One of the books that really stood out and made a powerful impression last year was Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, a nearly 600-page historical, sociopolitical, and speculative epic about the past, present, and near future of Zambia. It appeared to come out of nowhere, since Serpell, a professor of English at UC Berkeley, was best known for a book of literary criticism, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014), and her short stories (“The Sack” won the Caine Prize in African Fiction in 2015).
Published in March 2019, The Old Drift racked up nominations left and right. It was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum and Ray Bradbury Awards, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown, and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times, one of the 100 Must-Read Books of the Year by Time, and a book of the year by Kirkus Reviews, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and National Public Radio.
Now, Serpell has been named one of eight recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prizes, which come with an award of $165,000. Serpell and Yiyun Li were named winners in the Fiction category.
The Windham-Campbell Prizes were established at Yale University in 2013 by novelist and memoirist Donald Windham to honor his lifelong partner, Sandy M. Campbell, by providing others with the kind of security that allowed Windham’s writing to flourish.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to receive this award and honored to join the company of these esteemed writers,” Serpell said. “The Windham-Campbell Prize has proven unique in celebrating writing in Africa based solely on its literary achievement; it’s deeply gratifying to be taken seriously as an artist.”
And on March 30, Serpell won the Fiction prize in the Anisfield-Wolf Awards, presented by the Cleveland Foundation to recognize books that have made important contributions to the understanding of racism and human diversity. The AWA is the only American book prize focusing on works that address racism and diversity.
Juror Rita Dove described The Old Drift as “a phenomenal accomplishment, nothing less than a retelling/reimagining of the creation and ‘history’ of Zambia.” Historian Simon Schama, another juror, called the book “brave and extraordinarily well done.”
The paperback edition of The Old Drift is due on May 5, and Serpell will publish an essay collection, Stranger Faces, on September 29.
Here is a selection of some of the high praise given to The Old Drift by reviewers.