Namwali Serpell, 41, won the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction for her first novel, The Old Drift, a multigenerational, multigenre saga set in Rhodesia and Zambia, where she was born. Shortlisted for the US National Book Critics Circle award for her essay collection Stranger Faces, which was cited for its “wry wit and cultural range”, she has written on subjects including Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, HBO’s Watchmen series and, most recently, Zola (the 19th-century French author, as well as the viral tweet thread turned movie of the same name). Her new novel, The Furrows, opens in Baltimore, where she grew up, and involves a recurring series of mysterious encounters experienced by a girl who loses her seven-year-old brother at sea. Serpell, who lives in Harlem, New York, spoke to me from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard.
Where did The Furrows begin?
The first scene came to me as a dream when I was getting my PhD in 2008. I was in the water with a young boy, trying to swim him to shore, and I woke in the kind of panic that reminded me of the dreams I used to have following the death of my older sister, who died when I was 18 and she was 22. I started to think about how that immersion in dream space felt like memory but also fantasy; I wanted to try to capture the waves of grief that I experienced when I would wake up from a dream about her and realise once again that she had died.
Were you conscious that the novel’s structure might puzzle readers?
Oh, yeah! It’s OK, you can say it [laughs], I know it’s not an easy book. One of the reasons I wrote my dissertation on experimental texts that play with time and fractured consciousness [the basis of Serpell’s 2014 academic study Seven Modes of Uncertainty] was that I was finding it very difficult to deal with uncertainty in real life, as most of us do, yet found it incredibly compelling in literature and couldn’t pinpoint why. I wanted the reader to feel snatched: to feel out of sorts but immediately pulled in. The uncertainty about what happened to [the narrator’s] brother, and the identity of the man she’s meeting – or isn’t meeting – aims to evoke a feeling rather than a message. The novel does speak along the way to what it’s like to be mixed race, to be black in America, to be mistaken for somebody else, to negotiate grief within a family, but the form is really an attempt to create an experience more akin to the workings of a poem than to a personal essay on loss.
What models did you have in mind?
Some of what I’m doing at the level of image has to do with a kind of painterliness I’m picking up from Virginia Woolf, but in a deep way the book bears the marks of my engagement with the work of Toni Morrison. I recently reread The Bluest Eye and I think the experimental nature of that novel has been greatly reduced reputationally, because the central idea is so compellingly straightforward – a young black girl who wants to have blue eyes. Yet the form of the novel is incredibly complex and it baffled many readers, as did Beloved. Morrison’s efforts in her criticism to make sense of why she asks so much of the reader really helped me feel confident that my vision for the novel was worth whatever confusion, or even alienation, it might make readers feel along the way.
As a critic, you’ve been sceptical about how we tend to construe literary value, not least in your 2019 essay The Banality of Empathy.
The idea that literature’s ethical values stem from its ability to produce empathy has become the be-all and end-all of how we talk about it. The incredible immersion in the minds of others [that fiction offers] is something I wouldn’t be able to live without, but I’d push against the notion that it is valuable for a kind of portable empathy that makes us better people. Many bad people don’t read. Many good people never got to learn how to read. The equation of reading with morally positive effects [resembles] the neoliberal model of eating well and doing exercise. We can see that in the way books are commodified right now: pictures of your latte or smoothie next to a beautiful book cover on Instagram are meant to reflect one’s engagement in a project of self-improvement, rather than actual engagement with other people, talking and thinking about that book. My scepticism isn’t of art – it’s of what we take art to be for.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
We came to the US when I was eight and I was very lonely. Reading four books a day by the time I was in sixth grade was a compensatory escape from the culture shock. I read adventure novels, biographies, encyclopedias… My mother used to talk about lighting a candle to read underneath her bed when she was a young girl in rural Zambia and she would liken it to the fact that I used to read under my covers with a lamp in Baltimore when we first moved. My father was a professor so we would have all these academic books and philosophy books. My ranginess as a writer is very much just my ranginess as a reader, and it’s always been a hotchpotch. The first thing we read on the after-school reading programme I was put in after we came to the US was [John Christopher’s 1960s science fiction trilogy] The Tripods. But I wasn’t told this was significantly different from the other novels I’d read, that I was being introduced to another kind of imaginative world.
What have you read lately?
I just finished Howard W French’s magisterial work of history, Born in Blackness, about the making of the modern world and Africa’s unrecognised role in that; it’s a book everybody should read. I enjoyed Call and Response, a beautiful collection of stories by a young Botswanan writer, Gothataone Moeng. And I just read [Henry James’s] The Portrait of a Lady for the first time, over the course of about a month while travelling. It’s the sort of book I’ll never teach, because it’s just devastating and I prefer not to ruin the books that ruin me.
The Furrows by Namwali Serpell is published by Hogarth (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply