Indiana University Press

This special issue is dedicated to Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift (2019), and the introduction makes a case for reading the book as a disruptive novel. While the degree of its disruptiveness is a moot point, the novel displays a formal innovativeness that stems not from doing something entirely new but from recycling old art forms and mixing genres, re-asking old (un)answered questions, embracing open-endedness and engaging with the contradictory. In its handling of multiple narrative voices, the novel opens up, among other issues, possibilities for countering historical origins, unnarrating the nation and disbelonging to it. I first present the triadic logic underlying The Old Drift’s formal and thematic choices in eight fragments that sometimes include close readings. I reserve the discussion of the implications of my argument on scholarly debates and African letters for last, choosing to first engage in a critical appraisal of the text. I also articulate my motivation for putting together this special issue under the rubric of disruption and trace the links in the articles contained herein.


In The Old Drift (2019), the US-based Lusaka-born writer Namwali Serpell, to adapt a phrasing from Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nutall, “write[s] the world from” Zambia “and write[s]” Zambia “into the world” (348). The intergenerational debut novel has been variously hailed by reviewers as a “sprawling epic” (Wrenn), a “genre-blending/meshing” novel (Mohamed), a “genre-defying riotous work” (Iversen), a “genre-busting novel” (Gordon 1190), or a “genre-bending opus” (Lewis). It is a paragon of following the “Law of genre” by not reverting to “genres are not to be mixed” (56) as espoused by the French philosopher of Jewish-Algerian descent Jacques Derrida. Serpell herself, in an interview with Ryan Chapman, [End Page 1] has invoked the metaphor of “kachigamba” to describe the patchwork of genres deployed as lenses in the novel. That Serpell alludes in the interview to Patchwork (2012), a novel that also weaves together intergenerational stories and is written by a fellow Zambian female writer, Ellen Banda-Aaku, reflects Serpell’s fictional strategy of paying homage to other writers who are strewn as intertextual references throughout her novel.

Serpell’s text is intimately bound up with Zambian literature and history but refuses to be just about Zambia. It is, in other words, an epitome of defying the law of noncontradiction by being at once Zambian literature and not-Zambian literature. It drifts across the genealogies of literary history and, as Lily Saint observes in her review and Joseph Kwanya in this special issue, it can comfortably be placed alongside the recent spate of historical fiction by women writers of African descent—Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Baganda tale Kintu (2014), Yaa Gyasi’s intermeshed Asante women’s story Homegoing (2016), and Maaza Mengiste’s Ethiopia anticolonial resistance narrative The Shadow King (2019). Still, The Old Drift approaches historical fiction by distinctively relying on factual accuracy, historical figures, and fidelity to archival descriptions but at the same time disavowing such historicity by emphasizing the book’s speculative elements, which are rendered in the novel in the form of fable, science fiction, magical realism, and fairytale. Further patching in genres of social realism, climate fiction, and romance with the latter sustaining suspense through a fraternal love triangle, the seemingly contradictory pairing of the documentary and the speculative sits organically in the novel, affirming the coexistence of the real and unreal so characteristic of contemporary techno-digital mediated existence that aligns with the technoculture reflected on in the final third of the book.


The Old Drift is a story of historical origins or, more appropriately, of countering them. It reconciles historiography and fiction, creating an epistemological and ontological site where the reader participates in meaning-making to comprehend how ways of being, knowing, doing, and becoming of the actual world and the textual universe correlate. It is at this site that the reader interprets the narrative unfolding of lived experience of distinctive individuals and communities as reciprocal with grand narratives of history. Hence, the text’s emplotment of genres across generations, i.e., “genreation,” to use Takondwa Priscilla Semphere’s (this volume) portmanteau for Serpell’s narrative interplay of genres and generations, serves to embed the everyday lives and material conditions of the characters in the intersections of the push and pull factors of colonialism, capitalism, climate change, patriarchy, nationalism, decolonization, and digital revolution. These historical structures that concretize in the novel as thematic nodes embed the novel in historical time, intertwining it with the experiential time of the human characters and the deep time represented by the mosquitoes that the narrative informs us have existed for eons.

Conscientious about how it constructs its systems of order even as its interrogation of binary oppositions brings prevalent orders into question, The Old Drift makes room for error and third possibilities. Not only is its narrative temporality dependent on an open-ended historical-experiential-geological time trichotomy [End Page 2] that anticipates a descent into futuristic time, the novel also has a tripartite structure. It uses the number three to achieve an open-ended unity for its grand architectural design, thereby countering that order need not be attained by containing it nor by imposing a dichotomy that excludes a middle or a continuum in favor of two polarizing positions whose only two possibilities are either A or Not-A.

Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the book comprises three parts of three chapters each. The nine chapters feature an eponymous controlling figure taken from each of three generations, i.e., the first part is organized around three grandmothers: Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha. The second part is curated around three mothers: Sylvia, Isabella, and Thandiwe. And the final part’s controlling figures are a triad of the children: Joseph, Jacob, and Naila, whose triangulated sexual relations queer the story, leaving an open-ended ending with the death of the mother, birth of a boy of unexplained paternity, and homosocial relations between the two surviving men. Atop the paratextual family tree are three grandfathers: Percy, N’gulube, and Giovanna who at first sight seem out of place as procreators ex-nihilo. Upon delving into the story it becomes clear that they have earned their place atop the family tree not because of their procreative power. Rather, the three men are allegorical characters connected by a series of minor but violent mishaps, i.e., microaggressions, that occur in a dining room at the Victoria Falls hotel and link them in an onset of intergenerational fate. The entangled lives of all these generations spiral across space and time incorporating a myriad of local and micro-local places as setting. Taking the Zambezi River as its origin, the narrative meanders away from a center connecting locales in Rhodesia, Italy, England, Zambia, and India before curving back to conclude where it all started at the Zambezi. Unlike the movious “muzungu” of the novel’s opening page, “who will zunguluka—wander aimlesslyuntil they end up in circles” (TOD 1), Serpell wanders aimfully conducting an orchestrated moviousness1 akin to Éduardo Glissant’s directed errantry, which “deflects the negative associations between errer (to wander) and erreur (error)” (Wing xv–xvi). Not only does Serpell’s orchestrated moviousness show that she is in control of the novel’s form, like Glissant, she is directed by relation and “knows at every moment where one is—at every moment in relation to the other” (Wing xvi).

As the narrative moves away from a center, it also traces in the different locales the presence and intermingling of different ethno/national/racial identities, which include the Tonga, Brown Indian, white British, white Italian, black Zambian, colored Zimbabwean, Italian Zambian, and Indian Zambian. In this novel identities are represented as syncretic and extended by relation such that one of the political statements that the novel makes is that there is no pre-originary pure culture that precedes cultural mixing. Indeed, Serpell in conversation with Homi Bhabha (this volume) bemoans “the belated attempt to apply cosmopolitanism to Africa under the name ‘Afropolitan’” as “ahistorical” arguing that “Africa has always been cosmopolitan.” Born to a black Zambian mother and white British father who became a Zambian citizen (Lea), Serpell writes here a story of European settlement in Africa, (un)belonging to the Zambian nation, and disbelonging to it. As Stewart Crehan notes in this volume, the novel reverses the trajectory of the Afropolitan novel popular among other African diasporic writers who write of migrations from Africa to the West. In its focus on European settlement in Africa, we witness “vernacular cosmopolitanism” (see Bhabha’s [End Page 3] remarks in this volume and see also Primorac on “local cosmopolitanism” in this volume) come to life. As vernacular cosmopolitanism takes shape in what Mwaka Siluonde (this volume) calls Serpell’s “fictional Zambia,” so do lines of privilege inheritance, racial and social capital, and unequal power relations become apparent.


Thus, Sibilla who is born with thaumaturgic hair and into domestic servitude in Italy after the second Italo-Abyssinian war, elopes with Sergeant Federico Corsale who commits fratricide, usurping his dead brother’s “name . . . job . . . honours . . . future” (TOD 65). Arriving in colonial Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland as Colonel Giuseppe Corsale, Federico moves into the white settler expatriate class and picks up the job that is awaiting his dead brother as overseer of the construction of the megadam Kariba while Sibilla moves from servant to the privileged position “as the wife of the bwana at Kariba” (TOD 75). Sibilla’s thaumaturgic hair serves as an extended metaphor for unraveling the operations of the global hair industry and when the narrative makes a temporal leap to when she is a grandmother, she is critical of her daughter and son-in-law who exploit their own children “harvesting” the fast growing hair on their heads for selling as wigs. Refusing to be part of this family business, Sibilla, who aspires to a gift economy, offers as a gift her own endless resource of hair to two precarious black Zambian market women who share a non-blood sisterly bond and work as hairdressers and prostitutes.

But the two women, Sylvia and Loveness, who in a case of dramatic irony do not share the reader’s insights of knowing Sibilla’s motivations including her empathetic backstory of childhood ostracism, survival, poverty, rape, and running away from home, receive her gift with a mixture of amusement and pragmatism. The two women who have equally empathetic backstories of survival should be read as antithetical characters whose opposing actions do not conflict but resolve into another act, which further strengthens their sisterhood (see also in this volume John Muthyala’s gendered reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness vis-á-vis Sylvia’s adoption of Loveness’s persona). Thus, Loveness scoffs at Sibilla and calls her “an NGO for hair” (TOD 311), a mockery that brings to mind Teju Cole’s critique of the “white savior industrial complex,” a diversically constituted power structure of mostly Global North aid workers, missionaries, volunteers, celebrities, policy makers, NGOs, philanthropists, and journalists that is buoyed by the illusion of white benevolence. This industrial complex, which finds its ultimate expression in Africa turns gift-giving from a reciprocal social relation to a hierarchical power relation and uses individual acts of charity, in the words of Cole, to validate the “emotional experience” and “privilege” of whiteness, hence its injustice. In other words, it contradicts its own asserted claims of being pro-poor by centering the sentimental needs of the already-privileged while inadvertently or advertently preventing the formation of viable anti-poverty and anti-dependency infrastructures. [End Page 4]

Sylvia, on the other hand, does not read Sibilla as a white savior and responds pragmatically. She reacts to the offer of the gift by running “her fingers expertly over the product on offer” (TOD 311), exercising in the process the agency of a skilled hairdresser who sees a business opportunity. The two women’s reactions, which seemingly pull in different directions but conclude with the two of them accepting the gift, show white saviorism as shrouded by ambivalence and how this ambivalence can be navigated to assert the agency of those in the position of gift recipients. The rendering of white saviorism as ambivalent is more apparent in the scene with the unnamed stock white US-American character, the tourist, whose portrayed white savior tropes include having in her rucksack the colonial memoir Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa (1937) and going on a safari in “Africa.” When the tourist tells Thandiwe with no hint of irony that she gave sex as a gift to an African man who was left dying on the road after a hit-and-run, the narrative reaches an aphasiac moment and Thandiwe does not “know what to say” (TOD 354). Unable to process how sex can be a gift the narrator freezes, unable to represent the trauma that Thandiwe experiences as she listens to the tourist obliviously confess that she engaged in sexual violence. What is at stake and the secret in this episode is not that it is the tourist who ran the man down, for her inculpability for the accident is emphatically made clear to both reader and the novel’s dramatis personae. Rather, what is taboo and remains unsaid and therefore “unnarrated” (Warhol) is that the tourist perpetrated sexual violence. Confined with the tourist in a moving bus at the time of the tale’s retelling, Thandiwe, who is the focalizer of the scene, cannot take flight from the traumatic event she is experiencing. To disassociate from it, Thandiwe offers to plait the tourist’s hair and paradoxically extends to the tourist a momentary gift of friendship. However, the tourist switches the gift from the realm of social interaction and reasserts a commodified hierarchical power relation by offering to pay for Thandiwe’s services.

For Loveness and Sylvia above, they use bargaining as a power move that allows them to exercise their agency and take control of the gift-giving and gift-receiving situation. The two women in the end accept Sibilla’s gift with Loveness also managing to get Sibilla to add a cash donation enough for them to realize their shared dream of opening a hair salon, albeit a modest one, thus turning Sibilla into their benefactor. The above sampled details of usurping, gifting, and receiving are illustrative of how the chapters in The Old Drift are filled with social, affinal, and consanguineal kinship stories, which explore the lineages of privilege inheritance, the material conditions that constrain the realization of individual dreams, the choices that the characters make, their movements, and how different subjects maneuver regulatory conventions that govern privilege inheritance.


Significantly for The Old Drift, it is the intertwining stories of kinship and national heritage that form the crux of the novel. As part of its genre mix, the novel’s opening positions it in the lineage of postcolonial novels and hinges on the long-standing postcolonial question of who narrates the nation and has the power to shape narratives of belonging and unbelonging to it. The question [End Page 5] carries an added significance in The Old Drift as the book shows that the power to narrate is also the power to determine who controls the nation’s resources and legacy; but the power to refuse to narrate is the power to disbelong and reject to be interpellated into yearning for the nation and its corollary state power. Thus, in taking advantage of the effects of the power to narrate, the novel has extremely loud narrators, i.e, narrators with no brakes who are too forward and shout what is whispered in in-groups. For instance, when the third-person narrator delves into the mind of the British educated black Zambian character Ronald, who has married the white English woman Agnes, for the sake of proximity to whiteness, it is not only to show how white colonial power authorized knowledge and archives but also to shout how the Western-educated black professional class is consciously complicit in both perpetuating and subverting the gate keeping of this neocolonial knowledge order:

During his time at university, Ronald had learned that ‘history’ was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for a good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground. This, he knew, was what Agnes would expect to hear. So Ronald skipped the real story: the southern migration of the Bemba tribe from the north in the seventeenth century. . . . Instead Ronald began the story with a white man, one he knew Agnes would recognise from her grandpa Percy’s stories

And staying true to the politics of dominant knowledge affirmation and subversion alluded to by its character and to related global literary marketplace dynamics, it is also with three cross-references to the Western canon that The Old Drift begins: an epigraph taken from Book VI of Virgil’s Roman national epic The Aeneid, a prelude that satirizes the travel accounts of the nineteenth-century missionary exploring Scottish doctor David Livingstone, and a prologue introducing Percy M. Clark, a real life English photographer who arrived at Victoria Falls in 1903, staking his claim in Central Africa (the grandpa Percy of the novel). The prologue, titled “The Falls,” borrows heavily from Clark’s colonial memoir The Autobiography of an Old Drifter: The Life-Story of Percy M. Clark of Victoria Falls (1936), a point highlighted in the novel’s paratext. But Clark’s inclusion on the list of acknowledgements is backhanded for it is him, the author tells us, who is responsible for all the racism that makes its way into The Old Drift. The prologue deploys Clark himself as an extremely loud narrator in a conscious mimicry that at once parodies, critiques, and documents the tales of white-man-paterfamilias-national-origin-myths. Serpell’s The Old Drift thus turns the colonial memoir on itself exposing the racial violence of European colonialism, the dehumanization of the “natives,” the greed of capital, the myth of progress, and guards against colonial amnesia. By the time we reach the novel’s end in an “Africanfuturistic” near future (a term coined by Africanfuturistic writer Nnedi Orakafor and see Robert Cancel’s essay in this volume for its meaning), Clark has long been abandoned as an extremely loud and incredibly offensive first-person narrator and intertextual muse, disrupting in the process the limitations of the first-person perspective and the all-assuming self-centering voice of the colonial memoir with which the novel opened. [End Page 6]

But The Old Drift also takes advantage of the power of the refusal to narrate and opens up disbelonging as a third possibility for thinking of the Tonga people outside of a normative dichotomy that hails them as either belonging to the nation or unbelonging to it. Disbelonging is a word that carries with it a privative force, i.e., the “dis-”2 in the word is a stronger form of negation that marks the absence of desire to belong/unbelong to the nation as well as reverses the states of both being at home in the nation and not-being at home in the nation. While The Old Drift endorses the occurrence of error and the plot is guided by a series of interconnected contingent events over which the characters have no control, it refuses to accept the Tonga’s existence as contingent on European colonial borders, which divided Africa according to European powers’ interests, a process that was formalized and accelerated after the Berlin conference of 1884–85. Undergirding this divvying up of Africa are Manichean colonial logics of zoning3 that racialize white co-users of the earth as light/good and consigns them on the inside in the first place.

The novel’s controlling symbol is the Zambezi River and its symbolic value points to the portentousness of severing of the Tonga from their life source. As a matter of narrative course of the relation between a symbol and its symbolism, unnarrating as a mode of storytelling favors the latter, which falls in the domain of readerly interpretation. “The unnarrated” are “those passages that explicitly do not tell what is supposed to have happened, foregrounding the narrator’s refusal to narrate” (Warhol 221). In other words they are those passages that transcend narration, “they can only be told by being not-told” (Warhol 230). Unnarrating is the dominant mode through which The Old Drift represents the displacement of the Tonga from their homes in the Zambezi’s Gwembe Valley. The novel is filled with references to silences, gaps, ellipses, interruptions, aphasias, illusions, hesitations, and diversions in the only three scenes in which the text uses direct speech to broach the topic of the Tonga’s displacement, i.e., when Federico and the district officer, Smith, are conversing in Federico’s office at the site of the construction of the dam, when Sibilla and her young Tonga maid Enela are going to meet her uncle and the Tonga in their village, and when the activist trio are in future time in 2023 sailing with Mai on the Vulture through the Gwembe valley and Joseph’s remark that “‘this also has been a dark place’” (TOD 547) is “‘accepted in silence. None of them took the trouble to grunt’” (547).

Earlier in a different timespace in 1958 Smith and Federico bring up the topic of the Tonga but they do not complete their sentences. “‘Not all of the Tonga,’ said Smith. ‘These ones from Chipepo do not understand even the basic workings of a dam. They don’t believe their village will be flooded. A demonstration’” (TOD 73). Smith is interrupted by Federico’s laugh. And a few pages later Federico tries to get Smith to complete his sentence: “‘Well, if you think a demonstration of the dam will help—” but “[h]e was interrupted by the sound of a horn” (76). In the meantime, the Impresit “driver’s presence seemed to mute Enela” (75; emphasis added). The other Tonga character, who is Enela’s uncle and the person Enela is taking Sibilla to meet, has so far been represented as literally aphasiac and incapable of speech. Clark tells us that a young native boy is accidentally struck by a young settler’s daughter, Lina, and “[h]e was never right in the head again. He became an imbecile, forever smiling at the daisies” (12). And a few pages later but a few years later Clark shoots the same boy mistaking him for a pig and [End Page 7] he tells us that coincidentally the boy’s name is “‘N’gulubu, which means none other than ‘pig!’” (17). But neither is Enela mute nor is N’gulubu N’gulubu, i.e, he is not-N’gulubu. And neither does he become an imbecile after Lina strikes him. Rather, he cannot see. Enela refuses to speak because she does not want to divulge information in the presence of the driver. As an employee of Impresit, the Italian company contracted to build the Kariba Dam, the driver is a stand-in for an agent of colonialism, hence Enela’s muteness in his presence. But “[a]s soon as they got out,” the narrator tells us “and began the last stretch to the village on foot . . . [,] she raised the topic of the dam displacement” (75) and goes on to explain to Sibilla her people’s “world-sense” (Oyéwùmì 2–3), which is deeply rooted in the environment. And we experience not-N’gulubu through the eyes and voice of Clark who, despite being an extremely loud narrator, is incredibly unreliable. The whole passage in the hotel dining room where Clark pulls Gavuzzi’s hair and Lina strikes a native boy is unnarrated, it is told by being not-told because Clark is in a delirium when he tells it. “Now, it was a dizzy room already, tobacco smoke bitter in the air, . . . . My fever was running amok, I was fagged out, and I could hardly hear—my head was a right balloon” (12).

And skipping to two years after Clark shoots him, not-N’gulubu visits Clark at his home in what should be read as a justice-seeking mission “and turns around to show me [Clark] the Braille in his back” (17). This time Clark is not feverish and in retrospect he recalls the events of his delirium in their rightful temporal order, beginning with his snatching of Gavuzzi’s wig and Lina’s striking of the boy. However, a clarification and scapegoating are present in Clark’s reconstructed account of the delirium. On the one hand, he clarifies that it was Gavuzzi’s wig which he snatched and he did not pull out Gavuzzi’s hair by the root as was suggested during the actual delirium. On the other hand, Clark refuses to assume responsibility for the violence he visited on not-N’gulubu and continues to scapegoat Lina as the cause of the violence. Just before Lina strikes the boy knocking him flat, Clark prepares the reader for Lina’s role as a scapegoat in the story. He tells us “[t]hat girl, Lina, a lass of five, had a vicious streakthis place had clearly got to her . . .” (11; emphasis added), thus inscribing Africa as a dark and evil place that curses Lina with an inherent viciousness. Later, Lina strikes the boy and Clark shoots him but does not penetrate any vitals and the boy survives. “The medic didn’t even bother to remove the shrapnel embedded in the skin of his back, which left a pimply sort of rash” (17), Clark tells us. When not-N’gulubu visits Clark at his home the latter identifies the former as “[t]he one the Italian girl, Lina, had struck down in the dining room” (17) thus apportioning blame to Lina and implicating her gender and ethnic group along with her.

Significant here is that Clark, who is an allegory for the British empire, does not take the chance to assume responsibility for his wrongdoing and repair relations when the opportunity presents itself. Although Clark gives not-N’gulubu “ten bob” (17) after not-N’gulubu turns around to show his back, the important readerly question to be answered is what does Clark choose to see when not-N’gulubu turns around. It is the braille that he is carrying that Clark chooses to see and not the scars caused by the shrapnel. The ambidexterity of The Old Drift’s narration reaches its climatic moments in this passage as Serpell uses linguistic optical illusions to immerse the reader in a close reading that [End Page 8] deliberately evokes a vacillation between reading and misreading. The reader, who has been invited by Clark to “imagine this” (17) and therefore engage in an immersive imaginative reading, asks themselves if it is shrapnel or braille in not-N’gulubu’s back, was it Gavuzzi’s hair that was pulled out or was it his wig, and what of Gavuzzi’s pate turning scarlet—was that blood following the uprooting of the hair or was it him flushing red in shame after his bald spot is exposed. And significantly, to what extent is Lina culpable? The delirium and its retrospective reconstruction deserve close reading and rereadings because it is here that the story reveals the source of fate that spirals across the generations.

It is not “dark Africa” and Lina’s purported vicious streak that is the source of linked intergenerational fate. Rather, Clark commits originary violence, that violence that Derrida in his reading of Claude Lévi Strauss’s writing on the Nambikwara describes as “arche-violence” (On Grammatology 112). Firstly Clark inscribes not-N’gulubu as nonhuman/animal in a Manichean hierarchy that elevates himself and by extension his group, the settlers, as human/superior. Subsequently Clark gives not-N’gulubu “ten bob” in what a surface reading might interpret as a compensation and Clark’s recognition of the injury suffered by not-N’gulubu. But far from being a compensation the ten bob is actually a second-level violence, a compensatory violence so to speak, that offsets the first thereby denying that any violence ever occurred allowing Clark to balance his morals and assuage his guilt. It is this defensive swerving that incorporates violence and counter-violence, which is captured in the novel by the “misprision” (Bloom 14) of the proper name N’gulubu. The misprision reveals the underlying structure of settler colonialism and the settler’s anxiety of the native, who was there before them and whose livelihoods and communal land use rights they have violently seized. This anxiety keeps the settler on the edge to perpetually reiterate violence in order to conceal it. It is therefore not without significance that it is the two people who have been wronged, one by the controlling logics of heteropatriarchal4 romance and the other by settler colonialism, who in a safe space out of everyone’s earshot, aside from the reader, reveal their real names, i.e., their identities: “‘My name is Sibilla Gavuzzi,’ she began. ‘Mmmmm!’ The old man clapped and smiled. ‘Me. I am N’gulube’” (76). Despite the textual allying of the two characters the novel does not equate Sibilla and N’gulube’s textual roles with N’gulube serving as an allegory for the Tonga. And neither does the novel equate the losses of the two nor their privilege to mourn them:

Only later that night, as she lay with her back to Federico in their fancy hotel bed, did the tears come, the stubble on her face deviating their path. Sibilla didn’t care that her father had abandoned her or that her aunt had made her work as a scullery maid. She didn’t even care that her mother had kept all of this from her. She cared that Federico had known, this was the one she could not brook—her husband had blithely let her believe that she was a bastard child with no past.


On the other hand, N’gulube’s tears are absent, unnarrated, his pain erased in Clark’s acts of moral balancing where he convinces himself that “[n]ative hide is thick” (17) and not-N’gulubu was “fit as a fiddle and just as merry” (17). [End Page 9]

By having Clark unnarrate N’gulube’s pain and grief, the novel is not denying the significance of the Tonga to be heard on their own terms. Rather, Serpell uses authorial privilege to block the instigator of the violence from narrating the victim’s pain and grief, therefore unearning him respect as good all along and intimate with the victim. This protects the author from the self-contradiction of appropriating the same arche-violence that the novel condemns as it rewrites Clark’s colonial memoir.

Equally notable is that The Old Drift’s Tonga are not romanticized and represented as uncontacted and homogenous. Rather, they are shown as co-influencers in cultural exchanges brought about by immigration and they have differentiated group thinking according to their place of settlement. For instance the depicted Tonga wear both Western and Tonga fashions, and the Tonga from Chipepo have different views on the dam from the other Tonga. The Old Drift therefore deconstructs the Tonga as neither native nor settler; they are in this novel the Tonga. But in that the novel shows the Tonga as structural victims of violent earth-destroying pro-capitalistic land seizures of European colonialism in Africa, it places the Tonga in solidarity with other indigenous groups that have suffered similar fates elsewhere. In opening up itself this way to readings that employ indigeneity as a heuristic for understanding the effects of European colonialism and cartography on human habitats and biodiversity, the novel nonetheless comes with a caveat that indigeneity is not autochthony. Still, as preexisting the nation in the same space in which it supplanted itself, to leave the Tonga with the option to either belong or to unbelong to the nation is to give the nation validity and succumb to the truth of power’s own making. Unnarrating or using silence to avoid appropriating indigenous voices at the “receiving end” (Deinert 84) of colonial violence points to the need of a balancing act, which maximally exposes colonial logics that perpetrate violence, acknowledges that the Tonga and their descendants as dynamic while avoiding assuming the homogeneity of indigenous people’s experience. To the now canonical epistemological, as in knowledge producing, question posed by Spivak, “can the subaltern speak?” The Old Drift responds with “can the subaltern be represented” and refuses to speak for the Tonga. Hence narrated and not-narrated, not all the narrators in their turns see and perceive the Tonga, leaving the space for the Tonga to narrate their own experience.


In keeping in tune with its genre hopping, The Old Drift offers narrative shifts and pluralizes the novel’s “I” of the prologue into a “we” narrative. It incorporates interludes postscripted to each chapter that are narrated by a swarm of mosquitoes. The swarm performs as a communal choral voice that offers further commentary on events in the story, sometimes bearing witness, offering facts, providing criticism, unraveling causes and effects, and revealing the hamartia that leads to the downfall of the protagonist(s) of each chapter. But for reading publics whose hegemonic reading patterns evoke univocal comparisons with classical Greek choruses (see Rashid; Guynes) the reliability of the swarm as narrator is not guaranteed and neither is its identity, for in the postlude the swarm is unsure if it is a cyborgian hive mind, or a swarm of mosquitoes or moskeetoze, the latter the microdrones [End Page 10] invented by the informally educated tech-savvy character Jacob and used for state surveillance. The swarm’s ambivalent identity is in sync with the novel’s multiple influences that infuse the narrative with science and African, African American, Caribbean, Latin American, Asian, and Greco-Roman myth, opening it up for explorations of both artificial intelligence narration and cross-cultural interpretations of transposing oral modes of storytelling on the written text. See, for example, in this volume how Kwanya grounds his interpretation of the swarm in the tradition of fables in African oral literature and explores a convergence of the discourse of disnarration and counterfactuality in Serpell’s mode of storytelling. On the other hand, Svetlana Stefanova (this volume) offers a wide-ranging reading of the swarm that draws from discourses of critical literary entomology, Greek choruses, ecofeminism, postcolonial ecocriticism, and posthumanities. One of her conclusions is how the swarm’s “acoustic disruption” immerses “the reader in soundscapes that make audible previously silenced or unheard voices,” including nonhuman others and how this connects to ethical implications of autonomous swarm drone technology. The novel, which is the 2020 winner of the top UK’s science fiction prize, the Arthur C. Clarke award, thus challenges the idea of science and myth as incompatible and embeds this nexus in the everyday stories of its characters giving credence to Tatiana Chernyshova’s argument that “SF is a form of myth” (345).


Indeed, an undercurrent of a counter sci-techno mythical narrative pervades The Old Drift and the novel features mythical but ethically flawed scientific innovators. Jacob, who is an illicit half-brother to Joseph, and their father, Lee Banda, are each in their own individual way complex research scientist characters whose portrayal raises gnoseological questions about what counts as scientific knowledge, its limits and validity, the seductive power and implications of technological innovations and gadgets—in short, they raise questions pertaining to the philosophy of science and technology. Thus Lee beds different women, designates his mistress as the Lusaka patient with a rare mutated gene, and datafies the women to advance his HIV vaccine research. Joseph continues his father’s research upon the latter’s death, drops out of university, and continues to conduct human experiments on prostitutes with the questionable Dr. Musadabwe. The ingenious but barely literate Jacob invents microdrones modeled on mosquitoes but sells his designs to the government. While The Old Drift highlights concerns of research ethics and datafication of poor black women in what Muthyala (this volume) defines as the “techno-neocolonial State,” the book does not endorse a technophobic view and Jacob, Joseph, and Naila, in spite of their dissidence, all gladly implant beads under their skin, i.e., the government sponsored embodied technology. And significantly, beads survive the final flooding and make it to the fluvially formed utopian city-state of Lusaka where they “are used for barter and voting” (TOD 563). And neither does the novel condemn grassroots ingenuity of the informally educated, hence the disproportionately higher amount of narrative sympathy allocated to Jacob and his grandmother Matha in comparison to the other scientific knowledge producers in the novel, Lee and his son Joseph. [End Page 11]

Robert Cancel (this volume) explains the African-tech fever that gripped Africa toward the end of the 20th century and into the 21st-century present when information communication technologies and more specifically cell phones boomed in Zambia and Africa broadly. It is in this African-tech fever context that spread to grassroots, coupled with gadget recycling, and play of trespassing boundaries that the ingenuity of children like Jacob and his friends, Solo and Pepa, thrives. It is also this context that allows Cancel to draw on the work of Sofia Samatar and continue rehabilitating Claude Levi Strauss’s “discarded” theory of bricolage to read both the engineer and the artist (Serpell in this case) as bricoleurs who appropriate whatever is at hand to achieve local needs. Thus Jacob, who is the child of the precarious Sylvia, has the novel’s sympathies, and his hamartia when he sells his drone’s designs to the government results not from moral failure but is a miscalculation on his part as he thinks that the money can help him save his first love, Pepa, from the hands of the General who has taken her hostage.

Equally important to the blending of myth and science is the character of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso who is the Director of the Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and architect of the Zambian space program. The narrative captures how he embodies the Science-Myth nexus as well as plural epistemic traditions:

Matha had heard all this before, the way Ba Nkoloso blended together science and fable, African technology and Western philosophy. It confused others but she had learned to see the world through his double vision. It was as natural to her now as the air through which she was swinging.

Serpell has written at length about the historical Nkoloso in a nonfiction article for the New Yorker titled “The Zambian Afronaut Who Wanted to Join the Space Race.” This co-text of The Old Drift contradicts a prevalent image of Nkoloso as a caricature in world history and highlights the Cold War context in which he reasoned, showing how it was highly likely that Nkoloso was satirizing the multi-billion dollar US space program while also being fascinated by the science of it. Serpell thus contextualizes Nkoloso’s Zambia space program in both African nationalist resistance movements and into the lunar exploits of the Cold War with its officially sanctioned geopolitical mythmaking of the Soviet Union and the United States, which imprinted modern myths of lunar travel and cosmicization in popular imagination. If the Zambian space program was both a cover for a resistance movement and an actual science project as Serpell intimates in her New Yorker piece, then it is in The Old Drift that she exercises artistic freedom to present the unbridled image of Nkoloso’s hubris. But as hubris was his strength, the swarm narrator informs us that it was also his hamartia. Nkoloso eventually “succumbed to custom” after “they shamed him with scandal, they humbled his hubris . . .” (TOD 200). Serpell’s revisiting of the Cold War context and the tragic form reverberates in the present 21st-century historical moment in which plutocratic interests and billionaire hubris, or “stupid hubris” as Bhabha calls it in this volume, has taken charge of space exploration mythmaking.5 [End Page 12]


The influence of the aesthetics of people of African descent, either based in Africa or in the diaspora, permeates The Old Drift and it shares many thematic and formal anchor points with texts produced across the black world. It echoes and goes beyond the work of African American women writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison, who in the words of Tracey L. Walters “apply both modernist and postmodernist approaches to classical mythmaking” (1). Walters’s study of African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison (2007) shows how Black women writers appropriate Western classical myth both overtly and covertly with writers like Brooks in her forty-three septet poem, “The Anniad” (a play on Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad), being explicit in its use while Morrison is more subtle in her appropriation of Western classical myth, blending it more with its African and African American counterparts.

Like the black women writers before her, Serpell uses myth to nuance ideas of motherhood and relations to offspring as portrayed in the thaumaturgic tears at the center of Matha and Sylvia’s mother-daughter relationship or the thaumaturgic hair that defines the relationship between Sibilla and her mother Adriana or Sibilla and her daughter Isabella. Thaumaturge meaning “wonder-worker,” from the “Medieval Latin thaumaturgus,” and “wonder-working; conjurer” from “Greek thaumatourgos” (Etymonline) carries with it meanings of both the doer of wonder and the actions, process, and effects of wonder. It is therefore an apt term for capturing the mythical nature of the novel’s wondrous characters, Sibilla and Matha, rather than, for example, reducing Sibilla to having a medical condition of hirsutism as some critics have done (see, for example, Rashid). Consider how the root “thauma” (and its “genitive thaumatos”) means “‘wonder, astonishment; wondrous thing,’ literally ‘a thing to look at,’ from root of theater, +-ourgia ‘a working’ from ergon ‘work’” (Etymonline) and how Sibilla is all these things at once. She is a wondrous thing with long locks of hair growing everywhere on her body, she is both a cause of wonder and astonishment to those who see her, and she is literally a thing to look at, a spectacle who is treated like a freak and made to spin for guests at her aunt’s soirées. Her body has effects and, as Semphere argues in this volume, Sibilla’s body like other women’s bodies in the novel expresses a discursive corporeality that makes us consider how women’s bodies in African literature speak and act “to disrupt the dictates of normative patriarchal systems.”

Sibilla, a variation of the name Sibyl, a “woman supposed to possess powers of prophecy, female soothsayer” consulted by ancient Greeks and Romans (Etymonline), evokes awe and communicates with the divine. The aesthetic category that best applies to Sibilla is that of the sublime and not of beauty. As I argue elsewhere, it is the Western aesthetic category of the sublime and not of beauty that is well-suited for comparative aesthetics and it translates best in languages of appreciation in African contexts (Nyangulu 18–19). But while Sibilla as a praise name borders on the divine, she is not a god. The Tonga, who want her to intercede on their behalf with the authorities who are displacing them from their homes to pave way for the construction of the Kariba Dam, do not worship her. Ironically, [End Page 13] when Sibilla first meets the Tonga elders she wonders at her own wondrousness and almost believes if “the Tonga think she was some kind of fetish, some animal spirit to be worshipped?” (TOD 75). But the Tonga have their own gods and have no need to worship her. It is only after her servant Enela introduces her “as the wife of the bwana at the Kariba” that Sibilla understands “that she was here not as a demi-god but because of her husband” (75), a realization that once again reminds her of her place in a patriarchal order despite she herself being in a position of power to her Tonga maid Enela. Ultimately, Sibilla is relegated from the realm of the mythical where she would otherwise have mystical powers and resigns to the realities of life moving in with her daughter and son-in-law, the daughter who eventually commodifies Sibilla in her old age by harvesting her locks of hair for sale. (See also Crehan’s reading of Sibilla in his article in this volume on how the narrative humanizes her by inverting exoticism.)

Serpell, who cites Toni Morrison as one of her influences and has written the introduction to Morrison’s reissued edition of Sula (1973), is in dialogue with her elder for whom thaumaturge is also at the center of Sethe and Beloved’s mother-daughter relationship in her novel Beloved (1987). While most classicist readings of Beloved draw comparisons between Sethe and the eponymous ancient Greek tragic heroine of Euripides’ play Medea, Cullhed rightly decenters such readings noting how they eclipse Beloved’s mythical complex (89–91). She instead focuses on how the book alludes to the ancient Greek myth of Procne and Philomela and also draws attention to images in Beloved that signify Yoruba mythology without necessarily going into a detailed analysis of the latter. A focused reading of African myth in Beloved on the other hand shows that Sethe and Beloved’s mother-daughter relationship is fated by the notion of the ogbanje, ekabasi, or abiku phenomenon, i.e., “a spirit child, one fated to a cycle of early death and birth to the same mother” (Achebe 32). As I argue elsewhere, myths of the spirit child are commonplace and do not conform to the idea of ownership and authorship of the written literary tradition. These are decentered myths that have inspired diverse writers like Wole Soyinka, whose work is grounded in Yoruba cosmology, or the Igbo-Tamil nonbinary writer Akwaeke Emezi, who “uses ogbanje to process their embodiment as a non-human entity, a deity’s child, experiences which they also explores in their writing” (Nyangulu 47–48).

Thaumaturge is an expansive term that also makes it possible to interpret how Sibilla’s hair or Matha’s tears function as extended metaphors that sustain a particular theme across generations showing possibilities for repair and breaking generational curses. Thus, the relationship between Adriana and Sibilla is strained and exploitative with the tension reiterated in a different form in Sibilla’s relation with her daughter Isabella. However, Sibilla finds space to repair her past mistakes in her relationship with her granddaughter Naila in whom she instills a spirit of resistance. Similarly, Matha finds space to repair relations with her grandson, Jacob, to whom she passes on her knowledge. Having previously had a loveless relationship with her own daughter, Sylvia, whom she abandoned, Matha finds space to love Jacob after Sylvia in her turn dumps Jacob with her. But Matha’s tears are also a public form of grieving for the losses suffered by her people, the Tonga, including the unmourned pain of her grandfather N’gulube. Hence it is significant that Matha’s weeping is communal and is done in solidarity with the weepers, the group of crying women, who have also experienced different losses. [End Page 14]

Like her precursors and contemporaries, Serpell too appropriates myth to speak to contemporary debates on the intersections between gender, sexuality, class, ability, race, age, with the expanding range of identity tropes illuminating the workings of racialized cis-hetero-abled patriarchal capitalist structures of oppression and resistance. Focusing on urban space, The Old Drift is reminiscent of Brook’s now reissued only novel, Maud Martha (1953), which is told in thirty-four vignettes and whose protagonist’s Maud Martha’s yearning for New York foreshadows the Matha chapter and her yearning for Lusaka in the later novel even as the city denies the two protagonists’ belonging because of their lack of status. The concentration on urban space brings to these novels of black women a sense of social and feminist realism that speaks to the realities of inhabiting minoritized worlds. While Serpell is explicit with her characters’ movements within the city exploring the blight of the underclass of the Lusaka afropolis and focusing on a range of characters that include street kids, prostitutes, persons living with albinism; Maud Martha turns more inward focusing on the subjective experience of the protagonist and the everydayness of her life.

Serpell has said of herself that she is not a gender separatist (this volume) and this shows in the diverse range of influences on The Old Drift. Serpell, who has also written the introduction to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s reissued novel Devil on the Cross (1982), shares many narrative techniques with the Kenyan author such as interrogating contraries to derive meaning, dialectical poetics, and anticapitalistic critique. The Old Drift thus does not only draw from Western epics but also on African ones such as Ngũgĩ’s The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi (2018). Ngũgĩ’s The Wizard of the Crow (2006) is a precursor to The Old Drift, which rehearses some of the narrative techniques used in The Old Drift such as narrative aphasias around the articulation of the effects of whiteness and thaumaturgic bodies that serve as extended metaphors.

Emergent scholarship on The Old Drift is increasingly approaching the book from an ecocritical lens (Campbell and Paye; Nutall; Baishya; Siluonde). While this interest in ecocritical readings indicates the currency of the topic of decentering the Anthropocene and environmentalism, The Old Drift with its fascination with the mythical water serpent, Nyami Nyami, can productively be read alongside Malawian writer Steve Chimombo’s collections of Napolo poems and his historical novel, The Wrath of Napolo (2000), which engage with the disastrous environmental effects of the water serpent Napolo and therefore (re)animate regional literature from the former Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and/or southern African literature in general. In his review of The Wrath of Napolo written in 2002, Mdika N. Tembo criticizes Chimombo for his repetitive and unidirectional treatment of Napolo themes, arguing that “his Napolo tales have since died a natural death because . . . the issues that [would help] keep them current [have now] faded into the limbo of memory” (87). But the issues that keep Napolo tales current have not faded into the limbo of memory and are now more urgent than ever as impacts of climate change that have given life to the cli-fi genre continue to take center stage on the planetary level. At the time of submitting this special issue, Cyclone Freddy or Napolo, as the generic name would have it, had struck travelling 8,000 kilometers from Australia before getting stuck in the Mozambique channel causing destruction and a death spiral in the surrounding countries of Madagascar, Malawi, and Mozambique (Chinele and Matonga 12–14). The Old Drift like [End Page 15] The Wrath of Napolo lends itself to readings that consider the “planetary turn” (Elias and Moraru) in literature. But unlike The Old Drift, which was published in the Global North, The Wrath of Napolo is self-published outside the circuits of global literary circulation and has to deal with challenges of publishing in small Global South markets as outlined by Chimombo himself in an interview with Christopher J. Lee. Relatedly, the novel also lends itself to the category of world literature as demonstrated by Ranka Primorac in this volume who reads Serpell as a world literary author who reactivates a whole history with them. Placing The Old Drift in dialogue with the Zambian novel, Andrew Masiye’s Before Dawn (1970), Primorac considers how Serpell’s novel reactivates local novelistic history via both its cosmopolitanism and narrative form.

In a nutshell, the novel encourages a reading that urges critics to approach African literature as world literature in the context of an ongoing global environmental crisis and a digital revolution with its associated emergent digital technologies. It extends previously theorized ties between postcolonialism and postmodernism while also asserting the enduring relevance of African socialism and Marxism. The novel is also decidedly told from a Global South perspective with the book’s genre mash-up affirming a trajectory that highlights south to south ties, such as in its engagement with the influence of Mao Zedung’s thought in Africa. The Old Drift is a novel that depends on transgressing generic expectations to actively intervene into debates on genre categorizations and their effects on the autonomy/identity of the writer, the latter a long-standing debate in African writing that culminates in the question “who is an African writer?” Thus, in addition to freeing the novel from the normative conditions of its literary production that allow for the (global) circulation of texts, genre defiance helps to unmoor the writer so that she can operate across a spectrum of identifications (Zambian, African, Zambian-American, Black, Anglophone, postcolonial) and appeal to multiple reading publics entailed by different writer identifications.

In bringing together different genres, the novel also explores intersections between different discourses that would otherwise remain separated in conventional formulaic storytelling. For instance, the Sylvia chapter is conceived as social realism but the critique of social inequality does not exist in a vacuum and loops back to the novel’s opening to show the intersection of colonialism and racial capitalism. In keeping in line with themes of exploitation and resistance, The Old Drift is an analysis of social movements (Chile’s No + protests in 1979, South Africa’s Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall [2015], Zambia’s 1960s independence movements but foregrounds Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda’s variant of socialism known as humanism and his vision of multiracialism). Siluonde’s article on “Decolonizing the Pussy” in this volume unsettles the dominance of the male gaze in discourses of decolonization. She instead sees decolonization as a fluid idiom that can be used to address issues of women subjugation and highlights in her reading the feminist dimensions of the characters Sylvia, Martha, Tabitha, and Naila. Social institutions (such as the University of Zambia, the church, and family) come under the purview of The Old Drift, and social orders (such as white supremacy, neocolonialism, women’s oppression, and patriarchy) are interrogated. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, which devasted Zambia in the 1990s, the debate on Karl [End Page 16] Marx’s black racial ancestry (see Vilakazi), all make their way into the book. The Old Drift uses multiple voices and generic shifts to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.


The above fragmented readings of the novel are not meant to be exhaustive but are meant as way of introduction to the novel to give a snapshot of the many different readings that the book opens up. Neither are these readings representative of the different articles gathered here. The different contributors in this issue read the novel from various angles and the articles range in style from essays, critical articles, personal reflection, and conversations. There are overlaps between some of the articles while some articles contradict each other in the interpretation of particular details. Taken individually, each article offers its unique take on the novel and taken together the articles reveal both the fractures and consistencies that are contained in the reading of a single text.

The idea of this special issue was born in a moment of disruption. Robert Cancel from UC San Diego had put together a panel to engage with The Old Drift at the 2020 African Literature Conference and he advertised a public call that he was looking for a respondent to join the panel. I responded to the call and was invited to join the panel but due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the panel did not take place. Following the panel’s cancellation, I reached out to Cancel and the other panelists with the idea of developing the panel into a special issue, an idea of which they were supportive. Some of the papers in this issue therefore originated from that panel while others were solicited via a call for papers or were specially commissioned by the guest editor. While these articles are gathered here under the rubric of disruption, the different authors understand disruption differently and approach their pieces in a myriad of ways. This is in itself one of the strengths of this volume in that it shows the range of readings that a single text can generate. Admittedly, it is not often that a debut novel is celebrated with a special issue within the first few years of its publication but it is hoped that this special issue can help reanimate literary criticism in African literature and sustained engagement with works of individual authors. This is in itself a way of archiving literary reception of a particular author in one easily accessible place.

Returning to the notion of disruption, this is a word that is often invoked but rarely defined. Serpell’s novel can be seen as disruptive on several levels, i.e., it harks back to the Latin verb disruptus meaning to “break or burst asunder, separate forcibly” and to its past participle form disrumpere, meaning to “break apart, split, shatter, break to pieces” (Online Etymology Dictionary). But it also carries with it the sense of interruption or jamming as in “to prevent something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected” (Cambridge Dictionary). In her study of Black Queer Ethics, Family, & Philosophical Imagination (2016) Thelathia Nikki Young is interested in the question of individual and collective moral agency of black queer people and exploits both of the above senses to understand disruption as marked by irruption. As she explains the disruption-irruption dyad, it is a mutually inclusive process that is on the [End Page 17] one hand a rational dismantling of regulatory technologies and disciplinary mechanisms which stabilize norms. On the other hand, it is also a nonrational creative and constructive force of reappropriating components of dismantled norms and reconstituting them in general (57–58). In Young’s theorizing, the lens of analysis must encompass disruption and irruption in order to reach transformation. Notably, Young borrows her usage of irruption from liberation theologians who use it to describe irruption as “the way that marginalized, overlooked, and excluded subjects—poor, nonwhite, women—burst into history from the underside of social, political, and theological domination by the West” (60). Extrapolating the notion to black queers, Young shows how they burst into discourse bringing about “a counter-normalizing norm creation” (61) of the familial. Drawing on the dictionary definitions of disruption above and Young’s theorizing, I understand disruption as a breaking apart of the ossified and shattering it to pieces but in a way that is interruptive and not annihilative. The moments of interruption allow for patching up the broken pieces, preserving its history, and opens up opportunities to repair what has been deliberately or accidentally broken, i.e., to remake a system(s) anew or change its course.

The idea of repair, and the need for repair, runs throughout The Old Drift, whether it is repair of relations, historical wrongs, or infrastructure repair. And it is with the novel’s young three disruptors—Jacob, Joseph, Naila—that they erroneously change the course of the Zambezi River when they unintentionally completely jam the sluices controlling the Kariba Dam leading to the fall of its wall. The Great Zambezi floods and “Lake Kariba” becomes “a river,” “the Dam . . . a waterfall” and “. . . the Lusaka plateau” “. . . an island” (TOD 559). Equally important is how the scenes that build up to the final flooding of the Zambezi show disruption not as an event but as an intergenerational process involving various forms of human and nonhuman activity. It is therefore symbolic that the SOTP event in Kalingalinga planned by the three disruptors should fail to go according to plan and is thwarted by the state. Although the now aged Matha and her congregation of weepers form a discursive serpentine body that irrupts through the event, their act causes the crowd to erupt but stops short of causing a rupture and succeeds as a quasi-theological intervention. The novel itself refuses narrative closure and does not neatly tie up its different plot lines nor unravel its great puzzle. While the epilogue titled “The Dam” approximates some semblance of narrative closure and takes us back to the book’s opening pages on the Zambezi River where it all began—the Scottish missionary David Livingstone’s sighting of the Mosi-oa-Tunya and renaming it as Victoria Falls in honor of his queen, and the violent displacement of the Tonga from the fertile lands of the Zambezi valley to pave the way for the construction of the mega Kariba Dam. In a kind of inverted ending the novel reimagines not the birth of the nation but its rebirth as the city-state of Lusaka, a utopian enclave of a small egalitarian community that survives the apocalyptic flooding of the Zambezi.

Deborah Nyangulu
Universität Bremen


This special issue is a collective effort. Thank you very much to all the contributors for entrusting the guest editor with your articles, without you there would have been no special issue to edit. Thank you to the peer reviewers who kindly gave their labor to review the papers in this volume and provided anonymous constructive feedback for the authors, including engaging the guest editor in dialogue on how best some of the papers could be reworked. To the editor of RAL, Kwaku Larbi Korang, and the Managing Editor, Molly Reinhoudt, thank you for giving this special issue a home in RAL. Molly, thanks for answering all questions, your guidance throughout the process is very much appreciated. Robert Cancel, you have supported this project right from the beginning, thank you. Ranka Primorac, you shared your contacts and were very helpful in connecting the guest editor with scholars based in Zambia, this is appreciated.

Different people also read and commented on the introduction at different stages in the writing process: members of the PTTS colloquium at the University of Münster, students and faculty at the Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies, and members of the Worlds of Contradiction colloquium at the University of Bremen. Special mention to Kerstin Knopf, Sabine Broeck, Lindokuhle Shabane, and Gisela Febel who read closely the draft introduction and gave me useful feedback on it. A big thanks to all of you.


1. Moviousness is a noun formed from the word movious, which Serpell defines as wandering. At the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic researchers recorded “moviousness” as one of the words used in southern Africa to refer to a person who moved around a lot, switching sexual partners (Ashforth and Watkins).

2. For the definition of “dis-,” see OED entry.

3. Ideas of Manichean logic that I use here are drawn from a synthesis of ideas from Fanon; Bhabha (“Foreword”); and Pithouse.

4. My idea of heteropatriarchal romance draws on ideas of heteropatriarchy and heteropaternalism as defined by Arvin et al.

5. See, for example, Tim Levin’s report on billionaire Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars.


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