Indiana University Press
  • State of the Planet: Homi Bhabha and Namwali Serpell in Conversation
ABSTRACT

After explaining the rationale for bringing the author of The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell, and critical theorist Homi Bhabha into conversation, this interview with both of them explores some of the key themes of Serpell’s novel in relation to its wider geopolitical and historical context. Beginning with how we can understand the state of the planet in the present historical moment, the discussion expands to explore the broad context of more themes in the novel, which includes the place of gender and sexual politics, a global pandemic in a time of national and financial closures, cosmopolitanism, the space race and reverberations of the Cold War in the present, and the continued relevance, if any, of postcolonial theory, technology, revolution, and futurity.

INTRODUCTION

I conducted this interview with Homi Bhabha and Namwali Serpell via email exchanges between 2021 and 2022. Some questions were specifically directed at Serpell and others at Bhabha. In some cases a question was directed at both of them.

Both Homi Bhabha and Namwali Serpell are prolific producers of the written word. I don’t want to introduce them in a way that is reductive, but there is [End Page 161] a point of convergence in their work, which is how they each think about the origins of the nation. Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift complicates the origins of the Zambian nation. She has jokingly called it “the great Zambian novel,” and the appellation seems to have stuck. There is this iteration of the appellation in the press and among literary critics not only because she said it but also because literary appraisers think that it sums up the novel. Homi Bhabha is a critical theorist whose project has, to a large extent, been comprised of thinking about the location of culture as well as nation and narration, if I may recourse to the titles of his books. He has written against the idea of the nation as unified in time and space.

In a way, they each bring to the fore the folly of imagining the nation as on an onward progressive march into the future and focus attention on the simultaneous timelines and spatialities that make up the narratives of the modern nation. Because I see the idea of simultaneity as important for each of them, I find that, for instance, in The Old Drift, Serpell is able within the frame of the novel itself to have multiple settings and multigenerational characters that are nonetheless connected via a specific setting, Lusaka. Thus, Lusaka and more specifically the compound of Kalingalinga becomes a productive site for connecting and refracting the multiple personal storylines of the different characters and the histories and circumstances that they are embedded in—be it revolution, national or colonial history, ecological processes, neocolonial power logics, geopolitics, or classed, gendered, and racialized hierarchies. In this interview I picked up on some of these themes in The Old Drift to ask both Serpell and Bhabha both how national narratives help us to think through and make sense of the state of the planet in our present historical moment, these narratives’ continued purchase, if any at all, going forward. I borrow the title State of the Planet (SOTP) from the scene in The Old Drift where the three activists—Naila, Joseph, and Jacob—discuss their resistance strategy. Perhaps as a way of elaborating the title, I ask my first question by drawing from that scene.

DEBORAH NYANGULU:

Naila’s inspiration for the SOTP sign is the Mile of the Crosses artistic intervention against the Chilean dictatorship by the visual artist and activist Lotty Rosenfeld. Reading through the novel I found these references to historical women who have defined the course of history in some way, sometimes the references are in passing or the women occupy significant narrative space—Althea Neale Gibson the first African American female tennis player to win a Grand Slam title in the 1950s, Matha Mwamba of Nkoloso’s Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, Alice Lenshina who was part of the Lumpa Church uprising—was this a deliberate choice to highlight different women and the roles that they played in history, why was/is this important for you?

NAMWALI SERPELL:

I am a feminist but not a gender separatist. The novel is often mischaracterized as being about three generations of women, when in fact the chapters about the final generation (The Children whom you cite) take up two men (Joseph and Jacob) and a woman (Naila) who are in a love triangle. Many other parts of the novel take up the voices of men. This includes historical figures from Percy Clark to Pietro Gavuzzi to Kenneth Kaunda to Mukuka Nkoloso to Lionel [End Page 162] Cliff (renamed as Lionel Heath). So no, I wasn’t deliberately highlighting women, but it’s interesting to me that a relative majority of women characters would yield a sense of predominance.

DN:

The world seems to be on a threshold where there is a tension between harking back to enclosures of nation-states and embracing more planetary ways of thinking. What would it take to move from a political organization that favors enclosure to one that enhances a sense of the planetary? Would embracing a sense of the planetary require a rethinking of gender and sexual politics and what sort of gender/sexual politics would draw the world closer to an egalitarian ideal?

HOMI BHABHA:

There is a historical and conceptual difference between the “nation-state” as a bourgeois-liberal secular entity and the emergent postcolonial nation-states of the Third World in the Global South. The former were liberal and carried the historical weight of imperial, racial conflicts conquests. The latter were born out of a struggle for liberation—rather than liberalism—and were subject to a whole range of problems to do with poverty, development, and corruption despite their high-minded goals.

There are no planetary “nations-forms” today although there is much loose global-talk, and it would be difficult to imagine what they could be. Instead, we have profoundly polarizing ethno-nationalist majoritarian national “enclosures” that target minorities and dissidents. Planetary climate accords and planetary progressive movements are imperiled by these populist tribalist tyrannies (Hannah Arendt) such as Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. In fact, these tyrannical regimes now span the world—you could say, with a slight exaggeration, that they are themselves a “planetary” phenomenon.

Women as “minorities” suffer greatly at the hands of patriarchal populist leaders—think of Afghanistan as the most extreme and egregious case, although Indian Muslim women are kidnapped and even killed if there are in relationships with Hindus—and vice versa. The recent refugee crises in Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe (to say nothing of the States) have been ruinous for women and children in particular. They are the largest number of refugees lined up on the border of Poland today.

So with such gender inequity and indignity “on the ground,” it is difficult to conceive of planetary gender movements. One has to be sensitive in thinking of regional, cultural, and customary differences when talking of global rights, which have to be institutionalized, supervised, and protected very differently in diverse locations. Having been cautious, it is significant to see the recent international solidarity, amongst the enlightened, for transgender and transexual peoples.

DN:

Is it desirable that we should be using fiction to think more and more in planetary terms, why/why not? What happens when a global pandemic such as that caused by COVID-19 necessitates (national) enclosure, how do we guarantee notions of rights, freedom, access, fairness, democracy within enclosure?

NS:

None of my female characters is perfect or pure. But I do place the most world-minded political analysis in the mouth of Matha Mwamba, who has been radicalized by the death of her daughter at the hands of the futuristic capitalist hegemon figured in the novel as “The Sino-American Consortium,” and by [End Page 163] her return to the first book she ever read, the Bible. Matha says: “‘End of days is here! . . . Have you not seen the winds of change rushing over our lands? Have you not seen the burning winds of Lucifer and Mammon? Bending heads and breaking backs across the world? In USA! In UK! In USSR! In China! And now even here in Zambia! Can you not see that the lion is war? That the calf is for fattening, because it is for slaughter? The third beast—it is the dictator in every land from Russia to Kenya, Zimbabwe to India. It is the face of man! On the body of a demon!’” As ever, global solidarity responds to global oppression.

HB:

There are no guarantees for these rights in times of pandemics or national panics. However much international aid bodies try to recommend larger allocations of health care resources, there is always a nationalist “pushback” on economic grounds. The poor, and those with comorbidities, often the same populations, suffer the most and are the least protected.

I think you seem to be very focused on “national enclosures.” The real tragedy is that economic and financial globalization is hardly “enclosed”; and yet the world-order seems not to have developed an integrated global ethics of health justice—other than in exceptional cases amongst NGOs, MSF, Partners in Health, and such progressive bodies. The delayed response to COVID-19 amongst the richest countries in the world—after they knew of the seriousness of the virus—is a startling example of the unjust and uncaring world in which we live.

DN:

With The Old Drift, you managed to capture the interplay of the local and the global, as has been observed in a review by Mwanabibi Sikamo in The Lusaka Times. Why was it necessary to capture this interplay?

NS:

I find the belated attempt to apply cosmopolitanism to Africa under the name “Afropolitan” to be ahistorical. Africa has always been cosmopolitan; the local has always been global because of the long history of migration and contact; culture is syncretic; this is how we experience reality, through the fly’s-eye lens of many frames, all at once, a severalty of localities.

DN:

How would you categorize The Old Drift and other books like it—national literature or do any of the prefixed-nation labels work (transnational, postnational)? Or should we be looking to other categories vis-à-vis the way the book treats genre? Is the national literature label still useful today?

HB:

The Old Drift, amongst others, belongs to a genre I describe as vernacular cosmopolitan literature, rather than world literature. It is a genre that engages with worlds both physical and surreal, allegorical and historical, with an eye to creating a sense of the interconnected of historical experiences, whole exploring social and cultural values that have to be constructed anew, rather than mimetically reflected. Vernacular cosmopolitanism is a form of world-belong that is aware that there are no easy, universal judgments at hand; it also believes that elite forms of cosmopolitical exchange are often based on similitudes and simultaneities, shared by an “international” group of scholars and readers who want what is easily accessible as “different.” The vernacular perspective attempts to create a cosmopolitanism of continual translation and transvaluation that plants its feet in specific and complex sites of convergence that cannot simply be accessed, but require a translation frame of reference and representation to produce new and interventionist literary [End Page 164] values and hybrid genres. These works are committed to “decipherment” rather than discovery; they are as intrigued by illegibility as they are by illumination.

DN:

The Space Race and the Cold War provide important context for your retelling of Nkoloso’s story. Was there a specific reason why you looked into Cold War discourses and do your reasons relate to geopolitical developments and economic inequalities in the present historical moment?

NS:

As we know, history repeats, so yes, I was interested in how the geopolitical situation then has its echoes now, particularly in the role of China, the expansion of technology, a global surge in socioeconomic inequality, and a concomitant surge in diasporic forms of solidarity. But there are a lot of differences as well, given the drift of time—China’s presence in Zambia is obviously different; neoliberalism has catalyzed an nearly unfathomable gap between the poorest and the richest; and an international movement for the people seems possible only through the thrilling but thin and often dangerous form of the internet, a clear example of how technology’s icy neutrality can cut either way. In this sense, my geometry of history is a spiral rather than a cycle.

DN:

Some pundits are describing the present as characterized by a new Cold War, by for example looking at the military tensions between US and China or the trade wars between the two countries. Is it right to characterize the present as a time of a new Cold War and should we expect a replication of older power asymmetries as countries tussle for global dominance?

HB:

Yes. Think of the Cold War that exists in Ukraine today. Russia’s imperial invasion of Ukraine is a “displaced” Cold War fought out between the superpowers on a territory that belongs neither to Russia, China, or the US. But Putin is provoking a Third World War scenario, quite explicitly, to establish the milieu of new Cold War.

DN:

Would you say that we live in revolutionary time? I found that the last section of your book, Namwali, picks up revolutionary ideas especially of decolonization, albeit while casting doubts on the efficacy of protests. What was your thinking behind bringing in these ideas in the text?

NS:

Revolution is an apt word for it, isn’t it? Overturning, erupting, yet turning and returning. The perpetual motion machine of catastrophe turns the gears of unrest. As in The Old Drift, there is a viral pandemic and a violence pandemic and the everpresent everchanging climate crisis, accompanied by protests and strikes and organizing worldwide. We now live in the era of apocalypse. The astonishing rise in insurgency, however, remains encrusted with a certain kind of ideology, which has accreted over the past two centuries or so. We also live in the era of ProtestTM. Black Panther cosplay, fascist cooptation, girlboss feminism; “I can’t breathe” and “my body my choice” are now the chants of anti-maskers; BLM threatens to become a marketing category; “self-care” has devolved into luxury. The revolution was in fact televised and that has been its hamartia. I often go back to a sentence from an introduction to Marxism that I read in graduate school: “Marx and Engels underestimated . . . the extraordinary power [End Page 165] of capitalism to turn back and absorb opposition.” This is, I think, the greatest threat to revolution.

DN:

Technology, especially the digital revolution, features highly in The Old Drift. What is the relationship between technology and fiction?

NS:

Apart from The Old Drift, I’ve written stories about sex robots and in the form of bank statements and Facebook news feeds, nonfiction essays about Black Twitter and science fiction. I taught a whole course on “Techno-Fiction” at Berkeley in the spring of 2020. This question would take too many words to answer and is not only historically asymptotic (the Gutenberg press is a technology, the codex is a technology, writing is a technology) but also ongoing.

DN:

Are our categories of thought in the humanities adequate for analyzing the state of the planet? Would one, for example, find the toolkit of postcolonial theory sufficient to make sense of current private interests to colonize other planets?

HB:

I really have no answer. Only questions. What is the object/s of our analyses? What particular domain or constellation of the humanities are you talking about? Is postcolonial theory a “tool-kit?” Finally the extraterrestrial thrills of billionaires who think that they have “done” the earth and now need to colonize “other planets” is a form of stupid hubris for which I have no time.

DN:

The Old Drift ends with Naila dying in childbirth but the child does not know who his father is. Was this a statement on the uncertainty of the paternal line?

NS:

My short story “The Sack” is, in effect, the floating epilogue to the novel and tells the story of Jacob and Joseph as old men contemplating their failed revolution and relationships with Naila. A young fish boy who joins their household becomes a proxy for that child of uncertain paternity. It has less to do with “the paternal line” than with oblique relations of love and rage.

DN:

The image of the child is ubiquitous in fiction, which speculates about the future and it is usually the controlling image for interventionist politics of futurism. What would it signify if interventionist politics of the future were not to center the image of the child?

HB:

Natality is a potent and moving concept in Hannah Arendt’s work. When the world is old and tired, it needs a new beginning and a “birth” is such a new beginning that presages the hope for freedom. Of course, she is speaking metaphorically, even allegorically. Maybe even a little prophetically?

DN:

I was born, raised, and educated in Malawi. Reading through The Old Drift, I felt at home and as if reading a text that was written for someone like me—the Nyanja words, the historical context was familiar to me. Why did you include Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as part of the novel’s trajectories?

NS:

I don’t wish to be ahistorical or utopian about it, but to emphasize the arbitrariness and violence of “the nation-state” as a category. We have built elaborate systems of defense, regulation, detainment, and punishment protecting lines in the sand that were drawn to serve the ruling classes. As the novel says, Zambia [End Page 166] didn’t really exist as a “nation” until a set of squiggly and straight lines were drawn around it—which shifted. From 1953 to 1963, the three nations-to-be you mention were all one political territory: the Federation. The Chewa and the Tonga preexist those borders, to say nothing of the general Bantu people (the People people). My interest is in those people, their cultures and histories, not in the geopolitical game of divvying them up.

Deborah Nyangulu
Universität Bremen
nyangulu@uni-bremen.de

WORKS CITED

Sikamo, Mwanabibi. “Book Review—The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.” Lusaka Times, 4 Apr. 2019, https://www.lusakatimes.com/2019/04/04/book-review-the-old-drift-by-namwali-serpell/.

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