In writing what she wryly calls “the Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for,” Namwali Serpell weaves three separate family timelines—and, stunningly, multiple genres—into a mesmerizing whole. Dwight Garner praises Serpell’s The Old Drift as “a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade. It made the skin on the back of my neck prickle.” The novel has been awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction.
On Friday, September 20, 2019—at the new McNally Jackson bookstore in South Street Seaport—Serpell sat down with Sharon Marcus, editor in chief of Public Books, to speak about The Old Drift. They discussed Afrofuturism and AIDS, Victoria Falls and deviant bodies, whether Serpell hears characters in her head, and whether she sides with robots against humans.
SM: The Old Drift begins in the late 19th century and ends in the near future, in 2023, but you do not tell the tale in precise chronological order. How did you make your decisions about the book’s chronology? That also raises a question about genre, because as you shift between past and near future, you also change genres: the book begins as historical fiction and it ends as Afrofuturism.
NS: When I first conceived this novel, I didn’t imagine that historical fiction would be part of it at all. The novel came to me first as a family of three characters, who eventually became Matha, her daughter Sylvia, and Sylvia’s son Jacob. Each came to me in a different genre. I remember when I was workshopping the novel as an undergraduate, other students were very confused by this. But, for me, it felt as if I was really coming into my own way of writing.
By now, I’ve had to justify many times why the different genres map onto different generations. And I honestly think it’s just a pun on “genre” and “generation.” Maybe that’s insufficient. But it’s how these characters emerged. I did not shove each character into a different genre.
SM: Which genre was each character? Was Matha magical realism?
SM: And Sylvia?
NS: She was social realism. I wanted to examine economics, especially the intersection of sex and money. Sylvia is a sex worker who also runs a hair salon, which is very often a cover for sex work in the compounds—that’s what we call Zambian shantytowns.
SM: Which makes Jacob Afrofuturism?
NS: Jacob was always obsessed with technology and engineering, with things that fly. I actually conceived Jacob before I knew about drones. I don’t even know if drones existed in 2001, which is when I was first writing.1
SM: Steve Jobs probably had one.
NS: Right! But in terms of genre, people in my workshop just didn’t get it. They expected that because Matha, the character I began with, was magical realism, that every generation was going to have magical realism. They’d say: “So, Sylvia, the sex worker, is she going to have wings or something? Is Jacob going to have magical powers too?”
And my answer was always, “No.” That’s just not how I conceived of these characters. I was interested in exploring how people living in different genres would also operate on the same plane.
This was before Cloud Atlas, before A Visit from the Goon Squad, before The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. When those novels came out, finally, I could point to compatriots in this genre game that I wanted to play.
SM: In talking about how your characters map onto different genres, you have notably not cited historical fiction as one of the genres you deploy. And yet the book, in many ways, is historical.
Perhaps that is the overarching genre organizing the book’s many characters and their respective genres? Family sagas are usually historical fiction, even if the narrative focuses only on the history of a single family.
SM: But in this book, one of the things you do very deftly is articulate individual stories with larger events. Is historical fiction something you think you were just doing without realizing it?
NS: One of the reasons that this novel took so long to write is that—as I would joke with my friends—I found myself writing the great Zambian novel. At first, it really was just a running joke. But, at a certain point, I realized I actually did have a responsibility to explain Zambia and its history. Because most people didn’t know anything about the country in which my story unfolded.
For example, I had always wanted to write about Victoria Falls. And I went to the Falls in 2013 with a friend of mine. We went on a little safari at the game park there, and they pulled into this grove and said, “This is the Old Drift Cemetery.” My friend, who’s an editor, said, “You should call your novel ‘The Old Drift.’”
It’s a great phrase. I went home and I did some Googling and that’s how I found Percy Clark’s 1936 memoir, The Autobiography of an Old Drifter. He was trying to make his fortune in Africa because he couldn’t make it in England. I thought, well, I’m going to write about Victoria Falls and this weird place nearby. So, Percy became a character and his error became the origin of the cycle of retribution between the families in the saga.
SM: In writing the great Zambian novel, were there important events in Zambian history that you felt just could not intersect with the characters?
NS: Oh, yes.
SM: What are some major historical events that you left out? Events that might be part of your next great Zambian novel?
NS: I ignored the entire history of the Copperbelt. We had this huge cache of copper. The way that the borders were drawn around different parts of Zambia had to do with access to the mines. You could trace the entire history of the country through copper.
The Copperbelt is where a lot of the class politics of Zambia emerged. People were sent from their homes to the mines, but were not allowed to live there, because they needed to pay a hut tax back in their villages. So that, of course, immediately started to foment some strife, because workers at the mines were very irritated about this.
The copper mines also drew an influx of Nyasaland boys, who were coming from what is now Malawi. They brought with them a really radicalized sense of politics, learned from the Scottish priests running the ministries in the highlands of Nyasaland. Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, who is a historical figure in The Old Drift, spent time in the Copperbelt, and he was involved in a miners’ strike.
But I don’t talk about that at all. I barely talk about the historical figure Alice Lenshina, who created her own church-like cult.
SM: She shows up a bit.
SM: I expected to hear more about her. So perhaps she could become a spin-off?
NS: There used to be interstitial chapters which led into a monologue from a historical figure. Somewhere on my hard drive there’s a 20-page chapter from Lenshina’s perspective that I cut.
SM: I thought that as Matha evolved, she became a Lenshina-like figure: an elderly woman who’s got an ability to gather people charismatically, but who operates in a somewhat mystic way—and on her own terms, to the extent that she can.
NS: Yes, and [she’s] also someone for whom the Bible becomes a revolutionary text, her Communist Manifesto. She doesn’t know how to understand revolution outside of the Bible, which is how she learned to read. That is in fact how Lenshina fomented her own rebellion.
I hadn’t thought about that. That’s really true. I always want to strain history through my characters. Whatever a character brings with them becomes something that I then pursue the history behind.
The character Sibilla, for example, first came to me because I was interested at the time in fairy tales like “Petrosinella,” which is the Italian “Rapunzel.” It was only in working out Sibilla’s backstory that I realized that the Italians who first came to Zambia were from a very particular part of Italy—Piedmont. And the Italians later had a very particular relationship to the building of the Kariba Dam. So, that hairy little Italian girl becomes a way of talking about this bigger history.
SM: The Old Drift is obsessed with bodies, often going somewhat awry, often deviating in delightful ways. There’s Sibilla, whom you just mentioned, whose hair grows all over her body and has to be cut constantly. There’s Matha, who never stops crying. There’re a lot of incidents with blood and semen. People’s periods are constantly doing things they’re not supposed to do, as they do in life.
SM: And then, on the other hand, the book is very interested in technology—which is itself an attempt to control bodies and natures. There are dams, planes, rockets, and drones. The way that technology and bodies interact in the novel feels like a fugue.
In the book’s sections set in the near future, people have small chips embedded in their fingers, called “Beads.” The Beads can go outside to search for information, but they also go inside to track an individual’s information and communicate it outward. It’s the dream of the body and technology becoming one.
How do you see the relationship between technology and bodies in the moment we’re in now? There’s so much effort to use technology to control bodies, but it’s never fully successful.
NS: When I think about the different kinds of bodies that I depict in the book, what really interests me is the body as the interface between the inside and the outside. Hair and tears are both coming out of you from the inside. For me, the body is where we interface with the world and where we lose control of that inside/outside relationship, in terms of agency.
Weirdly, people find my characters’ body stuff gross. And the menstruation stuff, too. But to me, it’s different. It’s not that I delight in the bodily details, but I do find the transgression of that surface extremely interesting, experientially and epistemologically.
To be honest, I’m a techno-optimist. Even though the Beads are a scary surveillance machine, I would probably get one. I think of the body itself as an apparatus. With my made-up Beads, or any of our real technology today, I think we’re just adding to the things that we’ve been doing to bodies for a long time.
That said, I don’t feel like if the robot populace comes, I’m with the robots …
SM: Surely that’s going to be the right side to be on.
NS: … but there is this weird way that I’m not against the robots? The way that The Old Drift mingles fiction and historical fact, without ever really distinguishing between the two, really bothers some people. As does the way I blend different genres. That’s the same way I feel about flesh and apparatus.
These category distinctions—especially between technology and biology—they don’t make that much sense to me. I’m much more interested in the places where things blur.
SM: Speaking of bodies and technology—at certain points, this is very much an AIDS novel.
SM: I wondered if you could talk more about what it was like to write an AIDS novel within this bigger novel. What went into that decision? What were some of the ways you dealt with AIDS as a fictional topic?
NS: AIDS was part of the novel from very early on. I knew Sylvia had AIDS when I started writing her character.
In 1995, my family had moved from Baltimore back to Lusaka for a year. My dad took a sabbatical, and my mother was doing research on HIV/AIDS-orphaned infants, and on the economic impact of HIV/AIDS on families. Hers was one of the earliest dissertation projects to do that.
Meanwhile, my sister and I were meeting, and getting to know very closely, a large proportion of family members who were HIV positive, many of whom did not survive. I was 14 or 15 at the time. It was very impactful to go to these funerals, to meet cousins who had Kaposi sarcoma.
My mother’s research was ever-present to me. When we got back to Baltimore, she was working with Johns Hopkins University scientists. I went with my mom to work one day. I remember very specifically speaking to a scientist who was working on the virus. And they showed me a little image for the virus, and it just looked to me like a little insectile robot. That also stuck in my brain. I was also very interested in science fiction around that age—Michael Crichton, in particular, who wrote about viruses and diseases.
When I first started writing the book, something that had stuck in my head—I was now 20, an undergrad—was that when we were in Zambia, people would point at my older sister, because they thought she had HIV. She was very thin, because she was a model and also anorexic. They would call her a “key to the grave.” That phrase really stuck with me. In fact, in a very early draft, Jacob hears someone call his mother that, and that stayed in the novel.
My admissions essay to get into college said, “I want to write about HIV/AIDS in my country.” I even started out in college as a microbiology major; I wanted to think about AIDS from the scientific perspective as well as the fictional one.
SM: Ultimately, The Old Drift explores the ethics of drug testing and research. Was it important to you to make that a political point in the novel?
NS: Yes. In the book, I invent an HIV/AIDS vaccine that I discussed with a biologist at a writing residency. He was explaining how CRISPR gene editing worked. I asked, “Isn’t there a chance that you hit the wrong gene?” And he said, “Oh yeah. Those are called off-target effects.”
SM: Collateral damage.
NS: And I remember very specifically asking him a couple of days later, “Could a change in skin color be an off-target effect?” I didn’t want to write a book that an anti-vaxxer would write. But I did want to imagine a side effect that would be extremely important to people, even though it would be literally superficial: the darkening of skin.
In doing research to learn about how an HIV/AIDS vaccine might work, I learned about the shady testing of people in South Africa in the SAPiT trial. It was not quite as bad as Tuskegee, but it breached medical ethics for sure. I also learned about this group of sex workers in Kenya, whose seeming HIV immunity had led scientists down various paths for creating vaccines.
All of that stuff arose as I was researching the fictional vaccine. I definitely wasn’t thinking about the misuse of science before that, especially with my mom doing HIV research. Honestly, I had complete faith in science between the ages of 15 and 20. I didn’t know anything about Tuskegee. I didn’t know anything about the misuse of Enlightenment reasoning.
SM: So, when you were between 15 and 20, you never questioned your parents. I’m sure they enjoyed that.
NS: No, no. I did! I questioned them on other things. But not science. I had lots of debates with them at that time about prostitution, for example. And I have this character, Sylvia, who came to me as a sex worker. Her relationship with Lee, who came to me as a medical doctor, was a way for me to talk about HIV/AIDS as a lived, medical experience from both sides.
SM: Correct me if I am misconstruing this, but you speak quite a bit as though your characters come to you from outside. I’m interested in that, because a lot of Victorian novelists describe something similar.
Anthony Trollope wrote in his autobiography about how he would write every morning, and then every afternoon he’d go for a walk. While he walked, he would hear his characters speak. The next day, he would simply transcribe what he had heard them say.
NS: My relationship to my characters is that they are real and existent outside of me. They come to me, or I’m taking them down.
It’s very similar to how I read characters. We all know what it’s like to have a relationship to Emma or Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre. We have a double sense that, yes, it’s not a real person but, also, yes, it is a real person. That’s why we get angry when we watch an adaptation and we think, That’s not what they looked like. But if you had been asked before you saw the film, you wouldn’t have actually been able to describe to a sketch artist what you thought they looked like. You just know when it’s wrong.
I feel similarly about my own characters. I don’t know if I could actually picture them the way I can picture a photograph, or I can picture you, having met you. My characters have the same double quality I’m talking about: they are figments, but they are people.
SM: Do you hear them?
NS: Once, while writing another novel, I found myself waking up to this woman speaking. But that was the only time that has ever happened to me. It was in 2008, for a novel called So-So. She woke me up and said, “My name’s So-So.” That’s just how it went. And when I am writing that novel, I really have to try and listen for her.
But some of my characters in The Old Drift are historical figures. So, I would study their voices in historical documents and interviews. For example, the historical Matha Mwamba was asked in an interview, “What do you think about the Zambian space program?” And she said, “It’s a bit worrisome.” And so that became a phrase I knew that she would say.
I also find it interesting how much my characters resist my manipulations and changes. At some point, I tried to change a character’s name, because I have a Jacob and a Joseph: both two syllables, both beginning with a J. It’s a problem for readers. My editors said, “We just can’t tell them apart.” So, I tried to change Joseph’s name to Ian, which is another very common mixed-race name in Zambia. And Joseph just said, “No.”
SM: It’s true: he’s not an Ian.
NS: Yes, he just said, “I’m not Ian.” And I thought, “This is craziness.” I have no control. Nabakov liked to pun that his characters were “galley slaves.” But mine totally dominate me. It’s very frustrating.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.