Namwali Serpell on the “Uncanny Rhythm” of Poetry and Grief
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Namwali Serpell about her new novel, The Furrows.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: I was washing the dishes before this interview and I was thinking about the felt experience of grief and how storytelling is so key to your main character Cassandra’s experience and understanding of her grief. So, I just wanted to ask you about that about storytelling and its relationship to grief and why that was important to you?
Namwali Serpell: That’s a great question, because it allows me to juxtapose two different ways of thinking about the relationship between grief and storytelling. I think one of the ways as a culture now and many cultures over the centuries, think about grief is as a process. It happens as an effect with a cause, usually some kind of loss and that rupture becomes something that we try to explain through narrative, and that we also try to work through in ritual forms that have kind of stages that kind of tell a story.
Some of that is telling a story about the thing you’ve lost, or the person you’ve lost. But some of that is also about narrativizing for yourself, exactly what happened and what we have survived. And you see this in very simple ways in the interest in stages of grief, right? What we go through at each point in our grieving process, and there’s sometimes theories that these stages happen all out of order that they go back and forth, that they recur. But they have built into them this notion of an arc, or a kind of movement through time that moves, hopefully, towards some kind of reconciliation. Closure, as we like to put it.
But it seems to me that in my experience of grief, things are much less linear, and much less narrative, much less able to be told as a story, and much more like a kind of uncanny rhythm. And one of the reasons that I ended up calling the novel an elegy is because it seemed to me that the relationship between grief and story was actually a relationship between grief and poetry. And it had to do with the way a poem doesn’t necessarily move from beginning to end; a poem doesn’t necessarily have stages or an endpoint. A poem has this quality of a rhythm that you’re trying to capture, and a set of images, maybe, that strike you or you move through, but there’s no real message, there’s no real story; there’s rather a kind of enactment of a feeling.
Namwali Serpell was born in Lusaka, Zambia, and lives in America. 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. Her latest novel, The Furrows: An Elegy, was named by Time Magazine as a 100 Must-Read Books of 2022 and is also a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2022. She is currently a professor of English at Harvard.