Zambian Author Namwali Serpell Gains Recognition

The UC associate professor’s first novel, ‘The Old Drift,’ echoes the styles of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

It’s the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.

So says UC Berkeley associate professor of English literature Namwali Serpell — tongue firmly set in cheek — about her debut novel, The Old Drift, published in March by Hogarth.

She’s not far off the mark. The book delivers a panoramic portrait of an African nation unfamiliar to most readers in the United States, an ambitious cross-generational saga full of history, magic, and scientific speculation, compared by early reviewers to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison.

Born in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, Serpell, 38, came to the United States at age 8, when her psychology professor father accepted a position at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Serpell is mixed-race — what they call “coloured” in her homeland. “It has a whole set of associations, lingos, and cultural practices around it,” she said. “We moved to Baltimore, where the racial dynamics are very different and much more binary. It was a shock to the system, trying to figure out how to survive.”

She said books became a haven for her, as she tried to make new friends and find her own social group. “I got really obsessed with science fiction, especially Michael Crichton and Ray Bradbury. I had to abandon that when I went off to college.”

At Yale, Milton’s Paradise Lost was her “gateway drug” to serious English literature. After graduating, Serpell pursued her Ph.D. at Harvard. At Cal, she’s taught courses on black science fiction and American genre fiction. Genre, she said, “is a lens for how we look at the world.”

The novel that would become The Old Drift grew out of some of her earlier stories. Episodes originally conceived as prologue and epilogue are now published separately. The epilogue became short story “The Sack,” for which Serpell won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. The prologue is to be published as the story “The Living and the Dead” in the anthology New Daughters of Africa, coming May 2019.

Over all, Serpell said she’d been writing The Old Drift “off and on” for about 18 years.

“I decided to start it with a question, ‘How do you write a story about a whole country?’ I decided to begin with a graveyard.”

The Old Drift is the name of a cemetery near Victoria Falls in what is now Zambia. “It’s the last trace of a colonial settlement from the late 19th century, where Percy M. Clark, a wannabe photographer, landed to make his fortune,” Serpell said.

In the novel, Clark encounters an Italian hotelier who is building the first Victoria Falls hotel. Feverish with malaria, Clark makes a mistake that entangles his fate with that of the hotelier and a busboy.

“This sets off a cycle of retribution that moves over the course of three generations, through the 20th century and into the near future,” Serpell said. “Their children and their children’s children continue to collide in various points in Lusaka, as Zambia comes into being, moves toward independence, and possible revolution.”

Currently a resident of San Francisco’s Mission district, Serpell recently became a U.S. citizen. “I put in my application basically right after Trump was elected. Zambia finally passed a new constitution that allows for dual citizenship,” she said.

“It was a complicated choice, but it made sense,” Serpell added. “I’ve spent more of my life here than in Zambia. I feel very much a citizen of both places.”

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