📖 🇿🇲 #35: A cross-genre epic from Zambia

A multi-generational tale from Namwali Serpell

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.


Namwali Serpell’s impressive debut novel The Old Drift is a 563-page sprawling epic that follows the bloodlines of three interconnected families over the course of three generations. Set mostly in what is now Zambia and partially narrated by a chorus of malaria-carrying mosquitos(!), this is a confident, ambitious, and supremely intelligent book that explores class and race tensions, the development of revolutionary politics, and technology usurping nature while flitting between characters, eras, and genres seamlessly.

The novel begins with colonial explorer Dr Livingstone looking for the source of the Nile in the wrong place. “This is the story of a nation, not a kingdom or people” say the chorus of mosquitoes, “so it begins, of course with a white man.” Through the stories of three families, Serpell goes on to fictionalise more than a century of Zambia’s history—exploring British colonialism, the AIDS epidemic, the Zambian Space Program, and the construction of the Kariba Dam by Italian engineers—before imagining a future world of mass surveillance and AIDS vaccines administered by microdrones.

The book begins with a map of how the novel’s main characters are connected, which I annotated assiduously in order to keep up. In Part I, Serpell introduces us to the three women whose bloodlines will later become interconnected. There’s Sibillia, an Italian peasant who moves to Zambia with her lover Federico, a sergeant who gets a job working on the Kariba Dam. There’s Agnes, a British former tennis pro who loses her sight and moves to Zambia upon falling in love with Ronald, a Zambian student her family are hosting. And then there’s Martha, a brilliant Zambian child who hopes to become the first woman to make it to the moon. Though these narratives are chronological, and some of them are based on actual events, Serpell often strays into magical realism: while Sibillia’s entire body is covered in hair that won’t stop growing, Martha starts crying after her partner Godfrey goes missing and never stops.

In Part II, we meet these women’s children: Sibillia’s daughter Isabella, a quiet girl who winds up marrying an Indian man almost twice her age; and Agnes’ son Lionel, a maverick self-styled virologist and textbook fuckboy who marries an Air Zambia hostess called Thwandie and starts up an affair with Martha’s daughter Sylvia, a former sex worker and the manager of a hair salon to which Sibillia donates her hair.

Finally in Part III, we meet their grandchildren: Isabella’s daughter Naila who dates Thwandie’s son Joseph and also has a soft spot for Sylvia’s son Jacob. While Joseph become single-mindedly obsessed with gaining access to his father’s most recent work on creating an effective AIDS vaccine, Jacob is fixated on building microdrones. Together, Naila, Joseph, and Jacob protest their corrupt and oppressive government. These are characters living in a world in which beadlike chips resembling smartphones are implanted into their skin and Lee’s vaccine is being tested on human subjects (“black people have always made great guinea pigs,” Naila remarks).

I’ve honestly never read anything like The Old Drift before. It is so sharp and so clever and Serpell achieves so much that honestly I’m just in awe. This is a book that could easily be split into three or four separate works but the fact this rich stew of characters exist within just one book makes it all the more impactful. It’s a truly remarkable feat and I’d implore anyone with even the slightest inclination to read it. I’m setting my weekend aside to work my way through everything else Serpell has ever written.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Hogarth, 2019)

More books by Zambian authors

Here’s a list of other recommendations I received this week:

  • Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku

  • The Mourning Bird by Mubanga Kalimamukwento

  • The Tongue of the Dumb by Dominic Mulaisho

  • No Be From Hia by Natasha Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda

  • Crown Jewels by Field Ruwe

  • A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Ukusefya for their recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!