Read African Writers: The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

old driftzambiaThe Old Drift, by Zambian-born writer Namwali Serpell, is hot right now. The New York Times calls it “a dazzling debut,” NPR talks about “exquisite acts of literary ventriloquism, the Washington Post calls it “a brilliant literary response to generations of bad politics.” It’s mostly set in Zambia, but it spans four generations (extending into the near future), a long list of characters — as Michael Silverblatt says, “you have a pencil and a piece of paper” — and multiple continents. At 576 pages (or 25 hours of audiobook), there’s a lot there. I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I occasional missed some of the intergenerational character connections (I should have wielded that pencil), perhaps because I was listening to the audiobook. Occasionally a “Greek chorus” enters in the form of a swarm of mosquitos: “We’re your oldest friend, your ancient enemy … We’re perfectly matched … We’re both useless, ubiquitous species. But while you all rule the earth and destroy it for kicks, we linger and loaf, unsung heroes. We’ve been around here as long as you have — for eons before, say the fossils.”

Several multi-generational novels have come out by African writers (who all happen to be women) recently: Homegoing (by Gyasi), Kintu (by Makumbi), She Would Be King (by Moore). Homegoing is excellent and it’s also the most easily accessible to a Western reader, much of it taking place in the United States. Kintu is expressly not written for a Western reader, which is part of its charm. The Old Drift — especially in the early years — privileges a number of European characters, but with 550+ pages, there’s lots of room for Zambian voices, and they fill the latter half. Notably, indigenous blacks and European whites and South Asian browns all mix to make up Zambia here.

Here are a few lines that I found thought-provoking:
  • “History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.”
  • “The first time a Shiwa audience saw John Wayne die, the women started up a fanfare of mourning like he was a long lost relative. When Wayne came back to life in the very next film, the audience erupted again. ‘But why?’ asked Agnes. ‘Were they happy?’ ‘No!’ Ronald laughed. ‘They said it was cheating!’
  • “To have nothing to do was like having your fingernails pulled out, one by one.”
  • “In truth, Sylvia was relieved to have failed out of school for good. She had never understood why the teachers taught why they taught. Sediment, tectonic, archipelago. Hypotenuse, equilateral, isosceles. What was any of it good for? No. She did not miss those useless lessons.”
  • “Progress is just the word we use to disguise power doing its thing.”
  • “The flight attendants…were done with coddling. They snatched Naila’s blankets and demanded her headset, they claimed her rubbish and chastised her tilted seat.”

This is book #25 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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