How It Felt: A Profile of Namwali Serpell

by
Renée H. Shea
8.17.22

I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” So begins Namwali Serpell’s second novel, The Furrows: An Elegy—a powerful exploration of grief, memory, and loss that becomes part of a larger story of Black identity and double consciousness—forthcoming from Hogarth Books in late September. Told in two sections with vastly different narrative styles and structures, it begins with the apparent drowning of Wayne, a seven-year-old boy, near Bethany Beach, Delaware. His body is never found; he is missing. The only “evidence” is the story his sister, Cassandra, tells of what happened while they were swimming and he was lost in the waves: “those whirring sheets of water, the foam along their edges sharpening like teeth…the furrows chewing, cleaving deeper.”

Namwali Serpell, author of The Furrows. (Credit: Jordan Kines)

Although Serpell calls autobiographical links to her new novel “so oblique that it’s hard to map things directly,” there are connections. The genesis of The Furrows dates back nearly twenty years to when her sister Chisha, to whom the novel is dedicated, died of a drug overdose. “What I took from that experience,” Serpell says, “had to do with the grieving process—my refusal to accept her death psychologically and this sense of seeing her everywhere.” In 2019 she published “Beauty Tips From My Dead Sister” in BuzzFeed because, as she tweeted, “I think about her every day and this essay explains some of the reasons why.” With her sister’s voice still in her head, Serpell imagines her advice: “Yes, I’m here every night in your dreams, but, yes, I’m dead. And yes, it’s okay that I’m gone. Once the rage of sadness leaves your body, let me go, touch my cheek, hold my hand.”

Serpell began writing The Furrows in 2008, completing a full draft six years later, before finishing what would become her debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth Books, 2019). Her practice is, she says, unusual: “I have five novels in my head right now, six with The Old Drift. I work on them when the notion strikes or I have time and space to immerse in just one of them. If a piece of music, a fragment, even a sentence crosses my path that I know is going to be part of one of these novels, I understand exactly which one it goes in. It’s almost as if they already exist, and I’m unveiling or revealing them to myself.” She continued working on The Furrows at the same time she was publishing short stories and pieces of The Old Drift, an epic novel that she felt required her to have a firm grasp of Zambian history and politics. Although writing “the great Zambian novel,” as numerous websites and magazines called her debut, was in her words “mostly a joke,” she felt the pressure of that expectation.

She needn’t have worried: The Old Drift put Namwali on the literary map. In a lead article for the New York Times Book Review, Salman Rushdie called the nearly 600-page multigenerational saga an “extraordinary, ambitious, evocative first novel.” He praised “its creation of three unforgettable female characters” and its “complex narrative of the founding and growth of Zambia.” Namwali, by then an associate professor in the English department of the University of California in Berkeley, became someone to watch, though she had been steadily gaining recognition for her short stories and nonfiction pieces for years. She had won the Caine Prize in 2015 for her short story “Sack,” and in 2020 The Old Drift added the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in science fiction to her list of honors, which will likely grow after the publication of The Furrows.

Serpell was born in 1980 in Lusaka, Zambia, to a British-born Zambian father, Robert Serpell, a psychology professor at the University of Zambia, and a Zambian mother, Namposya Nampanya Serpell, an economist. They moved to Baltimore when Serpell was nine, during a time both difficult and, as it turns out, fortunate. In an article in the Harvard Gazette, she recalls not fitting in and experiencing the cultural clash of being mixed-race in a country that defined race as a Black-white binary. “The public library became my home,” she says. “I became a writer when I became an immigrant.” Her academic degrees add the word scholar to that description: a BA in English from Yale University and a PhD in American and British fiction from Harvard University, where she became a full professor in the English department in 2021.

She began a serious revision of the manuscript of The Furrows in 2020, influenced by her reading of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” and her novel The Days of Abandonment. While the structure remained basically intact, Serpell shifted from third-person narration to first-, more explicitly giving readers the story (or stories) in the voice of Cassandra (Cee or C), a central character. During her spring break in 2020, while she was working on the novel, the pandemic struck, and that summer George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. “Those two events didn’t change the content of what I was writing, but they changed the urgency of what I was trying to get at in two senses: confronting death and confronting the racial politics,” she says. Additionally, the 2016 death of her mother had changed how she perceived the relationship between Cassandra and Charlotte, her mother, since, she realized, “the stakes became higher in how these two characters were able to survive their grief.”

Serpell draws readers into the roiling nature of grief, in particular what psychologists call “ambiguous loss”—that is, loss that occurs without a likelihood of reaching emotional closure or a clear understanding—at the same time she subtly reminds us that this story is a deliberate counterweight to the higher-profile narrative of white girls who have gone missing. In The Furrows, the missing is a seven-year-old Black boy dramatically visualized in the image on the book’s cover. Serpell sees “some uncanny synchronicities” in the image, taken from a painting by Jerrell Gibbs, a young African American artist who recently received attention for his portrait of civil rights activist and congressman Elijah Cummings. When her partner sent her a link to Gibbs’s website of a series of the same boy in different contexts—with flowers, in front of a museum, in a sea of blue water—she knew immediately that the image of a boy up to his shoulders in water was the one for her cover: “So much of it resonates beautifully with what I’m doing in the book. Jerrell is from Baltimore; his studio is in Pikesville, which is where I grew up and is the setting for part of the novel.” All of the paintings in the series are named after musical notes, and the one on the cover of The Furrows is titled “C Note,” which Serpell calls “a lovely pun not just because I refer to Cassandra as C, but also because a C-note is a $100 bill, which is also a way of talking about that hustling side of things that the second part of the novel is interested in.” It even alludes to her academic persona: C. Namwali Serpell, a nod to her full given name, Carla Namwali Serpell.

The structure of The Furrows is likely to be a central part of the conversation the novel generates, as it was in reviews of The Old Drift, with its different narrative forms pushing readers to view the stories of three families from different perspectives, which a reviewer for the Guardian called “genre blending.” In the first half of The Furrows, Cassandra’s struggle and that of her family are front and center as she imagines what might have happened to Wayne, different ways he might have died, though “missing” not only is the family’s way of referring to him, but also becomes the family business: Cee’s mother sets up a foundation called Vigil to search for missing children. Although there are swift movements from the “real” life at home and in school and Cee’s imagined scenarios, Serpell wanted to achieve “that balance between being a dream or memory and being a real thing that you’re feeling.” As someone who herself has vivid dreams, she recalls the experience of dreaming that her sister was alive and waking up to the reality of her death. “It didn’t feel like a dream; it felt like I was going through it again and again,” she says. “There’s something in the human mind that balks at the very idea that someone can just not be there anymore.”

Serpell expresses the search for a way to talk about, to understand the experience, as Cee casts about for the right language. At one point she writes, “The world was tilted now, and Wayne’s absence in our lives had become the drain toward which everything ran.” Later she thinks of the family lore of what happened as “a loop at the end of a rope, a lasso endlessly tossed, catching nothing.” Lost in her own way, this troubled character seeks different images to describe what Serpell believes is in fact “indescribable and unfathomable.”

In the second half of the novel, Serpell changes the rhythm, tone, even plot: “I wanted a radically different momentum once we moved out of the staggered and jagged repetition of the first part. There’s a lot of, at least attempted, beauty and poetry in that first half. I wanted to change the dynamic to contrast enough with Cee that we would realize that hers is only one way to deal with loss.” Cee remains, but the perspective shifts to a character named Wayne—a mysterious double? a con man?—and another man who calls himself Will, allowing Serpell to investigate different voices through code-switching and forms of Black speech that reflect class distinctions. She cites crime fiction, the Gothic, and noir as influences on this section filled with shadow figures, mistaken identities, backstories, flashbacks, and violence. Her research in this case involved reading classic mystery writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, though she also points out the importance of the nineteenth-century doppelgänger short story “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Crime fiction also gave Serpell a stronger grasp of plot. “I thought if I stick to the tropes of noir, I’ll have a novel with a beginning, middle, and end, which is not always easy for me,” she says with a laugh. Achieving a tighter structure required trimming this second section, especially, she recalls, the multiplicity of characters. “The second half had gotten much longer, more characters, more doppelgängers, a real confusion, sort of like Ocean’s Twelve.” But loss remains a central issue, though not the specific personal loss of the first section. Instead Serpell moves toward “other losses, especially within the Black community, that are so pervasive, so daily in a way that you don’t even have the time to grieve because you’re so busy trying to survive. It has less to do with the way grief pulls you back, over and over again, and more with the uncanniness of not being able to feel like a whole person because you are constantly being identified with other people until your racial representation overtakes your sense of self. This is what [W. E. B.] Du Bois famously called double consciousness.”

Landing in a jail cell because of a series of mistakes and deceptions, Will expresses his own take on Du Bois: “It’s like you dead, and now you gotta spend the rest of your days as a ghost to the life you was sposed to be livin,” Serpell writes, revisiting what Du Bois described in 1903—in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from The Souls of Black Folk—as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” To The Furrows she adds what she calls the “triple consciousness that results from intrablack class conflict,” particularly in a city like San Francisco, the setting of most of the new novel’s second section, where it’s not unusual to find the affluent in their elegant Victorian homes near an encampment of the homeless.

To Serpell these conflicts are personal. In 2021 she wrote the essay “How ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ Taught Me to Love Blackness” in which she candidly recounts the evolution of her “nigrescence.” “Growing up,” she wrote, “I often worried I wasn’t Black enough—because my father’s white, because I wasn’t American.” How she dispels both of those anxieties is the encouraging narrative of this essay. Now, in her early forties, Serpell chooses to focus on another phrase from Du Bois: “gifted with second-sight.” “I feel that the richness of being a Black woman of a certain class can only be additive,” she says. “My identities don’t cancel or cross each other out: They enrich each other. Having a foot in multiple worlds can only be to the writer’s advantage.”

In 2017, Serpell became a U.S. citizen—a symbol of her growing self-assurance, perhaps, but also a practical matter. Zambia did not allow dual citizenship until then, and she was not willing to renounce formal, legal ties to her homeland. Without American citizenship, however, she faced certain restrictions: “I found myself afraid to join protests at the airport because it’s federal property,” she says. “If you get arrested on federal property, you can be deported, which would blow up my life.”

Activism is part of who Serpell is, her life a bold exercise in human rights in the most literal sense. When she received the Caine Prize in 2015, she announced that she would split the monetary part of the award with the other shortlisted nominees. She was surprised by the impact and intensity of responses. On September 23, 2020—the same day she learned that the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor would not be charged with murder—she learned that she won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Old Drift. She donated the entire monetary prize to the Louisville Community Bail Fund for those detained during protests. She eschews being praised for “generosity”; instead, these actions are motivated by her political and philosophical beliefs about the nature of art. “The logic of competition, of reward, is deeply capitalistic,” she says, part of “the insistent corporatization of publishing.” She looks to what she calls “people recognition”—other writers, talented editors, and her readers—instead of monetized success. At the same time, she is a realist, quick to acknowledge that the steady and substantial paychecks from her academic jobs and publishing make her financial contributions more support than sacrifice: “I do it because I can.”

In writing as in life, Serpell crosses boundaries—or simply ignores them. The scope and scale of her comfortable movement among fiction, including novels and award-winning short stories, as well as literary criticism, film and television reviews, and journalism, is extraordinary. She reviewed the HBO series Watchmen for the New York Review of Books (“In the Time of Monsters”), Jordan Peele’s Us (“Uncanny Valleys”) for the Nation, and Pixar’s Soul for the New Yorker. She has published essays in the Paris Review, the Guardian, Slate, the Yale Review, and the New York Times. Serpell is a frequent contributor of long-form journalism for the New York Review of Books, and her essay “Black Hole,” which paid tribute to the Black vagina, went viral. She has numerous academic publications, including two theory-based works on ethics and literature: Seven Modes of Uncertainty (Harvard University Press, 2014) and Stranger Faces (Transit Books, 2020). Both academicians and other writers recognize the ease with which she brings disparate, sometimes conflicting fields together. Award-winning writer Carmen Maria Machado describes Serpell’s work as “formally inventive and gorgeous” but also “accessible,” adding: “I don’t mean that in a condescending way—it’s just that so many academics have trouble writing well, and she does it so effortlessly, in Stranger Faces especially. That level of thinking is dissected and argued so clearly to me, a nonacademic.”

Now that Serpell is a full professor at Harvard, some who were her teachers during her graduate student days have become colleagues. One of them, Glenda R. Carpio, professor of African and African American Studies and English, recalls meeting Serpell in a graduate seminar during a discussion of Thomas Pynchon and marveling at a mind “so expansive, so erudite, so young, so ready.” Of special note was “her curiosity that allows her to switch and mix thinkers: She can go from Cardi B to Kant!” And the writers and thinkers who animate her academic study are alive and well in her fiction as an ongoing conversation. The novel’s title itself, The Furrows: An Elegy, reflects the image of the furrow from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray. Serpell sees links between this poem written in the mid-1700s about the unsung poor (“their homely joys, and destiny obscure”) and her new novel that investigates class within the Black community. The novel’s epigraph is from In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. In one scene of a sexual encounter, the woman repeats an emphatic “No,” an allusion, Serpell points out, to Molly Bloom’s “Yes” at the end of Ulysses by James Joyce. An idea for the novel began in a seminar discussion Serpell was leading on Blindness by José Saramago. An ardent fan of Virginia Woolf, she calls To the Lighthouse “a relevant subtext” for The Furrows. The list goes on.

Carpio sees in this student turned professor “someone who exposes the limits of separating the academic and the artistic, the dangers of compartmentalizing the scholarly and creative.” She admires how liberating it is for students who encounter lectures, such as those Carpio has seen Serpell deliver, that offer “both scholarly knowledge and a sense of understanding literature as someone who produces it.” This dual perspective of scholar and artist energizes what to many would be traditional literary criticism, a quality never more apparent than when Serpell writes about her principal inspiration, Toni Morrison. Yet there’s a sense of humor in her intellect, a lightness that comes through in the midst of sadness and solemnity; in The Furrows, for instance, the women who work with Vigil are dubbed “the Vigil Aunties.” Machado sums up the impact of Serpell’s singular mix: “I trust her implicitly. I’ll read anything she writes. I’d read her grocery list!”

Serpell challenges the popular notion of empathy as the raison d’être of literature and worries that it is ultimately dangerous and promotes “an impoverished view” of narrative forms, especially the novel. “Empathy to me is morally neutral,” she says, reflecting on whether the awareness, even appreciation, of difference leads to more ethical behavior. In “The Banality of Empathy,” a 2019 essay in the New York Review of Books that riffs on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Viking, 1963), she calls the idea that art promotes empathy “a meaningless platitude,” at its worst becoming “a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism.” Nowhere in The Furrows are these claims put to the test more than in the apocalyptic ending.

This ending—no spoilers here—remains almost identical to what Serpell wrote in the first draft. She finished it, she says, during a thunderstorm, unlikely weather for the Bay Area, where she was living at the time: “I was typing away during a huge, lashing thunderstorm, and part of that apocalyptic air must have come from that! The objective correlative came true: It was a dark and stormy night that made me write this stormy ending.” Here Serpell explores the novel not only as a lament, but as what she has called “a troubled love song.” In some ways demonstrating the limits of empathy, she says, “I’m playing in some sense on readers’ natural inclination to see these two attractive people come together, as I’m exploring this fundamentally unanswerable question of whether love can actually solve your grief. The wrongness that I insert at key moments in the story—the initial suggestion of incest, the sense that these two people have deeply betrayed each other, the violence that erupts whenever they connect—is meant to make you question the love story that I am otherwise encouraging you to desire.”

Serpell has said that one of Morrison’s gifts to her is “difficulty”—that is, writing fiction that is “demanding and sophisticated…and at the same time…accessible in a sort of emotional way…like jazz.” Resisting knee-jerk empathy that is an end in itself and refusing to presume she has the answers to big questions of loss and injustice, Serpell offers that satisfying difficulty in The Furrows that unsettles readers as it draws them in. If it’s disquieting, all to the good. She achieves Cassandra’s desire—and perhaps her own—“to tell you how it felt.”

 

Renée H. Shea, formerly a professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has written extensively for Poets & Writers Magazine, including profiles of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, Rita Dove, Imbolo Mbue, Naomi Shihab Nye, Arundhati Roy, and Tracy K. Smith. She is a frequent contributor of interviews, most recently with the poet David Baker and novelist Lisa Bird-Wilson, for World Literature Today. She is lead author for the English Language Arts High School Series for Bedford, Freeman & Worth.

Correction: A previous version of this profile incorrectly referred to Robert Serpell as British; in fact, he renounced his British citizenship to take on Zambian citizenship in 1979.