Namwali Serpelli reads an elegiac novel at Sanborn

Serpelli’s second novel ‘Furrows: An Elegy’ is filled with masterfully portrayed disorientation.

by Sophie-Marie Chadh | 20.1.23. 2:10 in the morning

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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 January 18, Serpell read excerpts from her new novel and participated in question and answer session at the Sanborn Library.

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

Released in September 2022, “Furrows” follows the story of Cassandra Williams, also known as Cee, as she deals with the aftermath of her younger brother Wayne’s untimely death when they were children. The only witness to his death, Cee has to struggle for the rest of her life with the overwhelming skepticism of her parents and other adults, who claim that her brother is not dead, just gone. As she grows older, Cee keeps convincing herself that she’s found and reunited with the long-lost Wayne, only to have the world explode around her every time she does.

Instead of conforming to a traditional structure, “Furrows” is a tangle of contradictory stories about Wayne’s death and how the siblings reunited—a vicious cycle that reflects the deep-seated, complicated nature of grief.

During the event, Serpell recalled the crucial influence of time on “Furrows,” since she wrote the elegy at the same time she was teaching her dissertation on forms of literary suspense. Drawing inspiration from modernist and postmodern texts – which insist on keeping the reader in the dark – Serpell uses repetition and multiple narrative perspectives to deliberately confuse the reader.

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

“It’s disorientation masterfully executed,” she said. “It makes you feel, ‘Is this a narrative now? Is this a narrative?’ The book is cruel in a way 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 the novel poses to the reader – that of sorting between what is real and what is fictional – the central motif of the “furrow” seems to have grounded the overlapping plots for Clark.

“The furrows are this texture, and you’re just trying to run your fingers over this texture over and over again,” Clark said. “The sandy sand and the strangely contorted bodies … it’s all what brings you back to the realization that, ‘Oh, this really is the same moment.'”

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

Serpell’s writing is cinematic in its rich sensory descriptions, paying particular attention to the tactile. In an interview with The Dartmouth before the event, Clark said the recurring image of rhythms that work with the classic notion of elegy — poems composed for the dead — in Serpell’s new story is powerful

“I can’t stop thinking about the image of the record player that appears again and again towards the end of the book; elegy is like a record player running a pencil or needle over 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 using techniques from a range of literary traditions, and “The Furrows” is no different. The story borrows the lyric 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” for the book.

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

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

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

Corinne Fischer ’26 said she was particularly moved by Serpell’s description of turning grief into art during the question-and-answer session.

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

Clark went on to emphasize the special relevance of “The Furrows” to the current moment.

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

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