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5 Reasons Why I Loved Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift

In 2009, Namwali Serpell’s short story “Muzungu” published in Callaloo was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2009 and a year later it was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing (a prize she would go on winning five years later). Now, this story – reworked – sits in the middle of Serpell’s spellbinding, epic 560-pages long debut novel The Old Drift. After having finished it, I felt like I had just read five different books. It is so rich, brimming with ideas, fantastical in it turns.  While I am still gathering all my thoughts (for a more thorough review published elsewhere) and already planning a re-read, I want to share with you some of the reasons I loved the novel.

  1. This generation-spanning novel has no lack of fascinating and memorable characters. The Old Drift follows three family lines. In the middle of a vast cast, at the core, there are the grandmothers Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha, the mothers Sylvia, Isabella, and Thandiwe, as well as the children Joseph, Jacob, and Naila. We see them grow up amidst often chaotic or at least less ideal circumstances, fall in and out of love, pursue their dreams, stumble, built and lose friendships, change,  get politicized, err (and err a lot), starting anew.  Through shifting perspectives and leaps in time, we sometimes see a character first through the assessment of another character and only later gain insides and are forced to reconsider the character’s actions. Serpell creates layered, complex, fallible humans.
  2. This is a book about humans and humanity. But it is also a book about mosquitos. A swarm of mosquitos functions as a choir throughout the novel, commenting, mocking. The mosquitos are not only shown as spectators but also as agents of history. This swarm is the first and last voice of The Old Drift and it puts the human actions into perspective. Zzzz Zzz Z Zzzzzz Zzz.
  3. If you are like me and love everything from the elusive category of literary fiction to all kinds of genre fiction, this book got you. The multitude of themes which are taken up in the novel (like colonisation, the othering of certain bodies, the promise and dangers of technology, the intricate intersection of race, class, and gender, medical testing, religious sects, etc.) are also reflected through the employment of different genres. From fairytale to gothic, from historical novel to sci-fi, The Old Drift defies easy categorization and instead builds its own box to be sorted in.
  4. I also loved the historical details. Namwali Serpell chronicles, discusses, shapes (parts of) the colonial and post-colonial history (and future) of Zambia. Combining massive research and bright imagination, Serpell creates a narrative which sometimes made me stop to quickly find out if some particular detail refers to something which actually did happen or not. I was especially delighted to read Serpell’s re-imagination of the Afronauts, a part of Zambian history I have always found very fascinating. (Also read her New Yorker article about the topic: The Zambian “Afronaut” Who Wanted to Join the Space Race.)
  5. This novel put me through all the emotions: I laughed out loud while reading several times, the next moment I was angry watching the characters make decisions I deemed ‘bad decisions’, I felt their sadness and joy, and I felt absolutely tense during the big final showdown.

If you want to listen to Namwali Serpell live talking about her novel and you live in London or Berlin, you have the chance to do so very soon.

Wednesday 3rd April, London: The wonderful Sarah Ozo-Irabor (@booksandrhymes) will be in conversation with Namwali Serpell. This will be a live episode of the new Books & Rhymes podcast, exploring the intersection of literature and music.

Friday 4th April, Berlin: Namwali Serpell is guest at the African Book Festival Berlin where I will speak with her about The Old Drift in a short Tête-à-Tête. Serpell will also be a participant in the roundtable on “New Places, New Voices. Influence and Reflection of Migration in Literature.

I received the novel as a review copy from Hogarth.

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