Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (566 pages; Hogarth/Penguin Random House) is nothing short of a feat. The novel, which unfolds over several generations, is an alchemy of Zambian history, Afrofuturism, science, and fantasy. It is a triumphant and tragic retelling of the country’s birth and a sage forecast of what the future might hold for Zambia. Featuring a cast of memorable characters, Serpell’s narrative follows the lives of several generations of indigenous Africans, as well as Brits, Italians, and Indians—some colonists, some immigrants—who eventually become citizens of Zambia. Wittingly and unwittingly, many of Serpell’s characters contribute to Zambia’s technological and political “progress” (including by collaborating, albeit ambivalently, with Chinese and American investors). In the novel, Serpell, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, lovingly and vividly portrays the pluralistic Zambia she knows; undermines the reader’s ability to pinpoint blame for conflicts small and large; and compels us to consider how moments of contingent and brief solidarity might bring about socioeconomic equality.
I sat down with Serpell last April in Berkeley to talk about her latest work. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation.
ZYZZYVA: The book is incredibly sad. Would you agree with that?
Namwali Serpell: A through-line across the entire novel is the rage that underlies mourning. So there is a sadness—not a depressive sadness, but a sublime grief.
Z: I noticed that the children in the book seem to be destined to follow their parents or grandparents in some way (for better or worse). For example, Jacob takes after his grandmother. When he finds out his grandmother’s history, it seems to him his obsession with fixing or engineering things makes sense. Joseph pursues the profession of his father in an even more literal way, and Naila seems to seek to right the wrong that her grandfather committed against native Zambians. This coupled with the instances in which the wrong people are blamed for bad things make me ask if this is perhaps a metaphor for some form of reparations on the African continent—that the children of those who have done wrong should, to some extent, right those wrongs?
NS: Reparations isn’t a language I use to think about how to address the injustices of colonialism. There has been on the continent a really interesting movement to do something analogous to reparations. So getting Germany to formally apologize to Namibia for the genocide of the Herero. Or the descendants of the Mau Mau rebels whose family members and who themselves were tortured by the British—they had a court case in England where they were given compensation.
There is the question of how we reclaim justice. How do we, for example, get full ownership of the copper mines in Zambia, which even at the moment of independence, the British managed to hold onto? There are attempts like that, which seek restitutive justice, but I wouldn’t use the language of reparations, which more often applies to slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. I’d say these are analogous struggles.
What I was thinking about more broadly is the larger question that the swarm of mosquitoes that narrate the novel raise continuously, which is about error and contingency and agency. So there’s a kind of cycle of unwitting retribution happening between these three families, whereby one family is harming the other, which is harming the third, which is harming the first, and this keeps going throughout the generations. I triangulated that relationship, instead of having two families at war like the Montagues and the Capulets, in order to render this kind of oblique quality of relation that undermines our ability to pinpoint blame.
So, for example, the first collision between three family members that are ancestors of the three major families, which happens at Victoria Falls Hotel—it would be hard to pinpoint the blame for the acts of violence that take place in that context. Because you could say Lina reaches out and hits N’gulube because she’s upset that her mother, Ada, has left her side. Ada has left her side to attend to her husband, Pietro, who has just had hair snatched off his head. And Pietro’s hair has been snatched off his head because Percy was trying to grab his hat as a joke. And Percy accidentally hurt him because he was feverish with malaria and so not fully conscious of what he was doing. So really the creature to blame for all this is a mosquito!
This sort of thing happens throughout the novel. Everyone’s responsibility for any particular complication is always mitigated. Agency emerges in relation rather than as something we each possess deep inside of us (like “I did something wrong”). It’s very rare in the novel where someone actively does something wrong to someone else. Most of the time, there’s some set of contingencies that draw people into some kind of collision.
And that is, I think, one way of reconceiving colonialism—as a set of forces that interact and create these really arbitrary and strange acts of violence that will change the entire fate of the rest of the nation. Don’t get me wrong. There is power behind this. There is structural violence. Imperialism does have that kind of force. But to pinpoint it as one person or another’s fault is very difficult. And I think it’s a seduction to think that we can blame single agents for structural violence in that way. So if we think about the borders that got drawn in Zambia, the upper left-hand corner is orthagonal, literally because the king of Italy took a pen and drew this border at a right angle. To me, that kind of arbitrariness is just as important to understand about colonialism as all of the force and power behind it.
Z: What does your novel say about what it means to be African?
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NS: I wanted to subvert expectations of what it means to be African. So the idea of “being Zambian” gets contested at various points in the novel. One important figure for this is Agnes, who comes into Northern Rhodesia just as it’s turning into Zambia. Her marriage to her black, Zambian husband is illegal until after independence. So anyone who was in the country at the moment of independence became Zambian. That was the rule. So she stays and becomes Zambian. By the end of the novel, she’s spent most of her life in Zambia.
So this is very similar to my father, who came to Zambia in the late 1960s and, when the country became independent, became a Zambian citizen; married a Zambian (my mum); and stayed. So, to me, he’s Zambian even if he’s white. He speaks a Zambian language. So I was interested in the question: what do you do with that kind of assumption of identity? Sir Stewart Gore-Browne is another example—he came as a British settler and he was violent to his Zambian workers, but he also then became involved in the fight for independence from the British. He helped Kenneth Kaunda become our first president. Browne was one of the first people to represent black Africans in parliament at all.
So it’s very hard to separate out the racial question and the cultural question and the national question. And it’s also very clear to me that characters like Agnes and historical figures like Gore-Browne and people like my father in my own life still retain a vestige of Britishness that means they will never fully be accepted into Zambian society in certain ways. And they still have white privilege. But they’re Zambian, too. So to be Zambian is a very complicated term, one I wanted to throw into contestation. Even someone like Naila in the contemporary generation, she’s born in Zambia to an Italian mother and an Indian father—she considers herself Zambian, she considers herself black . . .
Z: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.
NS: Yes, this is why her friends are like, “Uh, black how?” They laugh at her. But that claim to solidarity with other Zambians is itself the basis of her sense of her identity. I wanted to point to the multiracial and multiethnic, multi-linguistic roots of my country and see it as a place for syncretism. President Kaunda, when he said, “One Zambia, one nation,” this was our mantra when we became independent from the British. He was trying to lasso all of these different people together. Because it’s not just people from outside. There’re also seven different main tribes within Zambia. So a sense of unity that still acknowledges differences is very important to Zambian identity.
On a related note, you know, the question of the naming of Victoria Falls is very interesting to me.
Z: Yes, I love that the book begins with that. I think Mosi Oa Tunya, which translates into “The Smoke that Thunders,” is a much more meaningful and much more beautiful name.
NS: David Livingstone was the person responsible for naming it Victoria Falls, but it was very unlike him. He did not name any other pieces of landscape. People who know about Livingstone know what sorts of preconceptions he brought with him. They know about how he treated his bearers (black workers). He beat them. He shot at one of them once. He was very condescending to them.
He also freed them from slavery. He also advocated to eradicate the Arab slave trade. He literally freed people with his own hands. He brought religion to Zambia, and Zambia is still a very religious country despite our first president having been a “humanist,” not a Christian. There’s still a lot of Christianity in Zambia. So Livingstone is revered as a missionary there.
And we still call it Mosi Oa Tunya, but we also still call it Victoria Falls. So there’s this kind of ambivalence and this kind of double acceptance. It’s a good example of the kind of ambivalence that I want to represent in the book, because I think to pretend otherwise would be to deny the reality of how things are at home, whether or not I agree with it.
Z: I want to turn now to the Greek chorus parts of the story—the mosquitoes. What is their main purpose in the book?
NS: In the novel, they’re there to represent this larger philosophy about error and contingency. What one might call a “butterfly effect,” where tiny factors open up a whole set of consequences on a much larger scale, is being redescribed as a “mosquito effect.” And they’re there to give us arguments about what the novel as a whole is doing—to define what “drift” means in the title beyond the Old Drift being just a colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River.
Z: What does “drift” mean?
NS: So the mosquitoes talk about the etymology of “error.” It’s “to stray” or “to wander.” So error as this kind of overarching principle is being investigated and explored through the way the characters interact with each other over time. Zambia comes into being as an accidental nation and is following this—they call it “the law of the flaw,” which is the tendency to swerve away from a straight and narrow path and to be in this constant state of drift.
Z: In the novel, Ba Nkoloso is probably the most flashy character, but also the most mysterious. It’s hard for me to figure out whether I should take him seriously, but I think it’s also difficult for the characters to figure out whether they should take him seriously. I can’t tell whether he’s part of the solution or part of the problem or both. I think you’re going to say both.
NS: Well, he was a real person. I wrote an article for the New Yorker about the archival research I did on him. So this ambiguity about whether he was serious or not is something I tried to figure out in real life, and I just couldn’t. People had very different perspectives on him. When I looked at this archival material, I found that he was a very intelligent, articulate person. He was a freedom fighter. He was extremely political his entire life, especially after he came back from fighting for the British in World War II. And it’s very hard to tell whether the Zambian Space Programme was a kind of disguise for further guerrilla activity. He was working with neighboring countries that hadn’t yet achieved independence through the African Liberation Center after the Space Programme. So it’s hard to say whether the Space Programme was a cover because he was teaching people how to make bombs and how to engage in those kinds of political protest. And he actually was tortured by the British, as I depicted in the novel, and some people say that he went mad because of it. But he’s still very well respected at home as a freedom fighter because he was a big part of the struggle for independence. I’m glad it came through that I was trying to capture this ambiguity about this person. There is really no definitive answer as to whether or not what he was doing was a joke, satire, a cover, or just a product of him losing his mind.
Z: Well, it’s good to know that he was real. I was thinking he might be a trickster character.
NS: I tried to use the trickster analogy in an essay for the New Yorker. I’m not sure if they kept it. Yeah, but he also played these pranks. Like the corpse prank where he and his comrades pretended to have killed the prime minister’s wife! That happened.
It was right on the verge of independence. So, at that point, it was chaos. He talked about it in an interview from 1988. He tells the story. So it’s not just that people reported him to have done it. He was like, yeah, this is what we did. It’s really fascinating.
Z: Reading The Old Drift, I was never completely sure of your position as the author because there are so many different characters in so many different time periods with so many different views.
NS: It’s not meant to be a polemic. It’s meant to be a representation of how I believe life and history and Zambia work, rather than a prescription or argument about how they should be. I think the only thing that is consistent throughout the novel, which very few people are talking about, maybe because it’s like the water we swim in, is class. From the very beginning to the very end, class politics is incredibly important to how people relate to each other. Class determines a lot of the action and how people come into their sense of identity. If there’s a position in the novel, it’s a call to action for a revolution that would yield equality for people, for women in particular. I feel very strongly about that desire for equality but that you can actually achieve this only through acts of contingent and brief solidarity.
Z: Why would it have to be brief?
NS: Because I think that if you try to fix solidarity into an ideology, it becomes oppressive in its own way like Communism or Stalinism. So it has to be contingent. It has to work in these moments where people can converge and share goals and act upon those goals as activists, but then disperse. You can see this politics in the characters I call The Weepers. So they don’t have an ideology, right? They have very different reasons that they’re weeping, but they can come together in moments where they share a goal and try to correct a wrong or overturn an oppressive system.
Z: When you say contingent and brief it makes me wonder if you’re saying that it can only happen with individuals who have no ideology because they can in a moment do something but not necessarily have a structural argument for what they’re doing. So are you saying you believe more in people who take action for more personal reasons?
NS: Similar to my desire to remove the notion of agency, I don’t actually mind why people are doing what they’re doing. Half the reason Joseph is involved in the revolution at the end of the novel is because he’s in love with Naila. So I think people’s reasons for being part of a political movement are not something we can actually fix or determine or judge someone’s purity by. Like Sibilla’s first political act at Kariba Dam—her reasons for what she does are not very political. But she has this sense that the displaced people she seeks to help have certain rights, and so that’s why she joins them. And the people she joins, their reasoning is neither pure nor is it purely political. But there is a possible moment where political change can happen when they join forces.
And I couldn’t actually revise that history. The fact of that history is that they displaced the Tonga people and they built the Kariba Dam. I couldn’t make it so that it was an effective revolution, but I did want to show, again, these moments where people can form a kind of momentary pact. We all have our reasons for wanting to overthrow something. So let’s join together in order to do that.
Because I think if you dwell too long to come up with a manifesto or a plan, action just doesn’t happen. My perspective on the efficacy of revolution is pretty ambivalent because I just think, historically, there are these moments when change erupts. I no longer feel convinced that we’re going to get to something progressive through gradual change (through the government and society).
Z: So what you’re saying is that it’s more these moments of revolution where people who might not even necessarily be on the same page in terms of the big picture can work on one small thing?
NS: A lot of this idea of a brief moment of contingent solidarity comes to me from the work I did as a literary critic on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which there’s a particular moment where Paul D escapes with other men who are in a chain gang. They’re all in these prison cells that are underground with a chain connecting them. A storm picks up. There’s all this mud. They’re going to drown in it. They pull on the chain to communicate, to rise up, basically. None of them knows why the others have been arrested. They’ve all been arrested for different reasons. They all end up in this chain gang for different reasons. They don’t get to communicate with words or ideas. But they use, Morrison says, “the power of the chain” to rise up through the mud. Then they meet up with a group of Native Americans who’ve suffered a smallpox epidemic. And, again, there’s this brief, contingent form of solidarity that allows these two groups to survive, but then they scatter. And that kind of pattern repeats in Beloved: these moments where you can converge to try to overcome a shared oppression. But the idea that that would then consolidate into some kind of political movement is not possible.
And, you know, that’s 19th century slavery in America, but I find something very promising about that way of thinking about politics because you see it in the protests that are happening now, you see it in the marches. There are these moments where people converge, but they don’t necessarily have a group identity or a platform. They just agree in that one moment that we need to fight for this or against that. And I think that’s really powerful.