“An alternative to acceptance”: Namwali Serpell on Writing Grief

by Jordan Taliha McDonald

Namwali Serpell is an American and Zambian writer and Professor of English at Harvard University. In 2019, she won the Belles-lettres category of the Grand Prix of Literary Associations for her debut novel The Old Drift. Her latest novel, The Furrows—published in September of this year—is about Cassandra Williams, a young mixed-race Black girl whose younger brother Wayne mysteriously disappears. In this conversation with Jordan Taliha McDonald, Serpell talks about writing grief, elegy, and doppelgängers.

Jordan Taliha McDonald: In writing The Furrows as an elegy, how did you contend with the definition—or lack of definition—of the elegy as a form?

Namwali Serpell: An elegy now signifies a poem for the dead, but it originally just described a meter, which is to say a rhythm, a call-and-response among the dearly beloved who have gathered to mourn. I chose to call the book an elegy because I want readers to approach it with a certain openness. When we read a poem, we don’t necessarily expect to understand it; rather we expect to have an encounter, an experience. The point is less for you to “get it” than for it to get you. I recently learned that Virginia Woolf considered the same subtitle for To the Lighthouse, a key subtext for my novel. In her journal, she wrote: “(But while I try to write, I am making up ‘To the Lighthouse’—the sea is to be heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel.’ A new —— by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?).” I like to think we had the same idea about rhythm and feeling, or that maybe I caught the idea just from rereading To the Lighthouse. Like that novel, The Furrows is structured with the meter and rhyme of an elegy in order to enact the sometimes harmonic, sometimes off-kilter rhythms of mourning. I also remembered, late in the day, that Sir Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is about the unsung dead, the poor men and women who work the land, whose “furrows break” the earth and whose graves now “heave the turf”—eerily fitting for a novel about the class divisions within the Black community. Finally, for a time, an elegy was used as a form for erotic poetry—which is to say, it is a lament but also a love song, and The Furrows explores how loss can become a wellspring of longing. My favorite elegy is probably “Lycidas,” by John Milton. The line “Blind mouths!” has been important for several pieces of my work: nonfiction, criticism, and fiction.

JTM: The way that grief reveals indebtedness is made most evident in the novel through Cassandra’s shifting perspective on her mother. How did ideas of debt and reliance play into your characterization of Cassandra and her family?

NS: Cassandra and her mother, Charlotte, feel they owe each other a kind of conditional penance. This painful, locked relationship becomes tighter and darker when Cassandra’s father, Bernard, leaves the family. His absence haunts Cassandra in ways she does not even acknowledge but that suggest she misses not just the connection to Black community he gave her but also the emotional ease of their relationship, which is not haunted by obligation or blame even after Wayne dies: “We followed a silent script in which he reassured me and we were both reassured.”

JTM: Cassandra’s therapist introduces her to the term “ambiguous loss,” where there is “a death but no body.” I was struck by Cassandra’s refusal of acceptance as the only mode of processing grief; “Death is quite literally unacceptable, unreasonable, unimaginable,” she thinks. Later, when her father says, “Cassandra, for us, death is everywhere,” he notes how the conditions of Black life and premature death make mourning both insurmountable and commonplace. In writing of deaths without bodies and events without ends, what alternatives to mere acceptance are opened up in the narrative?

NS: The problem of “ambiguous loss” goes back to Freud’s theory distinguishing (proper) mourning from (incomplete) melancholia. Ann Cheng writes about how hierarchical racialization in America operates through the disavowal, the “exclusion-yet-retention” of others. This “ambiguous loss”—the oppression, exclusion, and genocide—at the heart of the nation-state yields a “racial melancholy” that has certain symptoms, including repetition compulsion, which is a good way to describe how I structured the first half of the novel. The second half of the novel presents two other Black characters—an adult man also named Wayne and a man who calls himself Will—who are dealing with unresolved grief under the conditions of Black life; they are both orphans, and when they’re teenagers, they get pitted against each other (another kind of racialized “repetition compulsion” in America) when they are essentially made to frame each other for assaulting another young Black man. Like Cassandra, they confront horrific violence at a very young age, but they don’t have access to the institutionalized forms for processing this that she does—therapists and parents, school and work. These two young men end up forging brief friendships instead—in juvie in Baltimore, on the streets in the Bay Area—to withstand their isolation and grief. I tried to inscribe a couple of hints at an alternative to acceptance. Cassandra is in the Castro eating ice cream and sees two Black men sitting on a bench: “friends, not lovers, or maybe former lovers, or maybe still lovers but mostly friends.” This seems to me to be the closest we can get to accommodating our shared grief: sitting beside each other, without pressure or interrogation or the need to press a message upon each other—just putting our stories next to each other. This is what the novel as a whole tries to do.

JTM: In The Furrows, Cassandra meets a handsome man who makes her feel “susceptible and suspicious,” due to his uncanny similarity to her deceased brother, with whom he shares a name. This persistent doubling also appears later in the novel, when we get the narration of Wayne’s doppelgänger Will, a Black man and a double. What draws you to writing about doubling and doppelgängers? I can’t help being reminded of Toni Morrison’s description of a sister as a “special kind of double” and W. E. B. Du Bois’s words in The Souls of Black Folk: “One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

NS: Double consciousness was indeed on my mind as I constructed the novel. Grief plants a schism within us—our external world and our internal world—that resonates with the experience of being torn asunder. And double consciousness is itself experienced as a kind of grief—the inability to reconcile your humanity with the monstrous image projected upon you. This becomes literal in the second half of the novel. The idea of the double, the other, the shadow of the self, is a way to enact for the reader the unnerving feeling of never being sure whom you can trust in a world where Black people are treated as interchangeable and disposable. To be Black is to be both yourself and a surrogate for others. To be Black is to be under surveillance and invisible, to crave recognition but to be constantly mistaken for someone or something you aren’t. As Will says of prison life, “It’s like you dead, and now you gotta spend the rest of your days as a ghost to the life you was sposed to be livin.” For Cassandra, the uncanny similarity that she finds in this man, Wayne, is meant to speak to the way someone you’ve lost can appear in another person. But this leads her to a profound moral and emotional error: she thinks she can replace the one with the other. In fact, to mistake one person for another—to make them fungible—is to take on the logics of racism and of capitalism, the grotesque spectrality of the market.

JTM: Historically in the field of psychoanalysis, the figure of the sibling is defined by the drama of rivalry and competition. In The Furrows, the characterization of Cassandra’s brother, Wayne, is not centered on a narrative of rivalry but rather on a kind of synchronization or choreography that occurs between siblings. “My brother died when he was seven. I was twelve. I was there. We were alone together.” In writing this intimate relationship between two siblings—an older sister–younger brother duo—what aspects of their bond did you find most important to represent?

NS: Their age gap obviates competitiveness and makes her more of a caretaker. The small conflicts she remembers about the day he is lost—the minor sibling pettiness of leaving him in the sand with the hat on his face, of letting go of his hand as they cross the road, of splitting up at the fair because she’s too old for the playground—are what become thorns in her side. This seems to me to be the nature of the tenderness I feel for my sisters and my brother. Slights rather than wounds; ugly feelings, maybe, but minor ones. And, yes, the synchronicity of play and ritual—chores and games and magic tricks and boredom—I wanted to capture the dailiness of family love that the young experience in parallel. It is a peculiar—very interesting—form of friendship, and I like trying to convey it. But I softened the sense of sibling rivalry for a more pointed reason. We have entire shelves of the library devoted to stories about little white girls who are missing or dead. I chose to make a little Black boy that blameless, that vulnerable, that precious. I wanted readers to feel that specific loss as catastrophic, as irremediable, without any needling thoughts about “thugs” or “angels” or “dysfunctional families” interfering. The loss is immediate and inexplicable. And there is no one who can really be held accountable—not their parents, not the elusive man with the windbreaker, not even Cassandra. I think that any hint of rivalry between the siblings would have raised the possibility that she caused his death somehow, even if it was inadvertent. I wanted the sense of guilt she feels to come entirely from a straight (rather than an ironic or suspicious) reading of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This seems to me the way that guilt haunts death even when we are not strictly to blame for it. At some level, all of us within a family, within a community, within humanity feel responsible for it—as we ought to. This is part of what it means to be a person, alive and connected by love to others.

JTM: Like Cassandra, I am a big sister who lost her little brother as a teenager. In reading The Furrows, I was very invested in Cassandra’s journey both as it mirrored my own and as it diverged from my experience. In thinking about the particular horror of childhood grief and the difficulty of explaining it, I sometimes jokingly borrow from the horror film genre’s terminology of the “final girl” who survives the deadly onslaught and lives to tell the tale. As the “final daughter” or “final child,” one is left to face the aftermath of death and must occupy the position of a survivor. In literature by Black women writers, I’ve found examples of “final daughters” and “final sisters” whose efforts to face grief offered me a template for the experience of losing a sibling. Denver from Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the only of Sethe’s remaining children left behind to mourn Beloved with her mother. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing follows Leonie as she grieves the loss of her brother Given, who is shot and killed by a white man for winning a hunting bet.  In Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, Birdie struggles to reconcile the loss of being separated from her Black father and her darker-skinned sister, Cole, when she must flee with her white mother. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett tells a story in which the “passing” of a sibling refers to a racial departure rather than a physical death. What do you hope Cassandra’s addition to this literary sorority of sorrow can be?

NS: First, I’m so sorry for your loss and for your family’s loss. I’m honored and moved that my novel could speak to your experience and resonate with you. I wanted to press upon the particular way that losing one family member skews all the relationships within that family. I compare it to reading a sign with a letter now missing, and to how a missing tooth can lead the others to drift in the gum. I definitely wanted to capture the sense that Cassandra in particular is “left to face the aftermath of death and must occupy the position of a survivor.” This shift can often place a responsibility on the children left behind—Cassandra has to take care of her mother, more so after her father leaves the family (putting ice on her eyes, capitulating to her emotional turns, even working for Vigil). And there’s a lurking doubt—Denver feels this about Sethe in Beloved—about whether the parents who glanced the wrong way at the wrong time can really be trusted to watch over you. I also wanted to convey, as I said, the way that siblinghood is a version of friendship. While Cassandra’s “rapture” with the adult man named Wayne seems to grant her a sublime combination of obliteration and substitution—a way out of her loops of pain and guilt—what she realizes very near the end of the novel is that she’s missed the point, the way back to her little brother, the opportunity that her dreams of him (“How’ve you been, Cee?”) have offered her all along: “I made him stay quiet, I hunted him down, but all this time, I never thought to ask, ‘How are you, little man?’ I never thought to ask, ‘Hey brother, how’ve you been?’”

Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows is out now from Hogarth.

Published on December 21, 2022