Namwali Serpell’s 2019 novel The Old Drift is the sweeping, multigenerational saga of three families whose personal histories converge over the course of more than a century on the shores of the Zambezi river, and in the eventual shadow of the Kariba Dam, from the dawn of the twentieth century to 2024. It is, as more than one critic put it and as Serpell herself has joked, an attempt to write the Great Zambian Novel; and its size (at more than five hundred pages), allusions to the Western (and non-Western) literary tradition, endless play with language, incorporation of historical and contemporary texts, commentary on changing national-political landscapes, blending of real and fictional histories and biographies, attention to sexual and racial politics, and critiques of capitalism and colonialism attest to its likely achievement of this status.
Indeed, reviews of The Old Drift are replete with adjectives like epic, masterpiece, grand, astounding, powerful, and more—and I don’t dispute these, insofar as they point to one kind of aesthetic, affective, or artistic experience of the novel. But I also don’t think they mean or say much about the novel as a cultural object, as a thing from which we can learn.
Serpell’s novel is more than a (pseudo-)fictional postcolonial epic of Zambian history. It is a vision of a possible revolutionary future forged by the convergence of families, lives, political and technological investments, global health and economic crises, and more; it suggests how Zambia—and particularly the capital Lusaka, and the government-subsidized district of Kalingalinga—might be remade as a fully decolonized exclave beyond the reach of global capital. It is a novel of how the external national forces of European colonialism in the Scramble for Africa, US/USSR antagonism in the Cold War, and neocolonial resource extraction by US and Chinese corporations in the twenty-first century influenced and were resisted by Zambians. Moreover, Serpell invokes European fairy tales, the speculative elements of Greek drama’s chorus, Africanfuturist history, and technothriller near-futurism, blending these generic identities into the larger structure of the multigenerational family saga and novel-of-national-history.
In all these ways, The Old Drift reaches to and firmly grasps the bar of Anglophone literary greatness, resounding powerfully as a postcolonial novel of glocal Africa written by a Zambian-born, Harvard-educated, Berkeley-employed professional novelist and literary critic. Its publisher (Hogarth), its author’s bonafides, and its craftedness all point to one thing for The Old Drift: literary greatness assured by the reviews of impressed readers and the heaps of awards to come. It helps, of course, that it’s a pretty good novel on the whole; but, as a critic of SF (and, yes, one attuned to and often quite positive about literary fiction that slums with genre), I disagree with the claims of its greatness and in fact find that the novel has little interest in its speculative elements or at least severely mishandles them. This is a problem, since it is the speculative—a chorus made up of a swarm of mosquitoes (or are they?! We’ll get to that “twist” …)—that binds the whole project of The Old Drift together, that gives it a voice, that argues its purpose.
Scene: Zambia—Back Then / Now / Until Then
In the simplest gloss, The Old Drift is a historical novel of Zambia. To be more specific, of Lusaka. To be the most specific, it is a historical novel of the Kariba Dam, which springs up from concrete and black bodies, and feels like it looms on the Lusakan horizon given its significance to the novel, but actually sits 120 miles south. It is a novel of the colonization of the region as Northern Rhodesia by the British, and of the establishment of a multiracial society of whites from Europe (bazungu) and indigenous blacks in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953-1963); it is a novel of the decolonization of British southern Africa and the birth of the nation-state of Zambia (1964-present) amidst the geopolitical chaos of the Cold War; and it is a novel of Zambia’s neocolonization by American and Chinese corporate interests in the 1990s and the twenty-first century. The Old Drift hits you in three waves. Each is composed of three chapters narrating the lives of a generation—the grandmothers, the mothers, the children—in the history of three families who made or remade (what became known as) Zambia.
There is the family of Sibilla, the Italian woman who moves to Zambia with her husband, an Italian officer who takes over construction of the Kariba Dam. Sibilla is a woman shrouded in hair that grows the length of her body each day, despite her constant shearing; hers is the fairy tale of Giambattista Basile’s Petrosinella transposed into Mussolini’s Italy. Sibilla’s daughter is Isabella, a woman unkind to her mother who marries an Indian businessman and immigrant to Zambia and begins a wig-making business using the fast-growing hair of her four daughters. To Isabella is born Naila, an Italian-Indian Zambian who rejects her mother’s business and is a devout Marxist.
There is the family of Agnes, a blind British girl who falls in love with Ronald, a black Zambian scholar at the University of London, to the disgust of her parents; together they move to Zambia, where her husband becomes a university professor in the new nation. She has her own streak of political leftism and joins a group of Marxist professors and students at the University of Zambia, before fading into the background of Ronald’s and their son Lionel’s lives. Agnes is probably the least-developed character in The Old Drift, emerging only later as a minor character in Thandiwe and Joseph’s lives, a radical antagonist to Joseph’s liberalism. Agnes’s family story is continued through her daughter-in-law Thandiwe, a no-nonsense airline attendant, and later through her grandson, Joseph, who helps finish his father’s research to create a vaccine for “The Virus” (aka HIV/AIDS).
And there is the family of Matha, who follows the radical Lumpa Church, and who takes up her mother’s political mantle by following the visionary (or self-obsessed, monomaniacal) Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, founder of the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy. Matha is briefly an Afronaut and central figure in the short-lived Zambian space program of the 1960s that hoped to place Africans first on the Moon and then on Mars. All of this is true: Nkoloso, the space-cats, Matha, and her pregnancy that, according to Nkoloso, brought the space program down (not to mention the “sabotage” of their rocket by Western powers). In the wake of her pregnancy and her daughter’s birth, and the seeming failure of all her dreams, Matha spends most of the rest of her life crying nonstop, building up a cult of criers around her until her daughter Sylvia, a hairdresser and escort girl, dies of HIV/AIDS decades later. Matha becomes a banshee or la llorona, a curious and forgotten, but believed-in, magical-realist element of the poverty-stricken landscape of the Lusaka neighborhood of Kalingalinga. Matha’s family story continues with Sylvia, who becomes a key test subject in Lionel and later Joseph’s efforts to find a vaccine for HIV, and then with Jacob, a tech whiz kid who develops solar-powered microdrones the size of mosquitoes—branded Moskeetoze—that become the crux of his, Naila, and Joseph’s plan to end government surveillance in Zambia.
The nine characters’ stories are told in generational waves that chart large-scale political shifts, with the grandmothers (Sibilla, Agnes, Matha) experiencing the building of the Kariba Dam and the transition from Federation to free nation-state, the mothers experiencing the early years of presidential socialist-democracy under Kenneth Kaunda and the emergence of a modern capitalist state, and the children experiencing the transition to neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and the leftist surge against capital we are experiencing worldwide today. The novel ends in 2023 with the fall of the Kariba Dam and the flooding of Lusaka, the once-impoverished neighborhood of Kalingalinga (epicenter of the Zambian HIV/AIDS crisis) becoming a city-state beyond the control of global corporation, rid of non-representative government.
Swarm / Drift
The Old Drift is one vision of Zambia history and an argument for a possible future; it attends to capital, colonial, sexual, and racial power struggles. All of it is tied together by brief interludes in which a timeless chorus of mosquitoes, knowing all that has ever been, seemingly bearing the entire knowledge of mosquito-kind and humankind alike, comments on the individual lives of characters, muses on the nature of life and time, and teases the reader for their limited vision of possibility. The mosquitoes make dozens of literary references—shoring up the status of The Old Drift as Literature—and speak in a rhythmic, rhyming mode; they are an ancient Greek chorus in a postcolonial novel of Africa, an allusion to the stature of the Western literary tradition in a text that strives to be, like its characters, a blend of those cultural influences that make Zambia what it is today, that produced a sharp writer like Namwali Serpell.
Each chapter in The Old Drift is ostensibly about one person, one pseudo-fictional mover-and-shaker of Zambia’s history, however mighty or small, and yet because their stories bleed into one another as time drifts on and the page-count racks up, no character’s story is ever truly theirs and theirs alone. Like the mosquito chorus, the people of Zambia form a swarm, both figurative and literally. While one character is seen here and there occasionally acting upon the events of Zambian history on their own, the effect is of an undulating whole across history, of modern and neoliberal Zambia emerging out of the collective processes of its people, of The Old Drift’s characters. In this way, The Old Drift is a historical novel, articulating how the historical conditions of possibility for our present (and possible future) emerged.
As Serpell’s title implies, “drift” is at the conceptual heart of the novel, everywhere from the name of a graveyard for European settlers in the early days of Northern Rhodesia, to the theory of progress put forward by the mosquito chorus, to the inevitable overlaps in the lives of Serpell’s nine protagonists and dozens of other dramatis personae. As the concept of the swarm recasts political action at the collective level, rather than telling politics as the story of individual politicians, activists, or leaders, Serpell’s use of “drift” signals a powerful connection among the drastically different time scales of Zambian history, human history, earth’s biogeological history, and the history of the cosmos. Glimpsed, in the final moment of the novel, from the perspective of earth’s infinitesimally small pock on one arm of the Milky Way galaxy (itself one slightly larger dot of stellar activity against the impossibly black void of the expanding cosmos), Zambian history seems to lose all meaning and perspective, a quick rush to the climax of progress dwarfed by the endless drift of time in space and space in time.
But Serpell’s use of drift goes beyond this attempt in the novel’s last sentence to lay claim to either the universal or nonexistent significance of human stories, indeed for the very concept of a Zambian “great novel.” Her meaning of “drift” is explicitly noted by the mosquito chorus in several of their interludes between the chapters, and describes a relationship to history that is passive rather than active. Drift is the life of mosquitoes in Serpell’s vision: things inevitably happen and we have but to respond and make the most of the scenarios put before us by history. This is, to say the least, a difficult attitude to square with nearly all contemporary senses of political action, and is at odds with the actions of most human characters in The Old Drift. They are all in some way politically active in the shaping of Zambia. And yet they also are all overwhelmed by the swarm of history.
Thus, while the “children” whose chapters occupy the third and final section of the book collaborate to release Zambians from government surveillance, their success is secondary to the fact that their efforts bring about a greater destruction and socio-political seachange when their blocking of the Kariba Dam’s sluices has the unintended consequence of putting most of Lusaka under water, and killing likely hundreds of thousands in the process. Serpell’s conception of “drift” then is hardly a political manifesto—“we should let what happens happen!” or “it is what it is” doesn’t do us much good—but rather a diagnosis of historical modes of change. It is directly tied to the importance of the collective or the swarm: sure, one person like Ba Nkoloso can make a difference, but it is only for a time and it is only one of many differences always being made.
This collective vision is embodied in the novel’s use of the mosquito. The Old Drift begins with the “Zt. Zzt” of the chorus, who introduce themselves as the useless, malaria-carrying pest that has followed humans throughout history and across the world. I was exhilarated by Serpell’s choice of narrator (theoretically, in addition to being the chorus, the mosquitoes are also the third-person narrator). After all, it’s not the first SF novel to turn on the speculative hinge of mosquitoes: Amitav Ghosh’s incredible novel The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), for example, powerfully rendered the mosquito, its malarial infections, and the counter-science of the postcolony and of kalpavigyan into the realm of Anglophone science fiction, winning the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award in the process. But my excitement at their anophelic presence in Serpell’s work faded as the book dragged on, the mosquitoes making interpolatory appearances and reciting overwrought lines like an MFA student who aspires to write only in the image of Romantic poetry while trying to publish in the contemporary lit scene. The mosquito chorus become artistically insufferable, their comments on characters and events ultimately uninteresting or uninsightful, a constant reminder that Something Big is going on. And yet their italicized presence between each chapter demands attention: will something happen? Will something be revealed? Ah, more trite philosophy. Moving on!
And this kind of sucks. For a novel about an African nation’s history—one that Westerners know shamefully little about, though many in SF studies have heard of the Zambian Afronauts—and a multigenerational saga that deals with the resource depletions, poverty creation, and health crises of colonialism over the course of a century, the mosquito provides a rich, not to mention “experimental,” opportunity when cast as the narrator. And yet the speculative function of the mosquito-as-narrator is dead on arrival, and the mosquito-as-chorus hardly fulfills the role of its Greek counterpart: to provide background, summary, and guidance on how to interpret themes. As a chorus, the mosquitoes are flaccid. One could read most of the novel without them … though, yes, the mosquitoes forward the notion of “the drift” (important, but hardly requiring mosquitoes) and the final chapter—Naila’s—is incomplete without the intervention of the chorus (again, important, but does not need to be mosquitoes). In other words, the mosquitoes are a rather awkward insertion in the book as a whole, as an artistic project, shoved into The Old Drift like a square peg in a round hole. And it doesn’t help that we learn in the final pages that the mosquitoes might not be mosquitoes after all, but Jacob’s Mokseetoze drones—a trite reveal that hardly makes contextual sense.
No doubt the mosquitoes are the stirrer with which The Old Drift blends genres. Their presence represents the inevitable drift of historical processes to which Sibilla, Agnes, Matha, Sylvia, Isabella, Thandiwe, Joseph, Jacob, and Naila are submitted—actors and subjects alike of the social forces of nation, capital, empire, race, and gender. Their centrality, however, begs so many questions, and yet they hardly appear outside the chorus. There is some suggestion in the middle of the novel (or maybe this was just hope on my part!) that they might be key to understanding why certain characters (Sibilla, Matha) are “special” (i.e., have not-totally-real things going on), and that they might be part of the solution to The Virus, but this suggestion is never followed through to any end.
This raising and dropping of threads is a trend in Serpell’s novel. The threads of magical realism and European fairy tale, for example, likewise disappear into the larger tapestry of the novel, occasionally visible here and there in later chapters that have the children learning about their grandmothers, but the irreality of banshees and Rapunzels never amounts to any effect or purpose; they feel like leftovers from an earlier draft. They do nothing. Perhaps I am simply undertheorizing the novel’s generic “experiments,” but to me the novel sprawls and goes on endlessly about the details of life, losing itself in its own construction. This could be artistic beauty, the reflection of our lives and of history; it could also be sloppiness of craft. Or maybe it is part of the “drift.”
The Old Drift certainly makes a solid case for swarm/drift-based thinking about history, change, and revolution that seems all the more relevant in a time when radical activism seems to be taking place everywhere across the world, abetted by social media and the 24/7 activity of global telecommunications networks, and yet in which so little “progress” seems to be being made. In many ways, then, the call for drift-thinking is perhaps the most realist aspect of this genre-experimenting (sense my distaste for this term!) novel, and its most science-fictional is easily the wild success of three people turning Lusaka into an exclave beyond the reaches of neoliberal capital. But such is the utopian pull of revolutionary desire: that which we want to enact in the world is, by nature of its need to be enacted, a speculative fiction.
I don’t dislike The Old Drift. Serpell expertly and powerfully theorizes how we should think about collective action and its relation to historical change. The Old Drift is also a pretty sloppy “experiment” in blending genres and drops the many balls it tries to juggle. This is the dilemma of the literary critic: literature, like people, is full of contradictions; hopefully, the contradictions prove productive, and discussing them brings about some insights into life, genre, history, whatever. Literature should in this way do something.
It’s too early for me to say if this is the case with The Old Drift, but I have no doubt that it is the sort of novel that literary critics and scholars will be referencing and talking about for quite awhile, even if SF scholars and critics pay it little heed. It plays in the genre sandbox, but isn’t much interested in speculative fiction, at least insofar as SF has come to mean a certain set of historically bounded generic principles. And that is perhaps the root of my criticisms of how SF functions in The Old Drift; it’s there in her novel, Serpell is aware of it, she just has little interest in doing with it what others, some whom I admire and some whom I think are shit, do with it. And that’s fine.
Whatever its own attitude to the speculative elements it incorporates, The Old Drift is in good company where those of us familiar with SF are concerned. It is the most recent in a series of novels by Africans and Afro-diasporic writers which utilize speculative elements to rethink the history of blackness in the wake of slavery and colonization, often focusing on the nation-state as a locus of historical failure and future possibility. In this tradition are novels like Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (2006), Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (2014), Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu (2014), In Koli Jean Bofane’s Congo Inc. (2014), Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (2016), Marcelo D’Salete’s Angola Janga (2017), and Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King (2018).
In the end, reading The Old Drift in the context of SF (given all the claims that the novel deftly blends genres) begins a conversation, and so I will end by saying that whatever we make of The Old Drift in these contexts, the novel has a place in recent and contemporary practice. It should be on our tongues as we speak to the ever-developing discourse around—and for some, significant tensions between—literary and genre fiction. Criticism should not be one person talking to the void, but a swarm, the collective in convo. Hit me up, mosquitoes.