Namwali Serpell describes how she explored loss and grief in ‘The Furrows’

Wayne, a charming and precocious seven-year-old, drowns despite the frantic rescue effort of his 12-year-old sister Cassandra in the opening lines of Namwali Serpell’s sophomore novel, “The Furrows.” Worse still, afterward, Wayne’s broken body vanishes from the shore, moments after a disconsolate Cassandra spots a man leaning over him. 

The indefinable and undefined loss rips apart Cassandra’s family; her parents’ marriage fractures and her father, who is Black moves away and tries to move on, while her mother, who is White, refuses to face Wayne’s death and forms Vigil, a group for parents of missing children. Cassandra gets pulled along in her mother’s wake until she is an adult and suddenly meets someone who must be, but who can’t be, Wayne.

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Forty-odd pages in, Wayne dies again, still age seven to his sister’s 12, but this time he’s hit by a car while they’re walking together. Again, there’s a mysterious man and again there’s no body, leaving a void that swallows the family’s once strong bond. Again the family fractures, again Cassandra finds this surreal surrogate. 

And once more, 40 pages on, Wayne dies and disappears, this time after being thrown from a carousel. Serpell’s debut, “The Old Drift” was set in her native Zambia but cut across time and explored the ways the past, present and future are endlessly intertwined. Here, the narrator, Cassandra, explains that the details of the incident matter less than the feelings, and by the third time, this elegiac novel, which starts in Maryland but scatters across America, feels haunted by loss and grief.  

Then, suddenly, Serpell throws the reader off balance again, switching to a first-person narrated by the adult Wayne, who has his own loss and grief, a different trauma in his past and a questionable path to his present. 

In conversation, Serpell, a tenured English professor at Harvard who previously taught at UC Berkeley, weaves in references to writers from Virginia Woolf to Walter Mosely, and novels from “Jane Eyre” to “No Country for Old Men.” But while Serpell, who spoke recently by video, is distinctly aware of her literary predecessors, she has written a visceral literary novel that not only includes but also subverts the horror and noir genres.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. Did you start with the idea that grief and loss cannot just be expressed through language, that there had to be something more?

My sense that the novel needed to repeat in this way was influenced by my experience with dreams about people that I’ve lost. The principal insight for me when I was mourning is that the person I had lost didn’t just die once. 

I’d have dreams where they’d be alive. The mind registers them as elsewhere and then I’d wake up and remember they were actually gone. They died every time I remembered that they were dead. 

Novels allow for experience over time, which has this close relation to experience and life. To be able to enact an experience rather than just describe an experience is part of literature I’m interested in. 

Q. Why repeat the process three times?

That was the trickiest part. There’s a novel “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson that has, I think, dozens of deaths of a particular character. I didn’t want this thing that becomes like a video game or like “Groundhog Day” or “Edge of Tomorrow.” But having only two repetitions for example would have created a binary sense of, “Did it happen this way or that way?” It’s very difficult to figure out the balance and I didn’t want readers to get into this cognitive puzzling out of alternative universes. Three times seemed right. 

Q. Then you switch perspectives mid-stream. And while Wayne reminds Cassandra of her dead brother, she also falls for him. He also has a possible “Fight Club”-like relationship with someone like him who he calls Will. Why destabilize the reader again?

I wanted an external perspective on Cassandra, because we’re so inside her mind but when you see her from the outside you understand that despite this confidence she has about what happened, she’s not the most stable narrator. 

Q. But neither is the person we’re seeing her through.

Exactly. The first version was much more noir, in the vein of James Cain or Jim Thompson, but as I was revising I reached back to a much earlier version of crime fiction and horror, Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelganger story, “William Wilson.” I modeled Will’s story from prison on that short story. Chuck Palahnuik probably took “Fight Club” from Poe, too. 

Q. The book is obviously about loss but it seems specifically about Black loss.

I wanted to look at these two Black communities and how grief operated differently in the bourgeois community and the city community where these young men are being pitted against each other. 

The important difference between the two characters is class. Her brother’s story is the Black version of the milk carton story of the lost kid from the ‘90s that we grew up with — there’s the suburban context, the sense you can create an organization and can grapple with this in some fashion but which is also monetizing your grief in a certain way. 

Wayne and Will are orphans and they lose their context, they are from the city and Wayne ends up on the street. How do you work out grief when you don’t have any structure for it?

Q. Cassandra’s mother is White. It feels like she has that privilege of simply choosing not to accept the reality staring her in the face. 

Cassandra’s father may seem to have accepted that her brother is gone but he is still hunting for the man with the blue windbreaker – he has found his own path of denial. I wanted to create competing value systems in the novel – all of these forms of repression, suppression and disavowal happening. How do you handle violence in your life? No one way is accorded privileged status by me; I wanted there to be internal debate. I wanted to draw a picture of Blackness and grief that had internal conflict and impasses.

Q. How much do you just follow the ideas and characters as they come to you?

I have one novel in my head that came to me as somebody speaking to me, which completely undermined me – I used to think that was kind of woo-woo, this is a character on the page. But her voice was actually in my ear and talking to me. I’ve had other novels appear to me in a dream or a set of epiphanies. All feel like they already exist and are coming to me. 

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I have to open myself to the fact that this is what this book is, trying to make it easier or harder on the reader won’t work. The deep effort is trying to get as close as possible to that vision, which is a kind of humility. 

Q. This one is not an easy read.

We have a culture that’s very oriented toward easeful consumption. It’s understandable: life is tough enough, do you want a hard time reading a book? But I feel privileged to be able to experiment with what the novel can do. 

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