Namwali Serpell gives reading of elegiac novel at Sanborn

Serpell’s second novel ‘The Furrows: An Elegy’ is filled with masterfully rendered disorientation.

by Sophie-Marie Chadha | 1/20/23 2:10am

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Source: Courtesy of Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell, born in Lusaka, Zambia and currently living in New York, is a widely acclaimed author and professor at Harvard University. Her latest book, “The Furrows: An Elegy,” was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2022 by the New York Times and one of former president Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2022. On Jan. 18, Serpell read excerpts from her new novel and engaged in a Q&A session at Sanborn Library. 

The event was Serpell’s second time visiting Dartmouth in the past few years; January 2022, she read from her debut novel “The Old Drift,” which also received numerous accolades, including the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Published in September 2022, “The Furrows” follows the story of Cassandra Williams, also known as Cee, as she reels in the aftermath of her younger brother Wayne’s untimely death when they are children. The only witness to his death, Cee must contend with immense skepticism from her parents and other adults, who assert that her brother is not dead, just missing, throughout the rest of her life. As she grows older, Cee repeatedly convinces herself that she has found and is reuniting with the long-lost Wayne, only to have the world explode around her each time she does. 

Rather than conforming to a traditional structure, “The Furrows” is a tangle of contradicting narratives of Wayne’s death and the way that the siblings reunite — a vicious cycle meant to reflect the deep-rooted, complicated nature of grief. 

During the event, Serpell recalled the pivotal influence of timing on “The Furrows,” as she wrote the elegy at the same time as she was submitting her dissertation on modes of literary uncertainty. Drawing inspiration from modernist and postmodern texts — which seem to insist on the reader being kept in the dark — Serpell employs repetition and a multiplicity of narrative perspectives to purposefully confuse the reader.

English professor Rebecca Clark reflected on the effect of having these different narratives of Wayne’s death interrupting one another throughout the novel.

“It is a masterfully rendered disorientation,” she said. “It creates a feeling in you of, ‘Is this the narrative now? Is this the narrative?’ The book is sort of cruel in some ways because it denies you that [resolution], telling you, ‘No, this is the story now,’ and then, ‘No, this is the story now.’” 

While acknowledging the challenge that the novel poses to the reader — one of sorting through what is real and what is imagined — the central motif of the “furrows” seemed to ground the overlapping plotlines for Clark. 

“Furrows are this texture, and you are just trying to run your fingers over this texture again and again,” Clark said. “It is the gritty sand and the weirdly bent bodies… it is all of that which brings you back to the realization that, ‘Oh, this is really the same moment.’” 

Clark, a friend and former graduate student of Serpell’s at the University of California Berkeley, introduced the author and kicked off the event by joking that “‘The Furrows’ is a deeply groovy book” — a pun on the novel’s title, which Serpell said she appreciated when she began her reading. 

Serpell’s writing is cinematic in its rich sensory descriptions, paying especially close attention to the tactile. In an interview with The Dartmouth before the event, Clark said the recurring image of grooves working with the classical notion of an elegy — a song composed for the dead — in Serpell’s new story was powerful.

“I can’t stop thinking about the image of the record player coming up again and again towards the end of the book; an elegy is just like a record player, running a stylus or needle over a grooved surface to produce songs,” Serpell said. “And this book [is concerned with] the act of furrowing, the process of producing those grooves.”

Serpell is known for playing with genres and employing techniques from a range of literary traditions, and “The Furrows” is no different. The story borrows the lyrical meter and subject of the elegy and captures the realism of grief with techniques from speculative fiction.  

Clark noted that she had “a lot of genre expectations” going into the book. 

“It’s a document of mourning but the reality of death is uncertain… its an elegy with a crumbly, sandy object,” Clark said, referencing Wayne’s spectral body made entirely of sand which haunts Cee throughout the novel.

Serpell said she had initially been focused on the aspect of the elegy that involves writing about people who die at a young age. After publishing “The Furrows,” she said she researched the history of the elegy and found that it aligned even more closely with her intentions for the novel than she had realized. 

“The term ‘elegy’ was originally used to describe just the meter or rhythm of a piece, any piece, and this book is precisely about accessing the rhythms of grief,” Serpell said.

Corinne Fischer ’26 said that she was particularly moved by Serpell’s description of turning grief into art during the Q&A session.

“I really enjoyed hearing about her writing process,” Fischer said. “I’m struggling with an essay for a class right now, and so it was cool to hear from such a strong writer about some of the struggles she faced in writing this book.”

Clark went on to stress the particular relevance of “The Furrows” to the present moment. 

“We are in a time of national, unprocessed grief, and so to take time to process what grief does, what it looks like, how it feels, is something that we need as a country right now,” Clark said.

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