She Joked About Writing the Great Zambian Novel. Then She Did It.

Photo: Penguin Random House, Peg Korpinski

I met Namwali Serpell last fall while we both hovered over the cheese plate at an event at the Ruby, a women’s co-working space in San Francisco. Over the course of the evening, which involved karaoke, it became clear that I had met a kindred spirit, a writer and reader with a deeply held appreciation for ‘90s hits (no anti-Alanis sentiments here) and genre fiction, which she was teaching to her students at UC Berkeley. Over the next six months, we had a series of friend dates and conversations about reading, writing, and our respective upbringings moving between continents (I’m a foreign service brat; Namwali was born in Zambia, moved to the U.S. when she was 8, and then back to Zambia when she was 15 for a shorter stint). We bonded over the joyful agony of publishing our debut novels, which we exchanged. She had just read mine, The Golden State, and I had a chance to read an early copy of hers, The Old Drift.

Namwali’s book, out March 26, is a massive multi-generational novel 20 years in the making. It spans a couple of centuries and tracks three families over four generations, animating the events of Zambian history with Namwali’s unique application of obsessive research, beautiful prose, playful genre-blending, and futurecasting. The New York Times called it “an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic,” an apt description of a book that tells a series of interweaving personal stories against the backdrop of colonialism, independence movements, the AIDS epidemic, and technological change — somehow narrating it all through the voice of a literal swarm of mosquitoes. Ahead of her publication date, Namwali, who lives in the Bay Area, and I spoke about novel-writing, careers, mortality, and grief.

LK: You are a tenured English professor at UC Berkeley, with a published scholarly book. How did the writing of this book and other fiction projects work with your day job?

NS: I write fiction on the weekend and during the breaks. Having the summers off is one of the few blisses of academic life. I’ve treated the two careers as mutually supportive but separate. I always say, if my creative and critical writing speak to each other, I’m not privy to the conversation. (I prefer it that way.)

I’m sure some of this resonates as you are a parent as well as a full-time writer and (not long ago) editor at the Millions! How have you balanced this stuff, not just logistically, but psychologically?

LK: They say about having children that just when you get used to them doing one thing, they start doing something else, and the same seems true for the logistics of domesticity. The way things were when I was writing The Golden State felt sort of manageable, if financially unsustainable beyond the year I spent writing it. There was one child, and I had a freelance editorial stipend that almost covered day care. My husband had a good full-time job with excellent health insurance, and our rent was very reasonable by San Francisco standards. I was thus completely reliant on him to carry the family financially — partner privilege, you might call it.

Then right when I sold the book, our landlady died and we had another baby and suddenly our monthly household outlay was much higher. There is maybe an alternate world where I have a different brain and a different work ethic and can live within my means and stay home with both kids until they start kindergarten and still try to write in the moments in-between; but treating editing/ freelancing/ book writing like the time-consuming jobs that they are, and thus making paid child care a family priority, is important to me. That has meant leaving the Millions so that I could focus on (a) freelancing that pays more and (b) writing another book. My friend once said that the idea of having more children was so tempting to her because you “want to see who else is in there,” like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and I have that feeling about kids, but it’s also become the way I think about whatever novels might be (I hope are!) gestating in my consciousness … somewhere.

Can you talk a bit about how your novel came into being? Did you always know this was going to be something giant?

NS: I’ve technically been writing this novel off-and-on since the year 2000 or so, when I was a senior in college. My friends and I started joking around then that I was going to write The Great Zambian Novel. In many ways, that makes The Old Drift a product of an era — one marked by those big postmodern, postcolonial, postimperial book (or POMO POCO PIMPs, as I liked to call them). Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and just cresting into the twenty-first century, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It’s my debut, but The Old Drift is belated in this way.
It was always going to be an epic, multi-generational, multi-family, multi-genre saga about Zambia. Oh, and told through multiple genres! I wrote it out of order, though, and published pieces of it along the way.

Two of those publications — the prologue, “The Living and the Dead,” and the epilogue, “The Sack” — got cut from the novel in the final round of edits. I like to think of them as floating bookends. So in a way, the novel is even bigger than it is! Which, come to think of it, is like me: People always think I’m taller than I am.

LK: The Old Drift clearly plays with genre conventions, and it also engages directly with other books, including a seminal “African novel” that has tortured English students for decades. How were you thinking about pastiche, remix, homage, as you constructed the book?

NS: To me, genre is a kind of lens. If you look at an African country through lenses other than social realism, anthropology, sociology and so on, you see different things or you see the same things anew. I was keen to maintain the tropes of the genres I was exploring, even those that are not to my taste (anymore). That might sound strange, but I’m at a stage in my writing that I feel like the best way for me to critique and ironize something is to use and exaggerate it.

LK: Race and color and class figure hugely in your book, but it is also a novel of social change and a cosmopolitan national identity that appears to … maybe supersede ethno-nationalism. (You wrote for The Guardian about the interim Zambian president, whose whiteness astonished more people outside of Zambia than within it.)

NS: This is the aspect of the novel that is most related to my life, though it is not strictly autobiographical. That is, none of the main characters is the exact version of mixed race that I am, with a white father and black mother. But I grew up with other mixed-race families in a neighborhood near the University of Zambia, and went to a primary school run by Indians — some immigrants, some Zambian-born. My best friends were respectively black, brown, mixed.

A friend of mine recently asked me when I understood race as a concept. “Well, when I was in fifth grade …” I began and her mouth fell open in shock. She’s Jewish and grew up in America and my realizing that race was a thing that late in my life was unfathomable to her. But while I knew that my parents were different races from each other, and even from me and my sisters (in Zambia, we’re “coloured,” which means mixed race there), this wasn’t an issue in any way until my family moved to the suburbs of Baltimore. I went into fifth grade there and someone asked me “What are you?” Growing up in Zambia, race was a fact and even a matter of interest, but not a problem the way it so often is in the U.S.

Now I realize that I had youthful blinkers on about this. Race relations in Zambia are not utopian by any means! I’ve learned a lot more about the atrocities visited upon my countrymen by British colonialists (like Percy Clark, whom I fictionalize in the novel), even though we were just a “protectorate.” But my youth in Lusaka really did feel cosmopolitan, and when I read about Zambian history, I also saw that spirit of mixing languages and cultures and religions everywhere — including at the Old Drift itself, the settlement on the banks of the Zambezi river where my novel starts. Smith’s White Teeth was, again, a big influence insofar as the London she wrote about in that novel looked like the Lusaka where I grew up, culturally speaking.

Something I noticed in The Golden State was how often your white narrator notices how many or few non-white people there are in public spaces. This felt amazing and new to me. I’d never seen it in a white-narrated novel before.

LK: On a very basic level it was a response to the post-secondary education I’ve received basically online — my own education came up short that way — about the ways that literature promotes a default white view of personhood/citizenship at the most basic syntactic level — who gets an adjective and who doesn’t. That’s just about the easiest thing to fudge around with (and interrogate yourself, as a white writer, why it feels peculiar to say of a character “There she was, white,” etc.)

This affects worldview and politics in a way that fit with the characters’ particular immigration situation. The immigration plot was part of the novel very early, and was inspired by someone I knew. What struck me is how broadly exclusionary our policies are meant to be, and what this does to families, even very lucky ones.

NS: One of the most moving parts of The Golden State revolves around how to observe and care for someone grieving the loss of a family member. Were there aspects of your personal experience with grief, or with other grievers, that made their way into the novel?

LK: Grief was a big engine for the book, but it was secondhand grief — the character of Alice is based on a woman named Phyllis Hodgson, who was married to the scholar Marshall Hodgson. She outlived him, but also their three children, who died in tragic ways. I had read a bit in his archives about the illness of their two eldest children (twins), and the death of one of the twins in childhood, in letters he wrote, knowing that not only he would soon die, but the other children would too. I couldn’t get the survivor, Phyllis, out of my head.

Your novel is dedicated to your mother, and I know you lost her during the process of writing it.

NS: I basically spent 2016 writing this book and spending time with my mother and struggling to help my father and trying to hold everything together. She was too sick for me to ask her but the truth is, my mother would have been the only person I trusted to fact check this entire book: language stuff and cultural stuff and history. Maybe not the microdrones or mosquitoes, but she could’ve even confirmed the HIV vaccine stuff — her dissertation was about the AIDS epidemic in Zambia.

I broached my mother’s death as a possible essay topic, but my editors, agent, and publicists simply ignored it on our list. This is probably for the best. It’s actually hard for me to explain just how big of a rupture, a chasm, this has been, and will be in my life. We loved each other like mad, of course, but we also really liked each other, cracked each other up. I lost my friend, too.

She Joked About Writing the Great Zambian Novel. And Did It.