Namwali Serpell talks ‘The Old Drift,’ interweaving narratives of identity

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Campus associate professor Namwali Serpell’s novel “The Old Drift,” as its glowing New York Times review notes, opens on a wall of mosquitos. Buzzing in onomatopoeic white noise, they visually and contextually fill the first line with a line of z’s — “Zt. Zzt. ZZZzzzZZZzzzz…” — and bookend the novel in an eerie chorus as they reappear in its final chapter. Mosquitos are peppered throughout the book — in motifs, in brief mentions, in small illustrations which visually divide the chapter in the same way a dash or a dot might. Prevalent interruptions, they make a new normal in replacing established literary conventions.

It seemed fitting that Serpell’s conversation at Mrs. Dalloway’s this past Friday evening began on that topic. The room was a-buzzing 15 minutes before the author arrived. Among those taking seats was a familiar community — campus professors from the English department, current and former students of Serpell and curious College Avenue passersby stopping in for a gander.

Along with author and editor Yael Goldstein Love, who was asking most of the questions, Serpell described her writing process, explained key themes within the book and read aloud from chapters.

“The Old Drift,” is a debut novel describing the journeys of three generations of a family — “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children” — in the midst of political upset and revolution from 1890s Zambia to its near-futurist 2020s. Infused with genres of magical realism, realistic fiction and science fiction that varied just as much as its subjects, the book is deliberately difficult to recap. As a sum of its collections, it manifests both the author’s own growth, 35 years in the making, as well as the recurring themes of cosmopolitan diversity it prominently features as functions of its setting — Serpell’s native Zambia.

Going off of how mosquitoes served as artificial boundaries throughout the novel as well as the “Greek chorus” heralding the obstacles to come, Serpell spoke first on the inspiration behind portrayals of borders and colonialism in her novel, articulating how the “Scramble for Africa” and its legacies affected her own family. Her mother grew up on the border between Zambia and Tanzania, and when the nations were split in two by European powers, it cut her village straight in half. The village was only a microcosm for the forceful creation of Zambia itself, cobbled together by distant rulers drawing, as Serpell put it, “right angle(s) on a map” with no regard for the people already living there. The subsequent strife, civil and otherwise, is a legacy of colonialism as Zambia was frog-marched toward nationhood.

“The fluctuation is such a big part of Zambia that I wanted to start with that idea of arbitrariness,” Serpell said. “How do you collect a nation into being? How do you lasso seven major tribes… into a nation?” The vocabulary of nation, as well as its privileged status upon the historic and the present, mirrors the description on the book’s opening page: “This is the story of a nation — not a kingdom or a people — so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

The motif of rivers, too, surfaced again and again. Serpell explained that the book’s title, “The Old Drift,” derives from the term for a cemetery, or “old drift” that lingered across the river right above Victoria Falls. The title was a reminder of rivers, drawing natural and artificial divides across the landscape, as well as the lingering death that came with such divisions. Zambia, Serpell describes, can be as cosmopolitan and multicultural as any shoreline city of the developed world — one which is vibrantly born of the intermingled flowing of cultures within its defined borders as well as without.

She reads narration with what she calls a “Zambian-English” accent, the way she speaks among her family and gives life to each character by embodying their mannerisms as well as their lively, weary, and adrift languages — Zambian, Italian and British. The dress she wore to the event, with a purposefully mismatched pattern of geometric shapes known as African wax print, is yet another representation of what she calls the “syncretic anthropology” of confluent histories that runs recognizably through her artistry. The fabric, too, was a discarded symbol of colonialism, a design shipped to Africa when Europeans favored cleanly-matched lines, but Africans made it their own.

On the notions of personal growth and reflection, Serpell returned again to the formation of this project, some 560 pages long and the culmination of a project she had started as an undergraduate at Yale University and continued, on and off, throughout the course of obtaining a PhD at Harvard University and a tenure-track position at UC Berkeley. The scenes were not originally written in the order in which they appear in the book, and some were previously published separately as vignettes and short stories. At one point, Serpell digitized the novel’s events in an massive Excel spreadsheet in an effort to organize the narrative.

“There’s a modular sense to the book …” Serpell said. “(In the end) the mosquitos stitched things together.” She only felt the project’s completeness when, reading through it again and again, she found a sense of culmination, realizing that she was finally responding to the narrative not as a writer, but as a reader.

As the event drew to a close, following a lighthearted lightning round of questions and audience inquiries, the room’s renewed bustle seemed muted in comparison to before. Margaret Warren, an out-of-town visitor dropping in on the event when she passed by on the street, remarked on how fantastic it was to be able to stumble upon events like these in Berkeley. “She’s so literate, so amazing!” she gushed, standing in line to shake Serpell’s hand, her book nestled in the crook of her arm.

Anna Ho is the weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected].