Namwali Serpell on Depicting the Uncertainty and Experience of Grief
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On writing to experience your own closure:
Namwali Serpell: I find uncertainty very difficult to deal with in my life. I’m someone who struggles with that, especially when it comes to moral questions, but also aesthetic questions and political questions. I make a lot of lists and plans. But I found myself really compelled by uncertainty in literature. A lot of what I was trying to do was think about what the aesthetic effects, what the affective effects, and what the ethical effects of literary uncertainty were. What do these novels afford for us as experiences rather than as transmissions of a certain message, or testimony of a certain story. So I became really interested in trying to figure out a way to structure a novel that was oriented in that direction, which was how to make you feel something with the structure of a text rather than know something…
In some ways it feels like a privilege to be allowed to write a book like this. When you look at the history of literature and the books that have stayed with us, many of the reference points that we have for the novel as such, you find that the long history of the novel is very interested in these forms of disturbing or unsettling readers’ expectations, even if it’s manipulating your expectations in one direction and thwarting that expectation.
Even so-called traditional novels like Jane Eyre are really interested in constantly undermining what it is you think you know about what’s happening to Jane. As we move into the Modernist period in the early 20th century, writers like Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, they’re all playing in exactly this mode. It’s something that to me as a literature student and now professor, it’s so familiar to me that I’m actually surprised by how uncomfortable contemporary readers are with it. Because it seems like we’ve been doing this for a really long time.
And also it seems to me that a lot of TV and film has been playing with this, particularly repetition. Part of what we’re talking about in this novel in particular is that I repeat certain events from a different point of view, I iterate them so there are different iterations of how my main character loses her brother and then there’s another. There’s one version of how she meets a man who resembles her brother, and then there’s another.
This use of repetition to destabilize the reader is something we see in The Affair, Russian Doll, even I May Destroy You… So to me it felt like I could rely on my reader to cotton on to what was happening pretty early on in the narrative. If you continue hearing Cassandra telling you pay attention to what you’re feeling rather than what’s happening, my hope was that the reader would be carried along through and thereby undergo the experience that I was really setting out to depict, which was the experience of grief…
I wanted to capture the way that despite our desperate attempts to construct a trajectory for grief – the five stages or the seven stages – the desire to achieve closure or healing. Even though I’ve written this book that radically is moving against this idea, I still have people ask me if the writing of the book gave me closure or healing in my own mourning process. Which I think is really interesting because there’s this real desire for stability.
Namwali Serpell was born in Lusaka, Zambia, and lives in New York. She received a 2020 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, and a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Her debut novel, The Old Drift, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, and the Los Angeles Times‘s Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; it was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review and one of Time magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of the Year. Her nonfiction book, Stranger Faces, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. She is currently a professor of English at Harvard.