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poster for namwali serpell the furrows reading at harvard

Namwali Serpell’s upcoming The Furrows: An Elegy

Namwali Serpell’s second novel The Furrows: An Elegy is due out next year, and it promises to be a book to look out for. On 15 September 2021, in an online sitting of the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute Colloquium Series of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, I was lucky enough to hear Serpell read from her forthcoming novel. (As a sidenote: I have no affiliation to the university, and gained access simply by registering via email – maybe one of the few happy by-products of pandemic-induced virtualisation of such events?)

The Furrows looks set to be a meditation on mourning and loss, in which a main character grapples with the (possible) death of her younger brother. Serpell read three excerpts: in the first, her narrator describes the day on which her brother may (or may not) have drowned; in the second, a strange meeting with a man she finds eerily familiar; and in the third, a different voice begins to relate how he came to be in prison. Continuing to some extent with an occupation evident in Serpell’s award-winning novel of 2019, The Old Drift, the story plays with multi-voicedness – this time, in switching between different first-person narrators, with their own very particular speech patterns, as was quickly evident from her reading. In contrast to her earlier book, on the other hand, this one is set in the United States – significantly, the Baltimore of the 1990s where Serpell herself grew up – and is not concerned with Zambian colonial history, a key concern of the earlier work. Sketching some of her interests in writing the new novel, Serpell named grappling with different kinds of Black identity, as well as different modes of Black speech, as among the issues she was invested in exploring in this book.

Listening to the writer read, I was struck by the power and confidence of her prose, and the adeptness of her way with language. Also an author of non-fictional academic books, essays and articles, she holds a position at the prestigious university that hosts the colloquium of which the reading was a part, and where she is currently teaching Toni Morrison – whom she mentions often. Serpell was asked, after the reading, about her understanding of herself as both a creative writer and an academic. Her response was that she requires an absolute break between the two modes of writing – the creative and the academic – lest she find herself writing literary criticism of the novel she is trying to write, in place of the novel itself.

Other themes emerged in her reading from the new book, which suggest that it will make for an evocative read: an exploration of the doppelganger motif, and the uncanniness that repetition can bring, as well as a critical depiction of the prison industrial complex. Keep an eye out for The Furrows when it comes out next year – but we’ll be sure to offer a review here at poco.lit. to remind you.