Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell is a writer and a critic. Her first novel, The Old Driftis forthcoming in 2019.

The first thing of yours I read was the Afronaut piece in The New Yorker. It was a revelation because without saying anything out loud it used a very careful and precise historical voice to link postcolonial Zambia to, not just the conceptual extravagances of Afrofuturism, but to the glorious political and aesthetic ferment of the The Black Atlantic. I might be projecting a little, but it wasn’t just a fun piece about Zambia for a cosmopolitan audience; it was much bigger than that — it was about mid-century revolutionary hope and how we find lines of escape out of intolerable situations. Its satirical dryness also reminded me a little of  Martine Syms’ “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto”. Could you discuss how you see satire, realism, and either science fiction in general or Afrofuturism in particular, related to each other? And how do these relations play out in your own work?

When I first learned about Edward Mukuka Nkoloso’s Zambian Space Programme, my responses echoed those of his contemporaries. Like journalists from the west, I thought he was a “crackpot”; like people on the ground in the newly-minted Zambia, I worried he had just embarrassed us with his outlandish ideas about getting to the moon before Russia and America. But then I read an Op-Ed he wrote at the time and certain lines stood out to me, like: “Specially trained spacegirl Mata Mwambwa [sic], two cats (also specially trained) and a missionary will be launched in our first rocket. But I have warned the missionary he must not force Christianity to the people if they do not want it.” I was like, “Oh! Wait. Is this an elaborate satire of colonialism?” My New Yorker essay describes my journey to find out the answer. I once met an artist who reminded me that Zambians’ sense of irony is very subtle: “We don’t have a yes and a no. We have two yesses, and one of them means no.”

There is a long black tradition of this kind of satire. I suspect it’s the result of two historical aspects of black existence. One is the need for secrecy during colonialism and slavery. To misspeak is to put your body at risk of punishment, torture, death. So you learn to speak in code—you sing slave songs with double meanings, you braid escape routes into your hair, you learn to “signify,” a technique Henry Louis Gates, Jr. traces back to African folktales. The other aspect of black existence that yields irony is what W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness: being forced to view yourself through a split lens: from the inside as a self, a subject; and from the outside as whatever object the world has named you to be: nigger, kaffir, monkey, etc. These two forms of doubleness, I think, make for incredible works of art, because the layers are built in. And they intensify the form of irony that Charles Baudelaire attributed to the philosopher, which he called dédoublement: a man who laughs at himself as he falls, “a man who has acquired by habit the power to double himself rapidly and to witness as a disinterested spectator phenomena involving his own ego.”

Many of the texts in my Black Science Fiction class delectate in satirical/philosophical doubleness. I teach Syms’ manifesto, which is a dark delight; George Schuyler’s hilarious Black No More (1931), the premise of which is a machine that turns black people white; and Mat Johnson’s Pym (2011), which lovingly excoriates Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). The center of the course is Sun Ra’s Space is the Place (1974), set in Oakland and Saturn, and in some ways the origin text of what Mark Dery would call Afrofuturism in 1993. Nkoloso and Ra had a lot in common. They were both well-educated students and, later, autodidacts. They were both drafted into white armies to fight white wars, which turned them into black radicals. They both wore elaborate costumes—helmets and capes—and considered the rich darkness of the universe itself to be a place of and for blackness. They both refused to explain or relinquish their double hold on a fantastical origin story and on a futuristic fantasy about sending black people to outer space. And they never broke character—which makes it impossible to know whether they believed that they were in fact characters at all.

In my depiction of Nkoloso and his Afronauts in my novel The Old Drift, I tried to maintain this sense of doubleness—the very human ability to contain contradictory beliefs and feelings. And in my science fiction writing as a whole, I try to be both scientifically plausible and satirically outlandish. Bothness is something that black art can convey—but also teach—to the world.

You reviewed both Black Panther (here) and Sorry To Bother You (here), and although there is a comparison implicit in those reviews I was hoping you might, not just as a critic but as a producer of speculative lit yourself, venture a direct comparison of the two?

Oh, interesting—I actually hadn’t thought about the two in relation to each other yet. They’re so different! I have thought more about Sorry to Bother You in connection with another recent favorite of mine, Get Out, which I reviewed as a sci-fi film for Public Books (here). All three films are interested in splitting the black person in two: as a literalized double consciousness in Peele’s film; as both human and animal in Riley’s; and as African/American in Black Panther’s anti-hero Killmonger. All three are funny, too, and many of the jokes work on multiple levels, not just in the Shakespearean sense of gags for the groundlings and puns for the Queen, but also in their double address to black and white audiences. This fits with what I say above about Afrofuturism and dédoublement.

The way Sorry to Bother You and Black Panther handle place is diametrically opposed. Think about how they depict Oakland: Black Panther ends with a dissatisfying model whereby Wakandans will build a center for “social outreach” and “science and information exchange.” This liberal gentrification is precisely what Sorry to Bother You dramatizes and troubles for us when Cassius’s garage apartment transforms before our eyes into a beautiful loft in downtown Oakland. The mishmash of “African” accents in the Marvel movie sounds even worse when we consider the brilliant auditory experiment in Sorry to Bother You: having white actors ventriloquize the “white voices” of black characters. And of course the politics of Riley’s film are much more radical: a multicultural Marxist revolution vs. a collusion between Wakandan armies and the CIA. I do think the diasporic production of Black Panther exceeds the limitations of its plot, however—there is something truly Pan-African about seeing these actors, these cultures, these forms of dress and address, all together on screen. Sorry to Bother You is sharper but also narrower, aesthetically speaking. And each offers a differently insufficient fantasy of black freedom. Black Panther imagines a world where blackness is central but just happens to dovetail with western forms of economic and political power. Sorry to Bother You critiques assimilation but ends up subsuming blackness into a multiracial class coalition.

That review of Get Out, Double Consciousness and Zombies,” made me think of Cathy Park Hong’s essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde” and the seriousness of a certain type of left-wing or progressive thinking, as well as the unspoken rules which people encounter in gatekeeping institutions like grad school and highbrow literary publishing. The last decade or so has seen increasing engagement between people trained in the academy as critics and people who consume and produce genre fiction according to different sets of rules. When you talk about “lay readers” and new forms of literary criticism I am curious how your critical interests and projects intersect with your genre interest — not just as a critic and writer but as a consumer of pleasurable things.

I recently went to see a movie with a couple of friends. As we walked in, I said I had looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes and it was 94% fresh for critics’ reviews, and 74% fresh for audience response. “I don’t know which one I am,” I joked. [I didn’t like the film very much, so perhaps that’s the answer!] But in general, my feeling about this split in me corresponds to the moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Jekyll discovers that Hyde has left obscene marginalia in his (their?) books. I’m not sure which is which, but that feels right to me: the artist and the critic in me speak to each other, sometimes rudely, through books—and I’m not exactly privy to the conversation. I tell my students to read without a pencil sometimes—to maintain a sense of curiosity and pleasure—but I don’t say they ought to do that only with certain kinds of books. You can apply these different lens to anything: I read Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity with a pencil to teach last semester but I read Elena Ferrante’s entire Neapolitan Quartet without one.

I love to know absolutely nothing about a film or a novel before I experience it—something that, as an absentminded immigrant, I’ve experienced a lot, to wondrous effect: with Lolita, Under the Skin, Dogtooth, The Changeling, Shirkers, Ten Little Soldiers, among many others. My friend recently mistook two authors for each other and read a novel about a horse thief detective while expecting it to be a science fiction dystopia—up to the very last pages, where she imagined a twist would emerge (the horses are androids?!). She described it as such a marvelous strangeness that I want to replicate it for myself! All this is to say, there are many more ways to experience works of art than we tend to imagine. Divisions like critics and lay readers might be handy (especially for scholars) but they are limited.

Account”, “Be the Flower in the Gun”, “Colors / Turquoise”, “The Book of Faces”, even the Nabokov essay in The Believer are, to some degree, lists. I have a minor obsession with writing as lists, and vice versa, to the extent that narrative sometimes just seems to get in the way. Could you say a word or two about lists versus narrative, or lists and narrative, or just lists?

List on lists:

  1. I do make a lot of lists in my life, on my Notes feature and in my email drafts!

  2. Some of my works seem list-like only because the forms they mimic are list-like: a bank statement, a course catalogue, a Facebook newsfeed. So this may be a side effect of my more general interest in formal experimentation + the panoply of lists in contemporary media.

  3. I write prose and lists may be the closest I’ll ever get to writing poetry.

  4. In all things, I like a strong sense of structure with great internal variation.

  5. I love the word list, the sound of it and its three meanings, obliquely connected only by virtue of my associations (the drift of handwriting on a page, the fact that I enjoy them):

    • a numbered set of items

    • to lean to one side

    • to want or like.

In an earlier conversation you mentioned religion as an element of The Old Drift, especially with regard to speculative tech. More on this please.

I’m interested in science fiction’s ability to predict the future, but also in the inklings of science fiction that litter the past. When I was researching microdrones for The Old Drift, I stumbled across a bizarro website that claimed that insectile drones like RoboBees had been prophesied by the Book of Revelations. And it turns out that you can indeed find this wild passage in The King James Bible:

And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months. 

This confusion of the entomological and the technological is deeply appealing to me. It became crucial to one story arc in my novel: Nkoloso, who attended seminary, teaches Matha Mwamba to read using The King James Bible, then trains her to become an Afronaut and a political revolutionary. She conveys what she knows to her grandson Jacob, a techno-wiz compound kid who builds his own microdrones with scrap material, and eventually, with resources from a shady military officer.

Drones at any size imply sight and flight—both of which are abilities that humans aspire to have at great range. The sublimity of this biblical passage—its vehemence and grand beauty—thus also dictated the imagery and tone of my depictions of this particular sci-fi innovation in the novel (there are two other major ones—I ignored Wells’s Law!—but they carry a very different register).

Finally, this passage lent itself beautifully to the overarching frame of the novel’s narrators. I won’t spoil, except to say that, just as Afrofuturism often blends history (e.g. Egyptian gods and themes of enslavement) and the future (e.g. space ships and androids), The Old Drift was my attempt to synthesize the very, very old with the very, very new.