How could an entire massacre be caused by a single mosquito bite? This and many more fabulisms of Zambian history are explored in Namwali Serpell’s debut novel, “The Old Drift.”
A gripping review by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi describes The Old Drift as “… a Zambian history of pain and exploitation, trial and error, and hope and triumph.”
Born to a British father and a Zambian mother, Namwali Serpell recalls growing up in Lusaka in the 80s as very multicultural and cosmopolitan where it wasn’t strange to have people from all over the world in one place. And so when it comes to her debut novel, The Old Drift, Namwali wanted to express this melting pot of cultures and diverse heritage in the book. According to the Namwali, that’s as autobiographical as it gets. She was inspired by Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth which apparently does the same for London and has a similar butterfly effect theme.
What could be stranger than the three grandmothers in The Old Drift? Microbeads in the fingernails, HIV vaccine, Mosquito type microdrones! Namwali credits her wild imagination to being a bookworm at a very young age as a coping mechanism of assimilating new places and new cultures when her family moved around a lot.
In the case of being The Great Zambian Novel, The Old Drift defies genre ambitiously by weaving history, magical fantasy and science fiction together into an intertwined spiral staircase such as that of a DNA strand engendering the novel. Needless to say that tagging the book The Great Zambian novel was, according to Namwali, an inside joke between the author and her university friends during the time the manuscript was taking form when she was only 20 years old.
“Nobody has complained about it being The Great Zambian novel because it is in fact a Zambian novel. The only duality to it is that I am both a Zambian citizen and an American citizen. However, I think the Americans might be tired of America right now and are happy to receive The Old Drift as a Zambian novel,” she lightheartedly mused during the interview.
According to Namwali, The Old Drift is an attempt to explain a historical landscape spanning Northern Rhodesia to the Federation to Zambia and what that meant to us (Zambians). “The novel talks as much about history about the country as much about the people in it,” she affirms.
At a time when the world is getting more selfish and seeks instant gratification, the hope is to recover and continue to push our feminist and socialist origins. “It would be great to look at what sort of things are built into the law and economic policies that support the original value structure of Zambia.”
“The percentage of truth in the book could potentially be 50/50 starting from Percy M. Clark’s own words at the beginning of the novel which are obviously distorted as one person’s truth based on his experiences and racist sentiments, Namwali reveals. How true anything could be is a whole question. All of the history in the book is told through a particular lens of the characters.”
The reader will be wise to know that the author of The Old Drift describes it as an irresponsible novel because there is a lot of stuff that isn’t true in the novel. “It is important to distinguish fact from fiction, especially now because so many facts get distorted, especially online.”
It came as no surprise at all to hear from the author of The Old Drift that her novel contains a constant debate about what counts as historical considering the discombobulated nature of Zambian history. The Old Drift does contain some factual characters such as Alice Lenshina of the Lumpa Church, Edward N. Nkoloso of the Zambia Space Program, of course, David Livingstone.
“Everybody keeps going back to the story of Lenshina because it’s like this wound at the moment of independence. Regardless of what you think of the mental state of Edward Nkoloso or Alice Lenshina, their stories are still incredible stories and need to be told. They’re a mix of strange, beautiful and scary. All recipes for a very gripping Zambian story,” she ponders.
How the novel ends is with a futuristic Marxist revolution having been inspired by Zambia’s own long history of Socialism and Marxism. In reflecting on what made her so preoccupied with certain particular historical figures in The Old Drift instead of others, Namwali alludes that “ultimately you can tell this story in a different way, for example, how did UNIP come to power?”
At the end of the day, it is apparent that Namwali is simply committed to the idea that we experience history as a story and if we weren’t there then it’s a story that somebody else told us. The question that she poses though is how do you tell that story and what do you emphasize?