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Arts

Namwali Serpell’s Novel-In-Progress

9.16.21

Namwali Serpell speaking on video chat from her office

Namwali Serpell
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine


Namwali Serpell
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

During a lively virtual reading on Wednesday afternoon, author Namwali Serpell offered listeners a taste of her newest novel-in-progress. A fiction writer, essayist, and critic whose star has been rapidly rising, Serpell joined Harvard this fall as a professor of English—a sort of homecoming, after receiving her Ph.D. from the University in 2008. Born in Zambia and raised mostly in Baltimore, she has written about the limits of empathy, the Sun Ra Orchestra, the “Afronauts” of Zambia’s space program, and the search for meaning and recognition in strangers’ faces. Earlier this year, her essay in The New York Review of Books on black women’s vaginas—“Black Hole”—went viral. Her debut novel, The Old Drift, was published in 2019 to wide acclaim, capturing several literary prizes. A sprawling 600-page epic (begun and largely written during her time at Harvard), it follows a Zambian family across multiple continents and three generations, spanning both historical fiction and science fiction.

Her next novel, due out in 2022, is The Furrows: An Elegy. At Wednesday’s event, sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Serpell described the book as an attempt to capture “how mourning feels,” the tension between, on the one hand, the desire for healing and resolution, and, on the other hand, how the dead keep resurfacing “like breaking waves in the sea,” never quite absent. “Their presence, their love, their quiddity, their specific qualities as a person … crash upon you and you're in this cycle of trying to let go, lose them in the best sense, but also to reunite with them in a way that allows you to live, allows you to survive.” The novel opens with a young boy’s apparent drowning, as his sister loses him in the waves while they are swimming together at the beach. The book’s shape stretches from there, involving moments of loss and moments of reunion, an experimental structure that Serpell called a “kind of large-scale poetic form.” In writing it, she drew in part on her affection and relationship with her nephew, and on the experience of mourning her sister Chisha, who died at 22 from a drug overdose.

During the Q-and-A that followed the reading, Serpell talked about doppelgangers (her novel takes cues from Edgar Allen Poe’s doppelganger short story “William Wilson”), double consciousness, and code-switching. “Shaping the class-inflected forms of black speech was half the challenge,” she says of the book, “but also half the excitement.” Serpell herself speaks in what she called a “split voice”: the Zambian English accent of her birth, the East Coast African American speech she picked up in Baltimore and Cambridge, and the West Coast black vocabulary she added while teaching at Berkeley for 12 years. “I'm not particularly interested in excavating, like, some ‘real’ blackness, because I don't really think it exists,” she said. “I think blackness is variegated and differentiated within itself. What I'm really interested in is the relations between different kinds of black people. And so my effort really is to try to capture what that voice sounds like, have those voices work in relation to each other.”

More than one audience member asked Serpell about her research. She said she has come to understand that talking to people is often at least as important as time spent in the archives or traveling to see a place or event. “Because often what we’re doing is projecting our imaginations,” she said. “I don’t want to tell you what happened; I want to tell you how it felt.” As part of her research for The Old Drift, Serpell visited a temple in India that appeared in one of the book’s chapters. “I was like, I need to see what it’s like to be there.” Later, though, she met a woman at a writing conference whose family was from that part of India. “And I feel like it was much more helpful to me in some ways that actually being there. Because what you want to get at is people's experience, people's lived experience.” One character in The Furrows, who “kind of took over the novel as I was writing it,” she said, is a prison inmate named Will, who commits a very violent act that he doesn’t remember. Getting into his consciousness was difficult, but important. “I don't really have tips on how to how to deal with that,” she said. “You let it pass. You know, feelings are like the weather. It's like a storm comes through.” And as a writer trying to capture those feelings on the page, “you weather that storm, and then you move on. But it's absolutely worth it, to try to evoke this feeling in my readers.”

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