Weaponizing a Novel
“The West had arrived in the interior, but it had brought its worst tendencies with it: bureaucracy, venality, banality. The European labourers drank local beer and smoked bush pipes. They hunted for food rather than for sport. They walked around with their shirts off, insulting and ordering and punishing “i negri to fluff their egos. The Tonga workers, paid a pittance, were impenetrable, with their opaque skin and broad smiles and nodding deference” This is an extract of “The Old Drift” a novel which won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award, the UK’s top prize for science fiction. The author, on getting the information responded on Twitter on 25 September that she had received news of the award “within an hour of hearing that the cops who killed Breonna Taylor weren’t charged. To honor Breonna and the ongoing fight against state-sanctioned violence, I’m donating the £2020 prize money to bail funds for protestors. Join me” explaining the reason for the show of solidarity in a BBC interview author said: “I’ve been trying to figure out how to acknowledge both the honor that this award grants to my novel and the feeling that the political revolution I’m describing in the novel is yet to come…My novel is not exactly prophetic. It is just resonant with the questions and issues that have been with me as part of the culture that has formed me. And that culture, I want to say, is one where science fiction is a force that lets us probe real urgent political questions about equality and power and justice.” This author of “The Old Drift” is none other than Namwali Serpell my profile of the week.
Africa’s premier Pan African Magazine “The New African” lists Namwali as on of the one hundred most influential Africans of 2020. This is what the New African writes about her:
Namwali Serpell, is the latest addition to the pantheon of African writers who have become global bestsellers. Her debut Novel “The Old Drift” weaves elements of science-fiction with magical realism, emerging with the most highly sought-after prize in this genre, the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction. The multigenerational story that took two decades to write, entwines the history of three families living in modern-day Zambia during a ling century. The 40-year-old writer is a professor of English at the University of Harvard, where she took her Ph.D. after graduating from Yale with a degree in literature. She the previous winner of prestigious awards including the Caine Prize for African Literature, for her short story “The Sack” and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for beginner women writers. Presenting the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the chair of judges Andrew M. Butler called the Old Drift an extraordinary family saga that spans eras from Cecil Rhodes to Rhodes Must Fall and beyond. Writing in the New York Times, Salman Rushdie called the work “a dazzling debut” the “burst the banks” of the river of female authors flowing from the continent.
There is indeed a new wind blowing with the flurry of African Women writers emerging. It could easily be argued that the field which was dominated by men produced and still produces writings that are fraught with the prejudices of man as derived from their different traditions and cultures. In 2011 Dr. Ikechukwu Aloysius Orjinta writing about Gender in African Novels opines: “Furthermore, the African feminist sought to create a space in literary criticism and fiction for writings and creation that would be strictly speaking African Women. There was need, namely for African womanists to make such an entry into literature which hitherto had been the exclusive preserve of the masculinist. Having thus gained entry into African literary and critical creation, the African feminist is highlighting and propagating women writing and experience so as to correct all forms of male stereotypes and prejudices that have hitherto being directed against women.” Namwali’s novel it is said took two decades to write. With the main characters in the novel being all women it can most certainly be argued that Dr Orjinka’s point was proven. One is reminded of the poem read at President Biden’s inaugural. Yes it was about Biden, a white male, but Amanda Gorman the young black lady who wrote and read the inaugural poem could not miss the fact that she was reading a poem at an historic moment. The swearing-in of the first female Vice President and the very first black women to occupy that position. Her poem captured the magic of the moment as her voice rang out in the ceremonial grounds
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
The amazing beauty of the poetry was there but the actual power resided in the political message derived from the history of her country.
The success of Namwali’s novel must be applauded. It is however clear that she is conscious of the fact that she is now on pulpit that must be weaponised in favour of what she aptly describes as “ where science fiction is a force that lets us probe real urgent political questions about equality and power and justice”. My profile of the week.