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Books a bridge through difficult times for novelist Namwali Serpell

Author Namwali Serpell.
Author Namwali Serpell.Peg Skorpinski

Namwali Serpell spent nearly 20 years writing her first novel, “The Old Drift,” which uses a hybrid of genres to follow the lives of three families living in Zambia over a century. Her long years of hard work paid off in 2019 when the book was longlisted for several prizes and landed on several best books of the year lists. Serpell was born in Lusaka, Zambia, and lives in San Francisco, where she is associate professor of English at UC Berkeley.

BOOKS: What have you been reading over the holidays?

SERPELL: I was revisiting some novels that have been important to me such as Elena Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment.” Also, I visited my brother and wanted to pack light so didn’t bring a book for myself. Instead I sneakily read the books I had bought to give him. I’m about a quarter of a way through “American Spy” by Lauren Wilkinson and enjoying it.


BOOKS: Do you have a favorite genre?

SERPELL: I like spy fiction a lot. I love John le Carré. I used to read romance novels, all those Harlequin romances, and have thought of returning to that. I liked Judy Blume a lot. It may surprise some of my readers because the first third of my novel has been described as magical realism but the genre I’m least interested in is fantasy. I am drawn to science fiction.

BOOKS: Who are some of the writers you’ve discovered since you began teaching?

SERPELL: I had these huge lecture classes, as many 190 students. I started to crave smaller classes. There are two kinds of literature that I thought would lower attendance — black literature and science fiction. It didn’t lower it as much as I thought. I hadn’t read science fiction since I was a teenager, and then it was all male white authors — Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. This was the first time I read the science fiction of Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and W.E.B. Du Bois.


BOOKS: Are there more contemporary science fiction books that you have liked?

SERPELL: The Nigerian-American writer Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky.” Before Kiese Laymon wrote his memoir, “Heavy,”he wrote the YA science fiction novel “Long Division,” which is about time travel. Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling” is more fantastic, more gothic. I sat down at 4 in the afternoon and finished it sobbing at 5 in the morning.

BOOKS: Were you an avid reader as a kid?

SERPELL: My brother and I were just talking about this. My father is a developmental child psychologist, and he taught all of us to read very young, particularly me. When we moved to the US, books became a haven for me. Making new friends when you are 8 isn’t easy. Becoming an immigrant made me a reader and a writer.

BOOKS: Did spending a year in Zambia in high school change you as a reader?

SERPELL: It did so far as education in Zambia was still very British. We were reading works of British literature that I hadn’t read as an American student. I read “Jane Eyre” for the first time. I read it in one sitting. Gothic stories tend to do that for me. I didn’t read a single American author in school that year.


BOOKS: Who are some of your favorite contemporary African writers?

SERPELL: Bessie Head is one. She was South African but lived in Botswana. She wrote “Maru” and “A Question of Power.” A more contemporary example is “Kintu” by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I think that is one of the best novels to come out of the continent in a long time. Sometimes novels supply a hammock of language to sustain me, a bridge through difficult periods. “Kintu” did that for me. I was reading that around when my mother died. There are certain novels that stay with you not because they resonate with what you are going through but because they happen to coincide with that. It’s interesting to think about how reading gets interwoven the same way that memories do.

Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane.’’ She can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.

This story has been updated to correct the awards status of “The Old Drift” and the spelling of Samuel R. Delany.