The Old DriftNamwali Serpell
science fiction, history, magical realism
Arthur C. Clarke Award 2020.
A Zambian debut novel that follows three generations of three families, telling the story of a nation, and of the grand sweep of time
On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. Here begins the story of a small African nation, told by a swarm-like chorus that calls itself man’s greatest nemesis.
In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.
From a woman covered with hair and another plagued with endless tears, to forbidden love affairs and fiery political ones, to homegrown technological marvels like Afronauts, microdrones and viral vaccines – this novel sweeps over the years and the globe.
Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer who teaches at UC Berkeley. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2011 and was selected for the Africa 39 in 2014. She won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing.
The Old Drift is her first novel. The chapter entitled "The Falls" is derived from The Autobiography of An Old Drifter, by the historical figure, Percy M. Clark (1874-1937).