Namwali Serpell on Her New Novel, The Old Drift
On Reading Women with Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett
This week on Reading Women, Autumn and Kendra talk with Namwali Serpell about her new book The Old Drift, which is out now from Hogarth Books.
Autumn Privett: One of the characters, and I don’t want to give away who or what it is, but one of the characters—I guess you can call it a character—in the book that is my favorite is the italicized narrator between each of the sections. And I love that you already mentioned an epic because I was like, “Ooo! We have a Greek chorus.” How did you come about to deciding that this book needed that kind of a Greek chorus to round out its characters?
Namwali Serpell: So the voice of that swarm narrator—and we can we can give away that it’s a swarm of mosquitoes; I’ve spoken about it in too many contexts, and I think it’s come up in too many reviews to share a secret at this point—that voice came to me very early on, I think, around 2002, after I graduated, maybe 2001. And it belonged initially to the final descendant, who is the son born of Naila, who was one of the three children of uncertain paternity. And at some point, I realized that this, you know, this young man who would be telling the story of his family history, that he would exist in the future. And I also realized that I didn’t myself know who his father was and I didn’t want to know.
And so figuring out who he was as a person proved a task that I didn’t feel quite up to, especially because his voice was so grandiose, and it didn’t really seem like a human voice. And then at some point after I had returned to writing the book and was trying to figure out a way to keep that voice and also to use it as a way to, kind of, pull lessons or some kind of threads out of this very long and rich narrative, or what I hoped would be a long and rich narrative, and I needed some container for this voice. And I’m not sure, you know, people to ask me this, and I know where I was when the idea came to me and I know which elements all clicked together. I knew that the interest in flying things and the interest in blood, the interest in viruses and disease—all of that, and just, you know, the old drift itself, the place as the swamp. I knew that all those things would come together in this figure of the swarm of mosquitoes, but I can’t exactly put my finger on what triggered that idea. I’m glad it came to me, though, because I had a lot of fun writing those sections of the novel.
Kendra Winchester: And there’s something about also the first chapter of the woman with all the hair, and you know that is, there is an actual condition.
NS: Yeah, hirsutism.
KW: There are moments when she’s trying to “pass as normal.” And I’m using lots of air quotes here, but she has to shave her face, and you can tell—just the way, you know, it’s very subtle the way that you describe it, but like she’s very unhappy doing that. Like you can tell she doesn’t feel ashamed of her hair per se, like it’s part of who she is. And so the fact that she’s doing that, it just makes her feel like she’s not herself. And I thought that was so well put because a lot of times when we discuss these types of things, people are always trying to cure you or cure the thing that you have, and that’s not how she viewed her hair. It was just part of who she was as a person.
NS: Yeah, actually, there are scenes of all three women, you know, when Matha is crying all the time—there are scenes of all three women confronting people who want to cure them. You know, Sibilla with her lover’s older brother, who has written to a German doctor to find out what her condition is called and how it might be treated. You know, with Agnes, Mr. Sakala, the cook, is always saying that his wife is praying for her sight to return. And you know, with Matha, there’s people who are who are constantly trying to cheer her up, even though she’s, you know, she’s cried herself into this, basically, into into blindness. And you know, all three of them refuse that, which I hadn’t realized it until you just said it. But they all three of them are like, “Yeah, no, I don’t want that.”