Five Questions for Namwali Serpell
Photo by Peg Skorpinski
Namwali Serpell—a Zambia-born writer and associate professor of English at UC Berkeley—made a literary splash this year with the publication of her first novel, The Old Drift. Called “extraordinary” by Salman Rushdie, “dazzling” by The New York Times, and compared to works by Tolstoy and Virgil, The Old Drift is an epic achievement by one of the most original voices writing today.
Q: You’ve received such high praise for The Old Drift. Does all this acclaim put pressure on you now?
A: I’m very happy and grateful, of course. … For me, writing is a conversation with other people, be it those writers who’ve inspired or angered me, or the readers who will recognize my nods to texts they’ve also read—a communal literary history. I don’t feel pressure, because no one could ever sensibly ask me to replicate this monstropolous, idiosyncratic novel, nor to develop a “brand” based on it. What I feel, in fact, is a greater sense of freedom.
Q: How did you tell a story that both captures the particulars of Zambia and speaks to the human condition in general?
A: Every work of literature is both particular and universal. This is built into the dual nature of language, which is colored by our individual experiences, but works as a shared medium of communication. What has long been considered “universal” is the default portrayal of a white, male, straight hero, but that is in fact deeply particular (a minority subset, statistically speaking), “familiar” to the rest of the world only because we’ve been fed it for centuries.
Q: How do you balance your work as a professor with your writing?
A: I write on the weekends, in the summers, and when I’m on sabbatical. I have to separate the two kinds of work, or I find myself writing a kind of meta-prose: an analysis of the story I’m trying to write rather than the story itself. ... Working with students, especially editing their prose, is helpful in that it often reminds me to follow my own advice. And it’s inspiring to see students encounter literary effects for the first time and then learn how to create them themselves.
Q: What is your next writing project?
A: I have two nonfiction projects in the works: a book about why I love-hate American Psycho, and a book about strange faces. I have five other novels I want to write, including one that I worked on for about five years and that is sitting in a drawer, waiting to be dusted off and reforged in the cool fires of retrospect.
Q: What’s your ideal East Bay day?
A: Sitting on the steps under the Berkeley Campanile on a hot, clear day, looking out at the view of the Golden Gate Bridge.