Namwali Sirpil: ‘I find uncertainty disguised in literature’ | imagination

nAmali Sirbel, 41, won the Arthur C. Clarke Prize for Science Fiction for her first novel, old drift, a multi-generational, multi-ethnic epic set in Rhodesia and Zambia, where I was born. She was shortlisted for the US National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection of essays strange faceswhich has been cited for its “cultural and cultural scope,” and has written on topics including Kenyan writer Ngog wa Thiong’o, HBO’s guards series, and most recently, Zola (the 19th-century French author, as well as a series of viral tweets that turned into a movie of the same name). Her new novel the canyons, opens in Baltimore, where she grew up, and includes a recurring series of mysterious encounters of a girl who loses her seven-year-old brother at sea. Sarbel, who lives in Harlem, New York, spoke to me from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard.

where the canyons Started?
The first scene came to me as a dream when I was doing my PhD in 2008. I was in the water with a little boy, trying to swim him to the shore, and I woke up in a panic reminding me of the dreams I had. I used to follow the death of my older sister, who died when I was 18 and she was 22. I began to think how this immersion in the space of dreams looks like a memory but also a fantasy; I wanted to try to capture the waves of sadness I experienced when I woke up from a dream about her and realize once again that she was dead.

Were you aware that the structure of the novel might confuse readers?
Oh yes! It’s okay, you can say that [laughs]I know it’s not an easy book. One of the reasons I wrote my post is about experimental scripts that play with time and broken consciousness [the basis of Serpell’s 2014 academic study Seven Modes of Uncertainty] is that I’ve had a very difficult time dealing with uncertainty in real life, as most of us do, and yet I found it incredibly compelling in the literature and couldn’t pinpoint why. I wanted the reader to feel hijacked: to feel out of sorts but immediately withdrawn. Uncertainty about what happened [the narrator’s] And the identity of the man you meet – or don’t meet – is meant to evoke a feeling, not a message. The novel talks all the way about what it means to be promiscuous, to be black in America, to be mistaken for someone else, to negotiate grief within the family, but the format is really an attempt to create an experience that is closer to the way a poem works than a personal essay on loss.

What models are you considering?
Some of what I do at the image level has to do with the kind of drawing I take from Virginia Woolf, but in a profound way the book bears the marks of my involvement in the work of Toni Morrison. I recently re-read blue eye And I think the experimental nature of that novel is greatly diminished in terms of reputation, because the central idea is very clear – a young black girl who wants to have blue eyes. However, the format of the novel is incredibly complex and has baffled many readers, as it did lovable. Morrison’s efforts to critique her to understand why she asked so much of the reader really helped him feel confident that my view of the novel was worth whatever confusion, or even isolation, readers might feel along the way.

As a critic, I’ve been skeptical about the way we tend to interpret literary value, not least in your 2019 essay The Banality of Empathy.
The idea that literature’s moral values ​​stem from its ability to produce empathy has become the central idea and the way we talk about everything. The astonishing immersion in the minds of others [that fiction offers] It’s something I won’t be able to live without, but I will defend against the idea that it’s valuable to the kind of portable empathy that makes us better people. Many bad people do not read. Not many good people learned how to read. Equation of reading with positive effects morally [resembles] The neoliberal model of healthy eating and exercise. We can see that in the way books are being commodified at the moment: the pictures of a latte or a smoothie next to a beautiful book cover on Instagram are meant to reflect an individual’s involvement in a self-improvement project, rather than actually engaging with others, talking and thinking about that book. My doubt is not in art – it is what we consider art.

What kind of reader were you when you were a kid?
We came to the United States when I was eight and I was very lonely. Reading four books a day when I was in the sixth grade was a compensatory escape from culture shock. I read adventure novels, biographies, encyclopedias… My mother was talking about lighting a candle to read under her bed when she was a little girl in rural Zambia, and she likened it to the fact that I was reading under my covers. Lamp in Baltimore when we first moved. My father was a professor so we had all these academic books and philosophy books. The extent of my popularity as a writer is very much just as popular as a reader, and it has always been a hot spot. The first thing we read on the after-school reading program I was placed in after we came to the States was [John Christopher’s 1960s science fiction trilogy] pregnant. But I was not told that this was very different from the other novels I had read, and that I was introduced to another kind of fantasy world.

What have you been reading lately?
I just finished Howard W. French’s great history work, born in blackon the making of the modern world and the unrecognized role of Africa in it; It is a book that everyone should read. I enjoyed call and respond, an impressive collection of stories by the young Botswana writer, Gothataone Moeng. I have just read [Henry James’s] lady picture For the first time, over the course of about a month while traveling. It’s the kind of book I’ll never learn, because it’s just devastating and I’d rather not destroy books that spoil me.

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