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?
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.