When Namwali Serpell and her fellow English student geeks at Yale were immersed in “all these classic multigenerational, post-colonial, post-imperial novels,” they shared a running joke about the novel Serpell had already started to write.
‘It’s the Great Zambian Novel you never knew you were waiting for!” she recalls with a laugh.
Turns out they were wrong. Almost 20 years later, Serpell’s “The Old Drift” (Hogarth, $28, 576 pages)is the great Zambian novel the literary world really has been waiting for. The book that made many of spring’s “most-anticipated” lists has received glowing reviews and numerous comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ s “100 Years of Solitude.”
Serpell hasn’t really been writing the sprawling epic for decades. In the meantime, she went to Harvard for grad school, published a book of literary criticism, started several other novels and completed one that’s parked in a drawer. She also joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 2008 and now teaches, among other classes, one on black science fiction. Along the way, she’s been widely published in magazines and picked up writing awards that include the Caine Prize, for African writing, in 2015.
On a recent afternoon in her sunny San Francisco’s Mission District walk-up, Serpell acknowledges adhering to her old college ambition.
“It’s my attempt to tell as much about my country as I could and to reflect two major things,” she explains. “The first is to explore the accidental quality of a country that’s sprung from a series of very unpredictable convergences between different concrete nations.” The other: “What does the weight of those convergences of multiple cultures even mean? We have tribes speaking 72 different languages.”
Zambia is also home to Europeans, Southeast Asians and Chinese who immigrated there after the Scottish explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone stumbled upon Victoria Falls in 1855. The story begins in the real-life British colonial settlement that followed, the Old Drift. It’s there, in a hotel bar, that a drunk white entrepreneur named Percy Clark, an odd Italian chef and a black busboy play parts in a farcelike accident with tragic results. Generations later, their descendants’ lives will become intertwined.
Employing a cheeky sense of humour, Serpell seamlessly weaves natural realism — an Addams Family’s Cousin Itt-like woman covered in hair, another woman who cries incessantly — and science fiction into the epic family novel. Imagine the literary love child of Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.”
The daughter of a white British father and a native Zambian mother, Serpell seems to glide as gracefully between continents as genres. Her parents met when her father moved there to teach at the newly minted University of Zambia. Serpell’s mother, one of the first women in the country to graduate from college, worked for the United Nations Development Program. Serpell was born in Zambia but also grew up in London, Hull and Baltimore as her parents accepted different positions.
Zambia’s native language is English, but as she moved around the world, her young ears heard it spoken in many different ways. As a result, she’s “bi-accidental.”
“I can go British just like that,” she says, snapping her fingers and smiling. “I don’t know if it makes me seem fake or like I have dexterity.” But, she adds, as someone who was often in a new school in a new country she, like several characters in her book, was under pressure to fit in.
Serpell’s playful writing displays a clear love of language paired with an inventiveness that crops us in the Greek chorus of mosquitos that weigh in throughout the book. The idea came to her in a dream, in 2004, in which a giant, robotlike mosquito landed over a crowd of people.
“It had these two proboscides extending from its mouth, and it was taking in resources on one end and putting in disease with the other. … It was essentially a metaphor for Africa.”
AIDS cannot be transmitted by mosquitoes, she reminds, “but the question of blood was very much present in my thinking about how this could get transmitted. All of this formed together to make a plot element of the novel.”
By the time the book ends with a boy born in 2024 who is distantly related by love, lust or marriage to all three men on that fateful day in the hotel bar, the author has had great fun with tiny, mosquito-like drones and, on a more serious note, the microchipping of humans and a cure for HIV-AIDs.
She’s astonished, in fact, that what was science fiction when she began to write had morphed into reality by the time the book was published. “One of my favourite things about the novel is that the most outlandish things were real.”
Sure, it’s filled with mythic tropes like the crying woman, she says, but the “Afronauts” in Zambia’s 1964 space program, or the historical character Percy Clark’s racism has been called out in several reviews.
“They say ‘this is so outrageous, or his racism is so two dimensional…’ But it’s true! The Zambia space program was a real thing, and my first chapter was based on (what was said) in Clark’s ‘Autobiography of an Old Drifter.’”
One of her goals with the ambitious novel is to make readers think differently about her homeland. “A lot of what I’m doing is subverting expectations and tropes in culture and literature that people in the West tend to have,” she says. “I want them to see Zambia and Africans more broadly.”
Another is for her vividly drawn characters to demonstrate the following dichotomy: the tendency in human nature to try to fix things or pin them down while also wanting to run away from them.
The Old Drift, she says, is not only a place but a human condition. She uses the mosquitoes to illustrate her point.
“Basically, the swarm is saying ‘obey the law of the flaw.’ Error isn’t something we should try to fix or correct or to escape or flee from, but rather it’s a principle that we should embrace,” she says. “It produces something.”