“The way to try to change the frame (of white gaze in fiction about African immigrants) is very often by flipping the narratives on their head.” – Namwali Serpell
On September 23, 2020, Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best sci-fi novel of the year. Dubbed the writer of “the great African novel of the 21st century”, Serpell was the first Black woman ever to win this award. The Old Drift had earlier won the Anisfield-Wolf award for race and culture fiction in March. Serpell was to receive £2600 from the Arthur C. Clarke academy as prize money for her stunning work of science fiction. However, two days later, on September 25, 2020, she learnt that no murder charges would be filed against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.
Serpell reconciled these events by announcing on Twitter that she was donating her prize money to the Louisville Community Bail fund to bail those detained while protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor. This bail had been earlier established for protestors of the George Floyd killing. Serpell had also caused a stir in 2015 when she split her Caine prize money between the shortlisted writers in a mutiny of the idea that writing should be a competitive sport. A designated writer-activist dedicated to using her platform to deconstruct capitalist systems and racial injustice, Serpell presents herself as a contemporary embodiment of international blackness hooked upon a culture of feminism.
Born in Zambia, Serpell immigrated to Baltimore at the age of nine. In a clip put together by Anisfielf-Wolf, Serpell indicated that her embodied intellect as an African immigrant in the United States clashed with the stereotypes in fiction among African immigrants in the West. While on a Safari trip to Livingstone, she came upon a site which only contained remainders of colonial settlement. The implication of colonialism on the racial and ethnic composition of the Zambian population and the conflict therein piqued her interest. Inspired to write a novel that supplanted the white gaze, The Old Drift is a book about immigration to Zambia,in which stereotypes associated with Africans were attributed to white people.
The story reflects that solutions and answers can be found by looking inward into the continent, rather than looking outward to the West. Serpell presents Zambia as a place the West can learn from their modes of political engagement, information protocols, debate issues and voting process. The book’s reference to the plague also draws focus due to the ongoing reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Serpell capitalises on the Global media confoundment at how Zambia and Africa contained the dangerous spread of the virus.
With the story spanning three generations of multi-racial Zambians and centering women’s narratives, Serpell affirmed that the task of taking on the perspectives of multiple people was challenging. Still, it was the task of the writer to do so with every sense of sensitivity and fair representation. The Old Drift, especially, artfully weaves facts and fiction in a way that compels the curiosity of the reader to research and in turn, uncover indigenous history buried by colonial history.
The novel is an excellent book-to-read on narratives of Black joy which effectively dismantle stereotypes. As Serpell expressed in a conversation with Professor Chisomo Selemani for the Global Cleveland ‘Sister Cities 2020 Conference’, the novel is a love letter to herself, many in Zambia and many more across the continent.