Shook by Endless Tides of Sorrow – Harvard Gazette – Harvard Gazette | FreniWorld

English professor Namwali Serpell delves into her own grieving experiences – the heartbreaking loss of her older sister, who died at the age of 22 – in her highly anticipated and moving new novel, The Furrows.

“It literally came out of a dream,” the Zambian-American author said of her second novel following her acclaimed 2019 debut The Old Drift, a historical saga about three families—one Zambian, one Italian, and one Indian. Serpell dreamed that she was swimming with her nephew Chedza. “The storm has intensified. The water rose. The wind rose. Very similar to the first scene in the novel,” she described. “I tried to swim him to shore. I woke up in a bit of a panic, my heart pounding – with a feeling of tenderness and love as well as a feeling of fear and impending loss. It reminded me a lot of dreams I had about my deceased sister as I was mourning her.”

The first half of The Furrows begins with Cassandra, a 12-year-old girl whose 7-year-old brother Wayne appears to have drowned while on a family beach vacation in Delaware. His body is never recovered. The family is torn apart and roiling waves of grief change Cassandra’s life as she grapples with the event over the years, reliving and rewriting it in her own mind.

“One of the things I wanted to do with The Furrows’ supreme vanity was, as Cassandra puts it, not ‘what happened,’ but ‘how it felt,'” Serpell said. “I was interested in how the dream life I was experiencing with my late sister would cause those kinds of emotions to wave over me. I would dream that she is alive and then I would wake up to remember that she died. And every time I remembered, it was like she died again.”

In one of her previous interactions with a therapist, Cassandra said, “However, I didn’t know how to accept death. I still don’t. I do not care. Death is literally unacceptable, unreasonable and unimaginable.” As a society, we often try to forget death, deny it, push it aside, or just try to get over it, Serpell said.

“There’s all these different cultural forms that are shaped by this very ambivalence that I make about Cee [Cassandra’s nickname] articulate,” said the writer. “That means death is inevitable for us, but unbelievable for us. We cannot imagine – we are unable to imagine a place beyond death that is not just another version of life – like heaven.”

Cassandra, who is of mixed race, faces several losses that affect her struggle with grief, time, and memories, but also with her own sense of identity: first, the loss of her brother, her companion in the mixed race, and her black father, who abandons her and her white mother, who denies death.

Serpell, who received her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2008 and joined the English Institute last fall, says the second half of The Furrows was inspired by a dreamlike state she experienced while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. In the novel, Cassandra begins to see her brother everywhere she goes. Here, Serpell says, the story plays on WEB DuBois’ idea of ​​dual consciousness—a sense of internal division among racial minorities—as well as the Gothic trope of the doppelganger, a kind of supernatural twin.

The second half of the novel also delves into the divisions that arise because of class, both between people of different races and those of the same race. Serpell, for example, underscores how Cassandra’s “middle-class” upbringing contrasts her life with that of a homeless man she meets who bears the same name as her late brother. Everywhere, internally and externally, a person and a nation in conflict with itself.

“A continuous line from the first to the second half of the novel is what Anne Cheng calls ‘racial melancholy.’ She says it’s a very special aspect of American culture,” Serpell said. “The racialized other is a kind of complicated loss for the nation itself, and this structures the way racialization works in America. It is a kind of failed mourning, both of the nation’s ideals and of the large numbers of actual people who have fallen victim to imperialist, capitalist and racist violence.”

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