Namwali Serpell's creative work plays fast and loose with genre, making her popular with readers piqued by the unexpected. SSDA teamster, Efemia Chela got a sneak peek of the Zambian writer's newest short story, "Company" and chats to her about its exciting premise, Afrofuturism at large as well as her highly anticipated debut novel.
Perhaps what I enjoy the most about your writing is the inherent element of surprise in your work. I listen to this strange podcast called Welcome To Nightvale and the host has a mantra - "Past performance is not a predictor of future results." This statement applies to your writing in some ways; readers can never anticipate what you’ll write next. We’ve had a bank statement, Facebook posts and your latest story uses Samuel Beckett’s play, “Company” as a point of departure.
Could you speak to your peripatetic (I suppose one could call it) approach to subject, character and form in your storytelling?
NAMWALI: I write out of a sense of curiosity. The idea of having the same voice--these days, people call it a “brand”--bores me immensely. I also believe that constraint is the mother of originality, so the delight I take in writing often comes from figuring out which form resonates with the experiences that intrigue me at any one time. These are often quite distinct.
Being a Zambian writer, when you look at Zambian literature does it influence your writing at all? Do you think there are any gems, overlooked novels or stories that people should read?
NAMWALI: The Zambianness of my writing comes more from a sensibility I derive from hearing stories from friends and relatives than from our print literary tradition, which as you know, is not very extensive. My father’s colleague collected and translated a big volume of Zambian folk tales about Kalulu that we used to read when I was a kid--we called it the Omnibus. I loved them! But your own writing is some of the best Zambian fiction out there--so I’ll recommend Efemia Chela’s “Lusaka Punk” to those looking for places to start.
Ha ha. You're too kind!
“Company” is an incredible sci-fi story - ripe with bizarre sensory images, ominous apocalyptic grandeur and clever social commentary on race. It features in McSweeney’s most recent quarterly. Though I don’t want to give too much away, the story is about a woman, Lila and the unnamed narrator on a space and time-travelling quest for a valuable natural commodity. On what should be a routine stop in a village to harvest some, things go badly awry.
How did the idea for story evolve and finally come to life?
NAMWALI: I had a dream about a bubble floating over the ground with little legs sticking out from the bottom--it was a portable invisibility room of sorts. It became a time travel machine in the story, and the rest sort of grew out of that. I have long been obsessed with the opening line to Samuel Beckett’s "Company": “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” I had included the sentence in an early draft of the story to describe the beginning of the protagonist’s training.
After I had a complete draft, McSweeney’s reached out to me to solicit a story for their “Cover Stories” issue, asking that I cover a classic story, the way you might cover a song--I was given complete freedom as to how. Since I’d already included one Beckett line in my story, I decided to go back and reread "Company", and I discovered many other lines that resonated with the Afrofuturist story I’d already written. So I incorporated them into my prose--the story is now about 40% Beckett’s original lines. It was a wonderful way to be in conversation with his work. I think of it as a Janelle Monaé cover of a Philip Glass song.
Your writing often addresses technology, an uneasiness that characterises modern living and it unlocks wholly imaginative futures. As a theme in your work why do think you peer into the future so often?
NAMWALI: “Peer” is the right word. I am a big fan of sci-fi that reaches slightly forward from the crest of the present--the “near future.” The show Black Mirror, for instance, appeals to me because of its plausibility and its satirical edge. I was greatly pleased to discover, for example, that one element of a sex robot I invented for a Tin House story in 2012 had been patented by the time I gave a reading from the story in 2013. An audience member at another reading I gave pointed out that, despite the insistent variety, my stories all concern mediation--the things between us, through which we talk, love, hate, hurt, and so on. Sometimes they are texts, sometimes they are technology, sometimes they are other people.
I’ve often thought that Afrofuturism, retrofuturism and SFF have such great appeal in Africa because living with the disappointment, the discontents of the postcolony, it is a way for us to begin again. To relive and reimagine both the past and the future as a creative continuum. This genre is something you both lecture on and write about in fiction. What are your thoughts on Afrofuturism?
NAMWALI: Well, they’ve only had such great appeal in Africa lately, as Nnedi Okorafor points out here. And in the founding document of Afrofuturism, Mark Dery’s 1992 essay, “Black to the Future,” he coins the term in the midst of bemoaning the relative dearth of Afrofuturist texts: “Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?” That historical absence is telling--how can you imagine a future when your present remains so steeped in material lack and violent negation?--but it also inspires the Afrofuturist writers who are scribbling away now. My aim as a black sci-fi writer is not only to help fill that void, but also to riff on the void, to think about the annihilation of black bodies and black culture as a ground zero from which we might build a new politics or even a utopia, which etymologically means "no" + "place".
You’ve written a lot of short stories but just finished the manuscript for your first novel. Did this change in form, require a changing of gears or was the segue into a novel quite natural for you?
NAMWALI: Well, some of my short stories are just chapters of a future novel! But, yes, now that I have moved into the process of editing the entire manuscript, I am thinking more about larger scale questions: How and when do characters return to influence the plot? What are the thematic threads stringing this mess together? Where do I cut off a chapter to keep the momentum going rather than aiming--as one might in a short story--for a sense of closure?
Are you allowed to tell us a little a bit more about your forthcoming book, The Old Drift?
NAMWALI: Yes! This will be my debut novel and it should be coming out in 2018. It spans two centuries--1850 to 2050--and multiple genres, including the Gothic and sci-fi. It tells the story of three multicultural Zambian families over three generations, spiraling down to a love triangle and a political movement. I use the saga of these families to pose some rather grandiose questions: How do you live a life or forge a politics that can skirt the dual pitfalls of fixity (authoritarianism) and freedom (neoliberalism)? And what happens if you treat error not as something to avoid but as the very basis for human creativity and community?
Being an African writer is unique kind of burden. Thinkpieces on us, what we should write, how we should conduct ourselves, where we should live, even, abound. Often where one’s home country doesn’t have a particularly strong literary community, any pre-eminent author that arises is pressured to grow it. Or write for their nation, whatever that means. These discussions often come down to at their heart, the role of the writer.
Do you have any opinions on the role of the writer?
NAMWALI: The role of the writer is to write. I do like to say that The Old Drift is the Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for, but my tongue is firmly in cheek. I am more interested in trying to capture the quiddity of a place and its cultures than in propaganda, pronouncements, or pulpits. I’m too "movious", as we say in Zambia, to be patriotic.
On Namwali’s Bedside Table
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s brilliant novel Kintu, which has just been reissued in the U.S., and which I’m rereading for a conversation I’ll be having with her in Brooklyn next month; Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue; and I’m privileged to have an advance copy of Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom.
"Company" by Namwali Serpell can be read in Issue 49 of McSweeney's which is out now.
Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer who teaches at UC, Berkeley. Her story “The Sack” won the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing. It first appeared in the Africa39 anthology, a 2014 Hay festival project to identify the best African writers under 40. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2011. Her first published story, “Muzungu,” was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2009, and shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize. Her first novel, The Old Drift, will be published by Penguin Random House in 2018. She tweets occasionally @snamwali.
Interview by Efemia Chela a.k.a. @efemiachela