for a novel of its own, and the impact of the three together is tremendous.

Serpell began working on The Old Drift over a decade ago, and conducted a staggering amount of research into topics ranging from Zambia’s space program to micro-drone construction. I spoke to her over the phone about the process of transforming research to fiction, crossing borders and genre lines in her writing, and creating protagonists so feminist even she was surprised.

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LILY MEYER: I recently reread your New Yorker essay on the Zambian space program and was struck by how many real-life details you used to create the characters of Edward Nkoloso and Matha Mwamba in The Old Drift. How did you get those real-life figures to feel so deeply yours?

NAMWALI SERPELL: I’ll talk first about the research process, which took about two years of sporadic dives into the archives and into old US local newspaper archives, which would pick up stories the Associated Press published. I also did a bunch of interviews with people in Zambia. I wanted to talk to people who had known Edward Nkoloso personally. I wanted to talk to his son, who I spoke to at length. A lot of the material I wanted to put into the article didn’t make it in because of space constraints. I couldn’t include an in-depth historical dive into every detail of Nkoloso’s flight from the British, for example, or his letters from prison. So, a lot of that material was just lying around after I finished the piece. I was very frustrated, because I found that material so fascinating. The piece is a kaleidoscope of what a lot of different people thought of Nkosolo. I wanted it to contain a real sense of conflict about whether he was an amiable lunatic, as the Western press put it, or whether he was one of our most famous freedom fighters, or a prankster, or whether, as his son would say, he was a real scientist. The novel felt like an opportunity to dramatize other aspects of his personality.

Matha Mwamba was the first character that came to me. I started writing this novel when I was in college, a long time ago, and she came to me as the crying woman. She started crying because her lover left her, and she never stopped crying. I knew her daughter Sylvia would be a hairdresser and a sex worker, and I knew her grandson Jacob would be obsessed with planes. I learned about the Zambian space program maybe a decade after I wrote those characters. Matha was the only woman in the space program, or in any space program at the time, as Nkoloso was very keen to press upon people. When I learned that she’d been kicked out of the space program for being pregnant, I looked at the chronology of my novel and realized that the character I had written, the crying woman, was pregnant in the same year as Matha Mwamba, and I just thought, “Oh! That’s who she is!” Suddenly it made so much sense that her grandson would become obsessed with aeronautical technology. It was a very curious coinciding of story and reality.

Did you have other moments when characters who’d existed only in your mind suddenly met research or history?

Not like this, but I had written Naila into an oblique existence through a story called “The Sack,” which won the Caine Prize in 2015. That story is set in the far future, and it shows Jacob and Joseph living together, both still caught up in their turbulent, agonistic relationship to each other and both still obsessed with Naila, who by then has passed away. They’re remembering their revolutionary days with her, which were a love triangle as well as a political revolution. After I won the prize, I was put in touch with a poet named Shailja Patel who is of Indian descent but lives in Kenya. I was invited to the Storymoja Festival in Kenya because of the Caine Prize, and I got to know her there. Shailja is incredibly fierce in ways that remind me of Naila’s character. I felt like she had Naila’s spirit, and I put some nods to Shailja into the book as I wrote.

I love Naila’s fierceness, and the fierceness of all the women in this book. I’d love you to talk about female determination and self-determination in The Old Drift.

I think there was an impulse in me to write women as central to the text. Part of that is my own limitations as a writer: being able to delineate the varieties of female experience is clearly easier for someone who’s lived as a woman, and projecting myself into male characters is harder for me. It’s something I have to really work on. It feels like I’m in a dark room feeling my way around, which is Elnathan John’s description of how it feels to write characters from another race or gender or perspective.

The way in which the female characters operate in the world, and how fierce they are, took me by surprise. Matha’s reappearance at the end of the novel, for instance, came late in the writing process. I didn’t know that she would become part of the revolution until I wrote the big rally scene. When I reread that scene after I wrote it, I got chills, and I think that’s because it came to me as a surprise in the writing. 

So much of The Old Drift is about uncertainty, as is your academic work. How do you manage your characters’ uncertainty as a writer?

Through other characters, and through the narrator. It’s important to have the play of dramatic irony. It’s something I really enjoy doing, and something that I feel readers are less familiar with than they used to be. There’s an expectation that a character will speak to you directly and will know exactly how they feel. We’re so anxious about what is and isn’t true that I think the desire for straightforward speech is very high. But irony is built into my blood, and into Zambian culture. Our irony is famously very subtle.

I think many literary fiction readers are less familiar with magic than we used to be, too. How did your use of magic and the hyper-real evolve as you wrote?

I was very enamored with magical realism when I started writing this book. In graduate school, I took a class with Jamaica Kincaid, who assigned María Luisa Bombal, who is often called the mother of magical realism. I was reading Gabriel García Márquez, I was reading Toni Morrison — I sometimes wonder if her work really is magical realist — and I’d always been very into Franz Kafka, the Gothic, and the fantastic. In this novel, I wanted to honor the part of me that’s excited by moments when the real and what we consider the unreal coincide, or when they blur.

That said, I wanted the magical elements to have some measure of explanation. This is my tendency when I write science fiction, as well. I always want the slight possibility of an explanation that could be real. For example, in Sibilla’s section, there’s the idea that the hair covering her whole body might be an extreme case of hirsutism. In Matha’s section, Lee suggests that she has an autoimmune condition that leads her to cry all the time. I always wanted the possibility that it’s not magic, because that’s how magic works. You need the doubt to have the faith.

Of all the boundary-crossing images in The Old Drift, hair struck me as the most powerful. I’d love to hear your thought process in writing hair, starting with Sibilla’s full-body hair and moving into Isabella’s wig business, Sylvia’s salon, and Naila’s tonsure.

There’s a moment in White Teeth which was very present when I was writing The Old Drift when Irie goes into a wig store and watches a girl sell hair which she then purchases, and I was very taken with this as a symbol of the syncretic. The literal idea of weaving together different strands is beautifully metaphorized in hair.

Also, it’s a commodity in a global market that we don’t think about very often. We think about iPhones coming here from China, but not about hair having that capacity. It’s an ever-present commodity and thing in the average Zambian household. Growing up, there was just wig everywhere in my house. Whether that was human hair, horse hair, or artificial hair was a constant topic of conversation. My sisters and I were always braiding my mom’s hair or taking it out of braids. There are so many stories about hair in my family, and hair was the way I knew I’d connect the three families in my book.

It was also the way I introduced Zambian families of Indian origin into the novel. In graduate school, I learned about Tirupati, the temple where Naila goes. The hair cut off for tonsure there all goes to wig factories, and I wanted to use that as a way to coordinate different cultures around hair. Tirupati enabled me to do that while also thinking about the way we weave cultures together.

The Old Drift weaves many voices together, too, from the British colonist Percy Clark in the 19th century to his African great-great-grandson Joseph in the near future. Each character has a voice determined by his or her time and culture, yet they’re all clearly part of one narrative voice. How did you get them all right? 

Percy is a historical figure, and a lot of the prologue is borrowed heavily from his memoir, The Autobiography of an Old Drifter, which thankfully was published pre-copyright law. It’s funny to work with someone’s preexisting text, to mold it, or add certain words or concepts, or pieces of language. I did a similar thing in the epilogue with Heart of Darkness, which I tried to Zambianize, to put it succinctly.

With the multiple cultures I worked with, I had a lot of people to run things by. The cultures I knew least about were Italy and India, but thankfully, I have very close friends who are from those places and were able to read those sections for me. And thank goodness! There was a lot I got wrong, which was inevitable. Research will only get you so far. I went to Tirupati, I spent days there, I read books about it — and I still got things wrong. It felt very important to talk to people from those cultures to make sure nothing sounded off. It’s very odd how obsessed I am with getting facts right in a book full of magic and sci-fi. It’s patently a fabrication, but I was very keen that certain details and notes sounded authentic.

How did that impulse to get things right play out in the parts of the book that deal with HIV/AIDS? 

I do have firsthand experience with that. A whole generation of Zambians were wiped out by HIV/AIDS, and I lost a lot of family members, mostly cousins who were much older than me. Kenneth Kaunda’s son died of HIV/AIDS, and he was among the first African presidents to acknowledge the disease. My mother worked in public policy, and her dissertation was about the economic impact of being orphaned by the disease. I remember that when we lived in Baltimore, she worked with Johns Hopkins, and she once introduced me to a scientist there who showed me a visual diagram of the virus. I was a kid, but I remember being struck by how weirdly mechanical it looked.

The sci-fi parts of the novel having to do with an HIV/AIDS vaccine, then, came from a long and active interest in the disease. The vaccine came to me relatively late, and I did a lot of research into what it might possibly be. I was lucky that I happened to be at a writing residency with somebody who’s a biologist at NYU, and he talked me through which vaccines were most likely given our current science.

The novel often focuses on the mechanical elements of science and engineering, from the Old Drift dam to the HIV vaccine to Jacob’s drones. How do you write those elements as clearly and elegantly as you do? 

It’s a real challenge, like the New Yorker piece on the Zambian space program. I had to take highly complicated information and reduce it down so that it’s understandable. Earlier versions of the novel had a lot more science, just because I found it so fascinating. Figuring out the balance of how much to explain the sci-fi was very hard. Now, I’m about to publish a piece about how two of the scientific innovations in this novel are about to come true, which is truly disconcerting. It was very hard to predict all the factors that could have prevented these innovations — that’s why you have trials, right? You can’t do trials in your head, and yet these inventions are about to become real.

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Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator from Washington, DC. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, a contributing writer for Electric Literature, and a two-time fiction grant recipient from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.


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