Namwali Serpell’s Postcolonial Epic

Back to the Future

Namwali Serpell and the Great Zambian Novel. 


Namwali Serpell’s debut novel, The Old Drift, asks a lot of big questions about Zambia but also more generally about the history of the postcolonial world: How does a nation come into being? How does the intimacy between two people change the world around them? What are the politics and ethics of remembering the past and imagining the future? The scope of these questions is necessarily too wide even for a novel of nearly 600 pages, but just raising them opens us up to a world humming with human life and complexity, and some nonhuman murmurings.

The Old Drift is a multigenerational tale, following three Zambian women, two white and one black, as well as their descendants over the course of almost a century—a century in which a nation is born and begins to imagine its future. The novel’s three sections correspond to its three generations of protagonists, with a swarm of mosquitoes, operating like a Greek chorus, that narrate the book’s story in between. The first generation—the grandmothers—includes Sibilla, born in Italy and covered from head to foot in hair that grows at an alarming rate; Agnes, a tennis prodigy from a wealthy British family who mysteriously loses her sight one autumn; and Matha, a Bemba revolutionary who, abandoned by her boyfriend, begins to weep and won’t stop.

All three end up in Lusaka, the capital of what, over the course of their lifetimes, will become Zambia. Though the grandmothers never meet, we witness a chance interaction among their ancestors decades earlier at the Old Drift Hotel, an inn built by English settlers on the banks of the Zambezi River. As a result of this accidental meeting, the lives of these women, and their children and grandchildren, grow further and further entangled.

Throughout the novel, Serpell keeps an eye on Zambia’s history, using turning points in its colonial and postcolonial past to follow the evolution of her characters’ politics and social positions. Like a boat on a river, the narrative steers past the imperial scramble for Africa, makes a detour through the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and passes by the damming of the Zambezi before making stops to mark Zambia’s independence in 1964, the privatization of its economy in the 1990s, and the recent Rhodes Must Fall student protests in Cape Town, South Africa, where one of the characters’ grandchildren is set to attend university.

Often, we don’t experience these events up close so much as see them at a distance, filtered through a series of dinner-table conversations, casual teatime chatter, and family squabbles over money. References to HIV and global warming are found throughout the latter parts of the book, referred to obliquely as “The Virus” and “The Change”—abstractions that have near-mythological properties.

The novel’s wide scope, however, doesn’t prevent it from being extremely specific, as attuned to the light and smell and intimacy of everyday life as it is to the violence and inequalities of colonialism and patriarchy. We see a teenage sugar baby and her friend, abandoned by their families, giggle and flirt in the shack they share. An old woman’s bowel movement overflows in a police station toilet, halting all operations for half an hour; one of our protagonists takes this as revolutionary inspiration. Julia Chikamoneka, the anti-colonial activist, is mentioned more than once. In 1960, she famously made the British colonial secretary cry by baring her breasts at him. “The most amusing incident in my life,” she later recalled.

Serpell is a master portraitist: Even the tertiary characters have distinct personalities of their own, and the moments of human connection are frequent and genuinely touching. Likewise, when her characters fail, Serpell shows us how we, too, might fail under the same circumstances. When she upends our expectations, it isn’t for cheap shocks; instead, we wonder why we had those expectations in the first place.

Serpell was born in Zambia to an academic and an economist, who moved the family to the United States when she was 8. In this way, her biography is not all that different from a new generation of authors, many of whom are the children of African immigrants or immigrants themselves: novelists like Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Taiye Selasi, and Yaa Gyasi, who have been described as “Afropolitans”—“not citizens,” as Selasi put it, “but Africans of the world.”

The Afropolitan novelists tend to focus on the experiences of an African diaspora that hails from the educated, urban middle classes. They see their work as an effort to capture an Africa that has come to the rest of the world, settled in its imperial centers, and is now helping to remake them. As Cole observed in 2015, he sees five archetypal “African cities”: Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, Brooklyn, and Twitter.

While Serpell’s biography aligns her with this Afropolitan generation, The Old Drift moves in the opposite direction: Africa isn’t emerging into the world; the world is emerging out of Africa. Many of Serpell’s peers conceive of an Africa that follows its writers (and their characters) into coffee shops in London and college towns in Connecticut; Africa as a physical space is largely peripheral to their work. The Old Drift, on the other hand, is intensely located in Zambia—in its slums, its mansions, its universities, and its administrative buildings. The novel ends where it begins, at the Kariba Dam.

Serpell keeps the map of the world but puts Zambia at its center. Her city dwellers come from rural Italy and suburban England and bustling Indian towns and small Bemba villages. Her Greek chorus of mosquitoes buzzes about, reminding us of Nyanja etymologies as well as Latin ones. But part of Serpell’s point is that you don’t need to leave home to become cosmopolitan.

The Old Drift introduces its first generation long before they become grandmothers, as young children living in three different countries, bound for the same nation in Africa and linked only by an ancestral connection to the Old Drift Hotel. Sibilla’s, Agnes’s, and Matha’s childhoods could hardly be more dissimilar. Sibilla grows up as the daughter of a housemaid in Alba, Italy; Agnes is raised in wealthy suburban Britain; and Matha hails from a village in rural Zambia. But as the three move closer to Lusaka in the last days of the British regime, their lives and their families’ lives begin to intertwine. Matha, alone and heartbroken over a fellow would-be guerrilla, invites herself into a Lusaka shantytown to live in a hut with her cousin, who works as a maid in Agnes’s palatial home. Matha’s long-lost sister ends up as a city administrator, the supervisor of Sibilla’s granddaughter at a government office. In her old age, Sibilla begins to donate her copious hair to Matha’s daughter’s hair salon, where Agnes’s son, now a doctor, goes to study women with HIV-resistant genes; the garden behind the salon is the place where the grandchildren meet for the first time.

Serpell is a nimble storyteller, weaving this web of connections delicately and convincingly. She also deftly engages with the ever-evolving political and moral questions that these intersecting families face in a changing Zambia, and she has a sharp eye for the contradictions and hypocrisies of Europeans in Africa. In one scene, Agnes listens as the distinguished Englishman who has paid for her husband’s travel and education fumes about the “colour bar” separating black and white Zambians and speaks sympathetically about Zambian independence. Only later does she learn from her husband that this supposedly benevolent colonial gentleman is in fact a violent overseer and sadistic terror to the Africans who work on his land.

Much later in the novel, we watch as subsequent generations confront the equally vexing legacy of colonialism, such as the student protests demanding that Cecil Rhodes’s statue be removed from the University of Cape Town campus. Near the end of the book, the grandmothers share pieces of their history with their grandchildren, and we see how each generation relates to Zambia’s history differently. The struggles that these characters face may have changed, but the underlying structures creating these difficulties never went away.

Serpell is not a didactic storyteller, and her characters are never just mouthpieces—but sometimes the movement of history and plot seems to overwhelm them, and they’re not always given enough space to think before they’re forced into action. Which might, after all, be part of Serpell’s point: We are often forced to act before we can think about why; we are not always the subjects of history we’d like to be.

This is most visible in Naila, the novel’s final narrator, a horribly embarrassing and familiar leftist type. The granddaughter of Sibilla, Naila is a student at the University of Zambia. She wears Zambian-flag panties and has a bar-code tattoo. (“The lines are meaningful but not, like, capitalistically,” she explains.) She ends up in a messy love triangle with Jacob and Joseph, the grandsons of Matha and Agnes. Naila is a dynamic figure who sets not only herself but also Jacob and Joseph on a revolutionary course that shapes the last third of The Old Drift.

The Naila sections are as close as Serpell gets to satire in a novel that is otherwise often gentle with its characters. Naila is painfully earnest, and her flights of fancy (like her tendency to refer to herself as black, despite being of Italian and Indian descent) can cause us all to wince. Serpell’s satire here, however, serves a larger purpose: She uses Naila to explore the serious consequences of political action taken at a speed and with an eagerness that leaves little time for nuance or self-criticism.

Naila’s drive toward revolution, in other words, skips too many steps. While she throws herself and her lovers into insurrection, clandestine meetings, and mass movements, we’re not entirely sure why. In the first third of the novel, we see how the grandmothers come to be politicized and how their social positions in Europe and in Zambia inform their political choices and ideological commitments. Sibilla stands with villagers who refuse to be evicted to make way for the Kariba Dam; Matha joins a band of leftist guerrillas sparked into action by colonial violence. But with Naila, it’s difficult to understand what motivates her radicalism, even if her monologues have all the right targets—Zambia’s technocrats and shady foreign investors—in their sights.

Perhaps this is the result of coming at the end of a nearly 600-page novel; perhaps it is also Serpell’s recognition that sometimes politics guides us as much as we guide it. With one surprising exception, the grandmothers’ plans all fail, buckling under the weight of colonial repression or exploitative marriages. But Naila’s revolutionary struggles fail, it seems, mostly because she has taken a set of shortcuts and because she is often moved for individual, not systemic, reasons.

The Old Drift’s critical reception thus far shows that its reviewers haven’t quite figured out which genre to place it in. Serpell dodges all attempts at classification: She is at once a realistic writer and a writer of futuristic speculative fiction, at once an African writer and an American one, at once a novelist writing about the world and one who puts the specificity of her setting above all else. The character whose hair grows several feet a day is as real as the one who won’t stop crying. What unites these women more than their strangeness is that they are, in a sense, founders. For Serpell, they are the beginning of a nation that exists, in its ambitions and hybridity, beyond the boundaries or expectations set by the British.

The first section of The Old Drift is full of weirdness and fantasy; the middle is an assemblage of realist subgenres (bildungsroman, campus novel, recent historical fiction, hysterical realism); and the final section is a blend of science fiction, spy thriller, and political manifesto. Serpell’s literary speculation in the third section may be the most helpful approach to constructing a radical politics for the years ahead. The future seems to always happen first in Africa. Impossible floods on incomprehensible scales, a continent of digital natives, and soft forms of economic domination from abroad—this is not so much fiction as a contemplation of our near future. Even when the novel strays from realism, Serpell deftly reminds us that she is no further from describing human life.

Indeed, some of the novel’s strangest parts are also its most historically accurate. For example, a plotline about freedom fighter and science teacher Edward Mukuka Nkoloso and his Afronauts recounts the story of his unsanctioned Zambian space program in the ’60s, which satirized the ways in which the West’s space race was entangled with imperialism and a fetish about “discovery” and being first. Slipping in and out of literary realism, as Serpell does, shows both how concrete and how impossible her characters’ dreams are: fantasies of liberation, of domination, of collective struggle.

While she was writing The Old Drift, Serpell jokingly referred to it as “The Great Zambian Novel.” But it delivers on that tagline. It’s a study in the creation of a national consciousness, casting a sharp eye on how history gets made and remembered. But unlike the Great American Novel, The Old Drift doesn’t romanticize colonial and postcolonial Zambia as a place where these puzzles are unique. Instead, Serpell’s premise is that the conditions for these confounding experiences can be found everywhere.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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