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The Ecstatic Internet

Namwali Serpell, interviewed by Lucy McKeon

On March 26, 2021, we published Namwali Serpell’s “Black Hole,” a scintillating and scrupulous essay that follows the author’s thinking and Googling on everything from scientific racism to clitoral orgasm, the summer 2020 rap anthem “WAP” to millennial Internet fiction. The piece finally—ecstatically—culminates in a tribute to the black woman’s vagina.

Serpell has been a regular contributor to the New York Review for the past few years, writing on subjects as varied as the film Black Panther and HBO series Watchmen, photographer Ming Smith’s portraits of Sun Ra, Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the fraught relationship between art and empathy. The last time we featured her in this newsletter coincided with the publication of her first novel, The Old Drift (2019), which received many accolades and honors, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and which Salman Rushdie called “an impressive book, ranging skillfully between historical and science fiction, shifting gears between political argument, psychological realism and rich fabulism.”

Since then, much has changed in Serpell’s life. She was awarded (jointly, with Yiyun Li) the Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction, joined the faculty at Harvard, and moved to Harlem from Berkeley. I asked her by email what this past year has meant for her. “It feels like both coming full circle and a new beginning,” she told me. “My mother died four years ago; I recently turned forty. I’ve wanted to be a writer who lives in New York since I was a teenager; I now live and write in Harlem. I conceived most of The Old Drift as a PhD student at Harvard; I’ll return there to teach this fall. I finished a novel, The Furrows, in 2014, and put it in a drawer; I just sold it and it’ll come out next year.”

The world has been changing too, of course. “The Rona, as we call it, has been a giant reflecting pool, with roiling depths and troubled surfaces that have occasionally stilled to clarity, showing me what my life has been and what it is and what I want it to be. So far, I’ve escaped intact, my loved ones safe. I’m, in a word, grateful.”

Photo by Peg Skorpinski

This past fall, Serpell published another book, Stranger Faces, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Moving from Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Hitchcock’s Psycho to slave narratives and emojis, it’s about “the perverse pleasure we take in faces that diverge from the putative ‘norm’—symmetrical, frontal, beautiful, transparent, open, and so on,” what Serpell calls The Ideal Face. “Strange, strangers’ faces, I argue, are like signs that don’t seem to correspond directly to a fixed meaning. This might seem like a failure of communication, but it is also the source of great creativity—puns, multiple meanings, metaphors.”

In both Stranger Faces and her recent essay, Serpell notes her interest in ambivalent feelings. In her new essay, desire—especially the sexual desire of black women—“can’t be controlled and is therefore threatening and has often been turned against women.”

I told Serpell that I see the two works also sharing a palpable joy, underpinned by the rigor and precision characteristic of her writing—a mixture that makes her a real delight to edit and think alongside. “The joy of writing is famously ambivalent!” she said. “For me, however, what curdles the joy isn’t the bitterness of the labor of writing as such. Rather, it is the difficulty of capturing my joy in words that will explain and perhaps even transmit that joy to others. This is the ambivalence of joy beset by futility.”

Because this essay is so much about Serpell’s particular experience on the Internet, I wondered whether she thinks of herself as a person who is “very online”?

I’m online a lot, yes, in the prepositional sense. While this has occasionally felt like a dependence, I don’t itch for it when I’m away, and it has been a great balm during corona times. Black Twitter consistently makes me laugh and brings me joy and makes me think and directs me to things I like watching or reading or learning about. Many of us, like Brandon [Taylor] and me, have found a contingent online community of funny, smart black people from across the diaspora, one that isn’t necessarily available to us IRL. And many of us find that compelling rather than compulsory.

I wouldn’t say I’m ‘very online’ in the adjectival sense, though. I don’t always get the jokes or memes, which as a Zambian immigrant to the US is a familiar innocence/ignorance, but just as often an occasion for wonder. I’m terrible at crafting tweets—I don’t have the poetic gift for it, the epigrammatic pith and charm. I mostly Like and Retweet, and sometimes Reply—which is to say that I’m a critic not a ‘creative,’ a Twittereader not a Twriter.

Serpell notably donated her Clarke Award money to bail funds for protesters against police violence after Breonna Taylor’s murder, citing, among other things, John Berger’s searing acceptance speech for the 1972 Booker Prize, half of which he donated to the Black Panthers. I asked her if she’d say a bit more about this, and about literary prizes more generally, about which she has a refreshing view.

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My specific donation to bail funds for protestors in Louisville was a matter of timing—I received the award the day I learned that the officers weren’t going to be charged for Breonna Taylor’s death—rather than causality or reason. I don’t believe fiction can change the world, politically, and I think it’s an abdication of our ethical duties when people lean into this self-serving idea. But each of us must do what we can, from where we stand. My goal in these public actions—and in my writing—is to use my transient platform to speak out about other ways to think about the world than what is shoved down our throats by a sprawling, neoliberal, capitalist, and unrepentantly violent empire. 

I’m surprised and honored by each and every prize I’ve won, and I’m aware that they are an important source of publicity and income to artists in the twenty-first century. But I have always been uncomfortable with prizes that have long and short lists. As I said when I split the 2015 Caine Prize with my fellow shortlistees—which I could choose to do, given that I had a full-time job and no dependents—“writing is not a competitive sport.” The good opinion of, or even just genuine engagement from, writers, editors, and readers in my life whom I admire (some of whom are judges!) will always mean more to me than prizes as such. What that peopled form of recognition has bequeathed me is a sense of freedom to write what and as I want.

This coming fall, Serpell will be teaching a fiction workshop and a new course on Toni Morrison. “I hope that reimmersing myself in Morrison’s work will help me as I return to working on my third novel, which is narrated by a middle-aged black woman, a homecare nurse from Baltimore,” Serpell said.

And what does she look forward to, as spring blooms into Hot Girl Summer 2021? “The vaxxxine summer of love has already begun! Or maybe not!” she said. “This is the lesson of lessons from this last year: you never know. And while we still suffer this as a form of anxiety, it’s also a kind of promise; it’s the radical openness of everything that we cannot control or will.”

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