Namwali Serpelli gives the reading of the elegiac novel to Sanborn

Serpelli’s second novel “The furrows: an elegy” is full of masterfully rendered disorientation.

by Sophie-Marie Chadha | 20/01/23 02:10

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Source: Courtesy of Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell, born in Lusaka, Zambia and currently residing in New York, is a widely acclaimed author and professor at Harvard University. His latest book, “The Furrows: An Elegy,” was named one of The New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2022 and one of former President Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2022. On Jan. 18, Serpell read excerpts from his new novel and engaged in a question and answer session at the Sanborn Library.

The event was Serpell’s second visit to Dartmouth in recent 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.

Released in September 2022, ‘The Furrows’ follows the story of Cassandra Williams, also known as Cee, as she recovers in the aftermath of her younger brother Wayne’s untimely death when they were children. The only witness to her death, Cee must contend with the immense skepticism of her parents and other adults, who claim that her brother is not dead, but only missing, for the rest of her life. As she grows older, Cee repeatedly becomes convinced that she has found and reunited with the long lost Wayne, only to have the world explode around her every time she does.

Rather than conforming to a traditional framework, “The Furrows” is a tangle of contradictory narratives of Wayne’s death and how the brothers reunite – a vicious circle meant to reflect the deeply rooted and complicated nature of grief.

During the event, Serpell recalled the fundamental influence of timing on “The Furrows,” as he wrote the elegy at the same time as he presented his dissertation on the modes of literary uncertainty. Drawing inspiration from modernist and postmodernist texts – which seem to insist that the reader be kept in the dark – Serpell employs repetition and a multiplicity of narrative perspectives to intentionally confuse the reader.

English professor Rebecca Clark has reflected on the effect of having these different narratives of Wayne’s death interrupt each other throughout the novel.

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

While acknowledging the challenge the novel poses to the reader—that of selecting what is real and what is imaginary—the central motif of “ruts” seemed to ground the overlapping storylines for Clark.

“The ruts are this texture and you’re just trying to run your fingers through this texture over and over again,” Clark said. “It’s the grainy sand and the oddly bent bodies…it’s all that brings you back to the realization that, ‘Oh, this is really the same moment.'”

Clark, a friend and former graduate student of Serpell at UC Berkeley, introduced the author and kicked off the event by joking that “‘The Furrows’ is a deeply groovy book” – a pun on the title of the novel, which Serpell said he liked when he started reading.

Serpell’s writing is cinematic in its rich sensory descriptions, paying particular attention to touch. In an interview with The Dartmouth ahead of the event, Clark said the recurring image of grooves working with the classic 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 that pops up again and again towards the end of the book; an elegy is just like a record player, running a stylus or needle across a grooved surface to produce songs,” Serpell said. «And this book [is concerned with] the act of furrowing, the process of making those furrows.

Serpell is known for playing with genres and employing techniques from a diverse 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 pain with speculative narrative techniques.

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

“It’s a mourning document but the reality of death is uncertain…it’s an elegy with a crumbly, sandy object,” Clark said, referring to Wayne’s ghostly body made entirely of sand that haunts Cee throughout the novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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