Namwali Serpell’s ‘The Furrows’ Cover Revealed
In 2019, critics faded The old drift, the beginnings of Namwali Serpell; he went on to win the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Prize, and the Windham-Campbell Prize. (His previous short story, “The Sack,” had already won the Caine Prize for African Writing.) In this exclusive, Oprah Daily reveals the cover of the complex new novel by the Zambian-American, The furrowsreleased from Hogarth in September.
Here’s the story: While on a beach vacation in Delaware, Cassandra Williams (known as “Cee” or “C”) is swimming with her doting 7-year-old brother, Wayne, when he suddenly struggles between the furrows. of waves. He hugs her from the back as she walks towards the shore; she senses that he is dying, either of respiratory failure or a cardiac event. They collapse on the beach, exhausted, with Cee slipping in and out of consciousness. His brother’s body lies a few meters away. Is he still alive? And then he disappears.
This is The Furrows’ exciting setup, but Serpell disrupts our expectations again and again. We find Cassandra in her thirties still grappling with what exactly happened; unanswered questions – did Wayne really perish on this beach in Delaware? Why is she romantically attracted to a flirtatious man, also named Wayne, who keeps popping up in her life? Like filmmaker David Lynch, Serpell blurs the line between our dreams and our waking lives.
She is also obsessed with the cinematic genius of Alfred Hitchcock. The furrows incorporates allusions to the director’s films such as Easter eggs, Strangers on a train for psychology for The birds to, most visibly, Vertigo: “I really like planting clues.” Now a Harvard professor, Serpell taught English and American literature at the University of California for more than a decade; much of the novel’s action takes place in San Francisco. The furrows is “much less interested in multiplicity and much more interested in repetition,” observes Serpell, distinguishing The old drift, “the strange coincidences that bring people together.”
The title refers to a line from Morrison’s Paradise-“‘Beware the furrow of his brow,’ a disputed and important phrase,” Serpell notes, alluding to the slave ships digging furrows across the Atlantic. “I’m not trying to answer Woolf,” she said. “I’m trying to absorb Woolf, Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.”
A sense of weirdness led her to book cover artist Jerrell Gibbs, a fellow Baltimorean, and his series of paintings featuring a black boy gazing at the viewer from a variety of settings: repetition with a difference. Gibbs’ titles suggest a sort of musical register. Yes Note do depicts the boy hovering, then Note B poses him in a field of sunflowers, while in note F it stands in a museum gallery, against a vibrant, pointillist canvas. Gibbs himself is no stranger to indeterminacy, the fickleness of fate:Note do derived from a constant feeling of moving emotions,” he says. “As I reflected on 2020 (and parts of 2021), I realized there were constant ups and downs. That’s life, generally speaking, but it was distinctly different and a bit more tumultuous. Like waves, patterns, rough seas, tidal waves…and then…suddenly…again…” These ellipses resonate.
For Serpell, Gibbs’ work “is breathtaking. I didn’t meet him, didn’t speak to him directly, but I watched a YouTube video of him talking about his work in his own language, about repetition, resemblances, memory, wave patterns. What I found really striking was a similar sensibility – which I again find and inspire in Toni Morrison – a sensibility that is really interested in black cultural expression, but at the same time, being completely in tune with the larger scale of the art world. There’s a lot of Matisse in his work and in landscape portraiture, but there’s something indelibly dark about it.
Which testifies to Serpell’s vocation as a novelist: her stars are Morrison and another favourite, Vladimir Nabokov, an immigrant; “Americans with an asterisk.” What fascinates Serpell about both characters is “the extent to which experimentation is not just there for fun; it’s not just there for fun or intelligence. It’s really there to ward off sentiment, ethical deliberation. Morrison wants the reader to feel ripped off, as she puts it: thrown and disoriented in the same way people on slave ships felt. When she reads her own work in her essays—indescribable things– it speaks specifically of wanting to project the reader into this other space. That’s a bold claim to make. I am in this tradition.
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