The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: A Book Review

by Nikita-Kiran Singh

“Men never believe chance can wreak great consequence. Yet the story of this place is full of such slips.”

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift begins where it ends at the Zambezi river, after a winding journey through time and place. Beginning as historical fiction and ending as scientific fantasy, a feat in itself, Serpell’s debut novel highlights her writing prowess. It is difficult to articulate how moving the experience of reading the novel is; it’s almost like starting in one world and emerging in another. You’ll feel confused, unsettled, and maybe even uncomfortable, but also like you’ve witnessed and experienced something profound.

The novel is structured systematically; nine main chapters under an umbrella of three generations of families. Each of these generations is skillfully intertwined, so that by the end, the families are intimately connected in a way that’s difficult to anticipate in the first third of the novel. The stories range from the overtly magical (a woman whose hair grows uncontrollably) to the mythical (a woman who cannot stop crying) to the futuristic (an uncomfortably familiar need for vaccines arises). The description of the landscape as the temporal context changes is fascinating, beginning with magical realism and ending in scientific futurism. Serpell addresses everything from colonialism to AIDS (without ever actually using the terms HIV or AIDS) to CRISPR, hinting subtly at questions without directly asking them.

Serpell centers the novel around the stories of women, whose thoughts and actions are described so vividly that they feel like people we know. Acknowledging how people can be caught between different worlds, her characters make difficult, complex decisions and often pay unfair consequences. Importantly, she describes sex work in a way that doesn’t undermine women’s autonomy, but instead highlights both the structural context and women’s sense of agency. As the novel progresses, Serpell describes oppression in different forms, usually without explicitly naming it, which feels particularly poignant because the characters’ lived experiences are palpably realistic. There are motifs that recur: the meaning of home, betrayal, random chance, serendipity, hair. Central to the novel is the vibrancy of Zambia and the resilience of its people.

What I found most powerful about The Old Drift is its stunning use of contrast, sometimes ironically. For a story that powerfully and directly addresses Zambia’s colonial history, Serpell uses interludes with a chorus of mosquitos, an homage to the Greek classics. She skillfully ties these worlds together in a way that makes sense. Her writing is incisive, subversive, surprising; she simultaneously pays homage to the classics while reinventing genre. As one example, Serpell uses words and phrases from Zambian languages without giving us a glossary. What may initially feel disorienting underlies a key element of her novel — she’s not writing for your comfort or ease, but to illustrate the vast history of a nation she understands deeply. As a Zambian writing about Zambia, why would she include definitions for us? This detail is subversive in its own right, rightly centering the vantage point of people whose perspectives have historically been overlooked and excluded.

The novel’s greatest strength also leads to a challenge — it is so widely encompassing that its detail sometimes seems to muddy its vision. At times, it can feel like a history course without a clear syllabus. Yet I wonder if eliciting this discomfort was Serpell’s intention. In a way, this challenge makes reading the novel feel like more of a triumph. Furthermore, history has never truly been clear. Serpell’s use of detail to elicit a reaction in the reader is crucial to her project.

Too often, we are exposed to stories about Africa not told by Africans. Serpell addresses this directly: “This is the story of a nation — not a kingdom or a people — so it begins, of course, with a white man.” The Old Drift — a sweeping, nuanced, complex story about Zambia by a Zambian — is the antithesis to Heart of Darkness in the very best possible way. Namwali Serpell is exactly the kind of writer we should be reading. The Old Drift is by no means easy to read, but maybe that’s the point. Not all stories are easy to digest.

Banner image courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Gracie Safranovich.