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Namwali Serpell just shrugs when asked to explain why her debut novel, the 563-page epic The Old Drift, refuses to stay within the boundaries of one genre. Serpell’s story, of three families living in Zambia over the course of a long century, opens as historical fiction – before passing through magical realism, social realism and science fiction, to finish as a kind of thriller. But that’s just the way the novel came.
“There is some weird logic to it,” she says. “I still have some trouble explaining why, so I take recourse to the pun of genre and generation. Each of the generations had a different genre to them, right from the very beginning.”
Some of her early readers balked at the transitions, asking why the daughter of a woman who cries continuously for more than 40 years in an unstoppable flow could not also be magic. But as Serpell says, “That’s how it is.”
Instead of a problem that demands explanation, she explains, these collisions are at the heart of the creative process: “I don’t think there’s anything new under the sun. What we think of as novel often emerges out of the combination of pre-existing cultures or traditions.”
Born in Lusaka in 1980, Serpell could almost be talking about herself. Her father is a white, British psychology professor who became a Zambian citizen in 1978, while her mother’s parents were from two different tribes in the north of the country. But it wasn’t until the family moved to Baltimore in 1989 that Serpell was first confronted by the idea of racial identity being split into two distinct parts.
“In Zambia the category for people like me has its own word, which is ‘coloured’,” she explains. “Obviously it has different connotations in the west, but at home that’s just what you’re called. It’s a third term … So when I came to the States and I was asked, ‘Well, what are you?’, it was very difficult for me to negotiate the binary logic of you’re either black or you’re white.”
A mixed-race identity rooted in Zambia may be a world away from one forged in the US, but when forced to decide, she chose to identify as black, “partly because I’m perceived as black”, but also because “the idea I could look at my mother and say to her that I’m not black makes no sense. To me, blackness is just part of what the family is.”
The Old Drift is a kind of answer to this kind of binary thinking, with a sprawling cast that springs from Zambia, England and Italy. Over the course of three generations, Serpell follows historical figures and fictional characters as they converge on Lusaka, drawing them closer into each others’ orbit through independence in 1964, the HIV/Aids epidemic and on into a near future filled with mosquito drones and revolution.
This mixing and mingling of families is also a reflection Zambia’s history as a country born from the arbitrary decisions of the British South Africa Company, which began taking control of the region in 1888.
“There was no such thing as Zambia until those lines were drawn,” Serpell says. “The lines shifted over time, they expanded at one point to create this conglomerate of the federation and then narrowed again. It seemed to me that if I was going to think about this as a nation state I had to speak to the fact that these lines were drawn around seven different tribes, lassoing them together in a colonial experiment.”
It has taken Serpell almost 20 years to bring the multiple strands of The Old Drift together. She began writing it in 2000, while she was studying English at Yale, continuing with it when possible after transferring to Harvard for a PhD. But the novel’s long gestation wasn’t only down to the pressures of academic work: while at Harvard, an awkward encounter with an author Serpell admired left her struggling to write.
“I had a very traumatic experience of getting very intense critique from someone who I idolised,” she says. “It didn’t stop me from writing, but it stopped me from trying to publish for a really long time. I took it to mean that I should just be a professor.”
But fiction wouldn’t let Serpell go. She carried on working on the novel, publishing bits of it along the way: one section was shortlisted for the Caine prize in 2010; another fragment won the award in 2015. Serpell subverted the prize’s competitive structure and shared the £10,000 award with the other nominated authors – an act of mutiny that her family recognised as typical of her refusal to abide by other people’s expectations.
The enthusiastic reception her novel has received, with Salman Rushdie calling it a “dazzling debut” in the New York Times, has brought the novel full circle. “Before I started writing it, I spent that whole summer reading Nabokov, Kundera and Rushdie,” Serpell says. “To have Rushdie review the book – to even have him read the book – was incredible.”
Looking back at the novel, sentences she wrote when she was 20 or 25 wink back at her like entries from a diary. She could have smoothed out the different notes of her multi-genre, multigenerational debut, or simply cut out the magical realism that her 20-year-old self was so obsessed with, “but I decided to honour the younger Namwali and her penchant for that particular form of speculative fiction”.
“I probably seem quite at ease now saying I’m mixed race, I’m black, I’m Zambian, but for a while that was quite torturous, quite angsty. As a young woman I wasn’t very tender or nice to myself,” she says. “Now I’m older, I’m much more able to be tender and kind to the younger me that I see in the book.”
• The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell is published by Hogarth. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15, online orders only.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Namwali Serpell: ‘As a young woman I wasn’t very nice to myself’ | Fiction