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Interview with Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell is a rarity: an academic and novelist whose criticism is as vital as her fiction. Since we first spoke, in September 2020, she has both taken up a position as Professor of English at Harvard and, with her debut novel The Old Drift (2019), won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction, the first black woman to have done so. The award’s last winner, Tade Thompson, has called Serpell’s book ‘the great African novel of the twenty-first century’. In a characteristically radical and generous gesture, having won the award on the day it was announced that no murder charges would be filed against the police officers responsible for killing Breonna Taylor, Serpell donated her prize money to the bail funds of those who have protested that injustice.

 

The Old Drift is a remarkable book, an epic of Zambia, where Serpell was born, which, over its nearly 600 pages, refracts the country’s history – from Cecil Rhodes to Rhodes Must Fall – through the mistakes and misfortunes of the members of three families, some of them real historical figures, others otherworldly, like figures from fairytale or folklore, over six generations. The novel crosses genre just as it spans time, taking in magic realism, social realism, satire, science fiction, historical fiction, spy thriller… Reading it, you realise what a sham, what a constraint ‘genre’ is. It’s a polyphonous and brimming piece of work; intricately, shiftingly patterned, acute in its sustained variousness. It seems, throughout, to shimmer with a meaning you can never quite discern, provoking what Serpell, in her first, academic book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014), describes as a ‘useful dizziness’ – and it does so, despite the immense and real suffering it contains, in a joyful, generous way.

 

Seven Modes of Uncertainty is a rigorous and ingenious academic exploration of a number of modern novels – among them Lolita, Beloved and American Psycho – that use strategies of structural uncertainty (two characters with irreconcilable versions of events, for instance) to challenge their readers’ ethical engagement. Reading such books, Serpell demonstrates, provides less an illusory experience of empathy, as is often claimed for the novel, than an encounter with irresolvable conflict, such that ‘the isolation of moral propositions’ becomes ‘utterly untenable’. The result is a reading experience with an undercurrent of doubt – a ‘niggling’, or ‘useful dizziness’ – that allows a reader to experience ethics as a living process, rather than as an inert set of laws. One of its aims, therefore, is to re-enliven debates about the ethics of art, and the art of ethics, an aim it shares with Serpell’s new book, Stranger Faces (2020).

 

Stranger Faces (2020) is a lens-shifting book, the kind that, once read, you can’t imagine not having read. It is a collection of critical essays – funny, fierce, elegant, iconoclastic, moving and entirely unique – about strange faces. It challenges you to see faces differently. The face, Serpell writes,

 

is fundamental to how we understand ourselves. The face means identity, truth, feeling, beauty, authenticity, humanity. It underlies our beliefs about what constitutes a human, how we relate emotionally, what is pleasing to the eyes, and how we ought to treat each other.

 

But these beliefs rest on ‘a specific version or image of the face. We might call it The Ideal Face.’ The faces that interest Serpell, here, are those that deviate from this ideal, that escape our pinning-down, our discernment: ‘the disabled face, the racially ambiguous face, the digital face, the face of the dead’. She is interested ‘not in their ideality but their mutability, the way they shift and layer, always abrim with charged relation’. These are faces that hover between personhood and thinghood and, in their doing so, and in the play they thus afford, might, she suggests, inform new, more honest, more complicated, more pleasurable ways of knowing ourselves and one another.

 

We conducted our interview by email in early September 2020, deep into a year of isolation, stasis, anxiety, upheaval, crisis, and uncanny weather.

 

Q

The White Review

Stranger Faces engages with – and, to some extent, challenges – the philosophical tradition, usually associated with Emmanuel Levinas, that posits the face as the site of ethical encounter. We’re conducting this interview – usually, a face-to-face format – via email. This text, in other words, is the record of a faceless encounter. How do you think the facelessness might (or might not) affect the interview’s dynamic and, dare I say it, its ethics?

A

Namwali Serpell

— If I were to count up the number of encounters I’ve had in my life with those whose faces were in front of me and those whose faces are not, I believe the proportion would greatly favour the latter. And this is as an able-bodied person with relatively good vision, and the capacity, opportunity (somewhat suppressed at the moment) and proclivity for social interaction. This might be because I am an unreformed bookworm, but ‘facelessness’ also characterises my social media engagement — contra the brand name ‘Facebook’, an avatar, even a photograph, isn’t really a face. So this faceless, or perhaps face-free, dynamic is familiar to me, and in some ways preferable. A very smart reader once noted in a Q&A that the three very different stories of mine from which I’d just read (‘The Book of Faces’, ‘The Sack’, ‘Bottoms Up’) were all obsessed with mediation. I believe, as Bernard Williams once paraphrased Nietzsche, that ‘we have art… so that we can both grasp the truth and not perish from it.’ Form interrupts the blazing face-to-face encounter. It is not just an emotional buffer but an ethical frame — it permits us to interact with the intense presence and difference of other people; it allows us to engage with them rather than be overwhelmed by them. (I would reserve that often thrilling overwhelm for people with whom I have intimate relationships.) Aesthetically and affectively, of course, it can be more fun, or differently fun, to see and touch live faces! But the only ethical difference I perceive in the face-to-face interview would be the idea that it promises greater transparency, authenticity, and expressiveness — in sum, greater truth. But I assure you, having had a face-to-face conversation about this topic before, that would not be the case. I wouldn’t, for example, feel comfortable to say to you what I’m about to write: I am as likely to lie to your face as I am to lie in typeface. This is in fact one way to express the premise of my book.

Q

The White Review

— It’s quite common to point to the things people say to one another on, for example, Twitter, that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face, as evidence that our lives are poorer for the internet’s mediation of our relationships. Are you suggesting that, treated properly, this mediation might in fact have the capacity to enrich our lives?

A

Namwali Serpell

— Yes. I think the face-to-face encounter is mediated — by preconceptions, by sensory input (someone’s clothes or smell or race), by the stochastic noise of other presences in the immediate environment — as much as reading or social media are. These are all just differently mediated encounters. I note in my essay on emoji that black and/or queer people on Twitter have a very different attitude toward social media than (white, upper-middle-class, educated elite) pundits who bemoan twenty-first century ‘disconnection’. Many people find community, solidarity, education and genuine connection through social media. And some find it there precisely because they don’t have to experience judgments about their identity; they can camouflage themselves, choose what to keep private, which isn’t equivalent to deception.

 

Over the years, rereading Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ essay, which is at the centre of a new short story I’ve just published (‘The Work of Art’), has come to influence my take on this. We tend to think that Benjamin’s essay is simply anti-technological reproduction. But Benjamin is in fact attuned to all of the affordances of, say, film, both positive and negative: not just how it strips aura, but also how it gives us an ‘x-ray’ vision we’ve never had with the human eye (an ‘optical unconscious’); not just how it chops up the actor’s presence into discrete shots, but also how it has a phenomenological openness for crowds of people, akin to how we interact with architecture. There’s rarely a reason altogether to dismiss a technology or a medium — which are neutral apart from the uses to which we put them; there are always real human reasons we created that modality for ourselves and there are often incredible ways that we’ve elaborated on it. (I’d go so far as to say this bent toward invention and adaptation characterises the history of art, black art in particular.)

Q

The White Review

— You write about the face as itself ‘a symbol, a medium, a piece of language’; like any sign, you write, a face is ‘divided, between the surface of the face itself and whatever we think that surface means: beauty, depth, a particular emotion, humanity.’ In your novel, The Old Drift, many of the central characters’ faces are distorted or obscured in one way or another: there’s a character covered in ‘a layer of dark hair {that} kept her face a mystery’; the skin of another, who has lost her sight, appears to shimmer with eyes; another character’s unceasing tears obscure her eyes with a caked layer of salt. The relationship, here, between the ‘surface’ and ‘whatever we think that surface means’ is destabilised. And yet these women, as we imagine them, do have faces, they just exist beyond the reach of signification: ‘a piece of language’ that appears to exceed language. There’s something here that I find revelatory but can see only out of the corner of my eye, and which I’m struggling, therefore, to formulate a direct question about. But I want to ask something about the relationship between the face and text: what it means to house a face in text, to encounter (or, in this case, not to encounter) a face in text, as opposed to in life, or in an image. I wonder how The Old Drift’s withdrawn faces might speak to the novel form’s claim of access, of seeing-in, of sympathetic living-through.

A

Namwali Serpell

— What a wonderful observation! I hadn’t noticed it, but it makes perfect sense, given my preoccupations. I find myself pouncing on this sentence: ‘And yet these women, as we imagine them, do have faces, they just exist beyond the reach of signification: “a piece of language” that appears to exceed language.’ Where are these faces that they have? Are they beyond the layers of obscurity or distortion, or are the layers themselves? One minor example of this in the novel is how the Corsale brothers interact with Sibilla’s face (which is covered in hair) when she’s a young girl. The Colonel wants to see it — he presses the hair on her face back tightly so he can read the outline of her features. Federico, with whom she falls in love and marries, isn’t particularly interested in her face. He is far more taken with her hair — that surface layer which sprouts from her face and is therefore part of it, the way that beards or, more broadly, eyebrows are part of ours.

 

One of the more precise continuities across the faces I consider in Stranger Faces — from the ‘disabled’ face of Joseph Merrick to the racially ambiguous face of Hannah Crafts to the object-like faces in Psycho to the blank faces in Grizzly Man to the emoji and GIFs we’ve invented so we can play with faces — is this layeredness. Whether it is split into a face and a countenance, a face and its race, a face and its skull, the face isn’t one surface that corresponds to the depth of an entity. It is a severalty of surfaces, a set of slippery signs, which, in a poststructuralist framework, always exceed how we want language to work.

 

My larger analogy — somewhat reduced in the final version of the book — ties our beliefs about the face to our beliefs about authorial intention. In the same way that in the West we think, per the cliché, that the eyes are the window to the soul, we tend to think, per Orwell, that ‘good prose is like a windowpane’. But faces and prose are never transparent; they’re translucent at best, and riven by time and context into shifting veils. And if you can never see clearly into someone, neither can you see through their eyes in a clear way — and yes, this would preclude the extreme model of ’empathy’ we are so drawn to in contemporary culture. I’m more interested in the way we mediate our ethical relationships than in pretending that there are definitively better or worse, clearer or more opaque versions of them. I don’t deny our desire to find truth and beauty and connection and empathy in strangers’ faces, but this book is about understanding the shape of that desire — and its conjoined opposite, our desire to play with faces like they’re things, like they’re works of art — rather than an effort to advocate for either.

 

The book looks at faces in written texts (Crafts); faces in visual texts (Psycho, Grizzly Man); faces we know from both (The Elephant Man); faces that turn visual icons into text (emoji); faces in fiction and non-fiction; in portraiture, sculpture, online. I don’t do this to elide the distinctions among different genres and media — to pretend they’re all the same — but rather to explore the specific possibilities each affords, like the flash shot that layers Norman’s face with Mother’s skull at the end of Psycho, or the availability of piling emoji up to convey intensity.

Q

The White Review

— When you write, do you see your characters’ faces, in the same way writers sometimes say they hear their characters’ voices? Do you see yourself as translating those faces into another language (face to text) or do they come into being as an effect of language? What is your relationship to your characters?

A

Namwali Serpell

— I don’t see their faces! I’m glad you asked this because I find this phenomenon both deeply fascinating and somewhat disconcerting. I think it’s because, as Morrison put it, ‘writing to me is an advanced and slow form of reading’, and I don’t see characters’ faces when I read. (Tristram Shandy’s instruction for readers to draw their own image of a beautiful character on a blank page is a great insight.) When a novel is adapted into a film — or vice versa — we often find a divergence of opinion about how the characters have been cast between those who read the novel first and those who see the film first. The dissonance that readers frequently experience, the sense that the actor is the ‘wrong person’, is a testament to the ineluctable difference between how we experience people in these two media. And the fact that we laud an actor’s transformation into a character suggests that this isn’t about likeness but about capturing another person’s quiddity, beyond their face. Relatedly, I often feel I know a character from, say, a Russian novel, very deeply, and then find myself stumbling over their name out loud! As I’m reading, I simply register that particular set of letters as ‘so-and-so’. I would hypothesise that this is about a distinction between characters and real people, but I find this to be the case even when I write about real people that I know in non-fiction essays! I experience a feeling of personhood — built out of language, which includes voice (I do hear characters) — whether I’m writing or reading about people. This makes me wonder if our sense of others’ personhood is a collection of vibes and senses and inexact memories — not just of someone’s face but of, say, their smell (a feature deeply resistant to transcription in language).

Q

The White Review

— You also write about real people in The Old Drift – figures from Zambia’s past who become characters. Have you found that you write differently, with a different awareness of responsibility, when writing about a real face than when writing about a fictional face (even within the fictional form)?

A

Namwali Serpell

— I do feel a different responsibility when writing about real people: not necessarily to their real face, as such — as monolithic emblem of their personhood — but to aspects of their face that have to do with their life. For instance, I wanted my Matha Mwamba to have dark skin and black hair, as the historical one did, but once I set her crying, I felt I could write anything I wanted when it comes to the transformations that take place in and around her face — her eyes, sinuses, skin, etc. Similarly, Nkoloso’s dreadlocks were important to register. But you’ll notice that with the other historical figures I write about — Percy Clark, Pietro Gavuzzi, Ngulube, Sir Stewart Gore-Brown — and in the personal essays I’ve written about family and friends and lovers, I don’t spend much time describing their faces at all. I’m keener to make sure I get their words right — and I always run my work by any living subjects before publication if I can.

Q

The White Review

— In Stranger Faces, you often describe the texts that you write about as though they themselves have faces. One text you discuss has a ‘poker face’ at a moment of deception that dissolves into a ‘knowing smirk’; another is ‘two-faced’. Is this figurative fun, or(/and) do you mean to suggest that an encounter with a text is, in one way or another, an encounter with a face?

A

Namwali Serpell

— A bit of both! Readers tend to obsess over the face behind the name, the author behind the pseudonym. But again, I think expressiveness and a sense of someone’s personhood is a matter of language, including punctuation, not just a matter of cheek muscles.

Q

The White Review

— In fact, you begin the book with the words ‘Look at me’, encouraging the reader to imagine, to remember or even to Google your own face. Reading Stranger Faces begins as an encounter, that is, with the face of its author hovering between absence and presence. Look at me feels like a taking of command, a power move. Joan Didion, as you quote her in Seven Modes, has described writing as ‘the tactic of a secret bully’; it is, she writes, ‘the act of …] saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.’ Listen to me is also a power move. But is there a difference (ethical, aesthetic, affective) between Look at me and Listen to me, as authorial command? (If I’m looking at you, I can’t see it your way…) And, following on from that, how would you model the relationship between reader and writer in your work?

A

Namwali Serpell

— I wanted to dramatise the argument by calling out the readerly obsession with faces while noting the unlikelihood that my actual face would hover over your reading experience. As you say, the face of an author hovers between absence and presence — my concern throughout is about what that hovering affords for us aesthetically. I think the difference between Didion’s Listen to me and my Look at me is that her imperative to the reader is already happening (in the sense that we’re reading the words she’s ‘saying’) while mine is impossible — not just logistically, unless you were to watch a video of me reading the entire book out loud, but also, as you say, because to look at someone is unlikely to coincide with looking with someone. Listen to me is rhetorical persuasion; Look at me is a rhetorical trick, a piece of irony.

 

My model of the relationship between reader and writer is one of solidarity, which is to say, hard work and co-construction. We need each other to make this instrument called language work. I am not very interested in getting the reader to wholeheartedly agree with my argument; I want the reader to construct, join in, participate, ‘argufy’, as William Empson put it.

Q

The White Review

— Your recent books have had long gestations: you began Stranger Faces in 2009 and The Old Drift, published in 2019, in 2000. It began life, that is, as a pre-9/11 novel, and emerged into the world as a post-Obama novel. How do you manage the writing of a book over that length of time – the sustained focus, the revisions, the changing context, the encounter with your own self across such distance? Do you recognise your own face in the older portions?

A

Namwali Serpell

— An hour ago, I closed the Twitter tab on my browser while murmuring ‘time is a scam’. It’s not that time doesn’t exist, but that, as the pandemic has clarified so vividly, the ways we divide it up and describe it are highly contingent. Which is to say, neither of these books took the amount of time between their inception and their publication for me actually to generate and revise them. If we calculated the hours spent, they each probably took a couple of years (of a 9-5) at most. But those hours were scattered among many other projects, not to mention the tasks of life, like teaching and eating and thinking. I don’t mean to sound defensive. It’s just important to understand the context for my reply. I don’t sit down to write a book and then take 10-20 years to finish it. A project comes to me, hazy but complete in its spirit, and goes on a list. I toggle between the projects on that list until I’m done with one or the other. (For example, I will stumble on an image or an idea and know exactly which project it belongs to.) So, it isn’t as though a book or a writing project is interrupted and I have to get back to focusing on it. It’s more like a garden. A seed appears and I sow it, and prune and water the plant at various stages, and eventually, when the time is ripe, I pluck and harvest (and cook and eat?) it.

 

Finishing The Old Drift taught me this because when it came to be time — when the time was ripe — to write down and revise everything I already knew, and to learn everything I didn’t yet know, about that book, the process of accommodating it to my older self and a changed context was less difficult than I thought. I was able to stay true to the instincts of my younger self (though I did edit her) because the project already was what it was — the seed had not changed though the plant had grown. (This is making me laugh because one of my other seeds has the tentative title Seed.) I have come to learn that, for me, being a writer isn’t sitting down and wondering ‘What shall I invent next?’ It is trying to learn, myself, what I have inside my mind that I want to know more about, and sowing my seeds, and taking as much time as needed to cultivate them.

Q

The White Review

— This is wonderful to read. One of the clichéd narratives of cultural production is the narrative of deadline: the procrastination, the panic, the painful final push. It’s very encouraging to hear a different narrative. How do you think the culture industry might be more accommodating of a more organic (healthier, kinder) mode of production?

A

Namwali Serpell

— This is the age-old battle, right? The editor’s deadline vs the writer’s process. To transform what has become, as you say, an ‘industry’ would require an anti-capitalist reconception of art. I do think we ought to be able to make a living from making art, but as a socialist, my ideal world would entail equal and robust funding for everyone (in advances, grants, fees, etc). But I’m very sceptical of the insistence that we peg aesthetic value to monetary value. Money can support the creation of art, but the two value systems are frankly incommensurable. The idea that ‘bestseller’ is an index of literary value we take seriously is mind-boggling if you know anything about literary history, and if you take a moment to look at the word ‘bestseller’.

 

It would also require a reconception of time. I believe in deadlines — they’re extraordinarily useful in all that I do — but they function best as formal constraints or as temporary temporal prostheses. I fundamentally see my own writing as a vocation, a calling that spans my life and hopefully stretches beyond it, not as a job with billable hours and urgent deadlines. (What could possibly be urgent beyond survival right now?!) Unless you’re a journalist on a relevancy-based deadline, it seems strange to make artists operate on market time rather than artistic time.

Q

The White Review

The Old Drift is, in many ways, a book about error – about making mistakes, getting things wrong. It constructs itself as an accumulation of mistakes that characters have made, accidents they have had, each leading to the next; but its immense satisfaction stems from the feeling, as you read, that everything is falling into place, in its right place – for the reader if not for the characters. Was this relevant to the writing process? Did you, as most writers seek to do, revise out of the text anything you felt you had got wrong? Or did your relationship to error become more self-conscious as you wrote about it?

A

Namwali Serpell

— Thank you, that is both very perceptive and pleasing to hear. That quality of peripeteia in a plot — a turn that is a fall, that both surprises and satisfies, that feels true to life though it’s rarely found outside of the narratives that we conjure and impose on life — is incredibly difficult to do on the page. And I worked very hard to try and achieve it in my revisions, especially because, as you say, error is the philosophical screw on which the entire novel turns.

 

Practically speaking, as a writer, I believe only in intentional errors, of which there is only one in the novel because, as I say of Matha, who ‘inserted a few errors into her work’ to stay under the radar in an all-boys school: ‘it’s not so easy to be believably wrong’. My publishers acquiesced to over a hundred corrections from me between the hardcover and the paperback editions. I knew that, like mosquitos, error would haunt me if I chose to write about it. But I’ve learned that I’m far more worried about errors than most readers are, maybe because I’m a teacher.

 

Error vexes me. (Hence mosquitos.) Like uncertainty, it intrigues me precisely because I struggle so much with it. In both cases, I was working through not just an acceptance of these negatively charged and inescapable phenomena of human existence, but an effort to take seriously their uses: What do they allow? What do they afford? What do they produce?

Q

The White Review

— Is there a tension, then, between a philosophy of error and the writer’s efforts to get it right (to get error right)?

A

Namwali Serpell

— My philosophy of error is that we try to get it right — by fixing it or by fleeing from it — but even when we think we’ve grasped it or turned it to our own purposes, it crops up in a different way, an unexpected place, a new form. That’s why I find error both vexing and delightful! The history of genetic science tells this story over and again. It’s no surprise that as a writer, I am subject to the workings of my own philosophy. There’s a lovely paradox here: I’ve tried to get it right but my philosophy of error is, on its own terms, inevitably prone to error — so is it right?

Q

The White Review

— Your fiction wears its theoretical fluency lightly and playfully (a reference to Homi Bhabha’s ‘sly servility’, for example, in a description of colonised waiting staff serving white settlers with ‘a servility bordering on sarcasm’) and your criticism wears its creativity similarly, to wonderful effect (‘Reading is a kind of worm, which drags its tail as its nose ventures forth, its belly shimmying with barely perceptible changes.’). What kind of relationship does Namwali Serpell the critic and academic have with Namwali Serpell the writer (taking it as a given that such a distinction is, at best, unhelpful) – and, more broadly, do you think that the relationship between criticism and creativity can be a fruitful one?

A

Namwali Serpell

— Thank you, again — this is another ongoing effort for me.

 

I used to say: I know that the critic and the writer in me speak to each other but I’m not privy to the conversation. I used to cite Hyde scrawling dirty marginalia in Jekyll’s books — though it’s unclear which is the writer and which the critic in that analogy. I used to joke that I live inside the hyphen in Nabokov’s term ‘the artist-reader’. The longer I do this, though, and the more I engage in a third mode — non-fiction essays — the more I feel that these are just strained, if quasi-inventive, attempts to satisfy a question about a rather recent and largely false division, one that really only serves gatekeepers in both academia and the literary community. So now I quote Morrison: ‘I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.’

Q

The White Review

— Toni Morrison is another example of someone who made it work on her own terms – and, like you, did so by attaching herself to institutions. Do you feel your work is ever compromised by institutional pressures? Can we transcend our institutional limits?

A

Namwali Serpell

— I am constitutionally wary of institutions, but I concede that they are necessary and often pleasant and intellectually invigorating. At this stage in my life, I’ve decided to make peace with a symbiotic mutualism — facultative rather than obligate — between me and institutions.

 

If my work has been compromised by institutional pressures — beyond the pinch of low pay or insufficient time — I’ve had the good luck not to know it. But one can never really know, you know? There’s no purity here. No transcendence, either. I’ve willingly made compromises with people, with readers or editors in positions of power over me. I regret some of these; others, in retrospect, were the fruit of engaged argufying. Mostly, like Morrison, I make sure to maintain a parallel life to my institutional life — community, circles of readers, (chosen) family — and to remember that what those people think is more important than any institutional imprimatur.

Q

The White Review

— 2020 feels like a time of emergency, of proliferating crises without end. In crisis, we tend to reach for certainty, and certainty reaches for us; in Seven Modes, you quote Barbara Johnson: ‘the privileging of ambiguity would always appear to be an avoidance of action’. Further, the particular crises we are living through are interwoven with the weaponising of uncertainty, the increasing difficulty of disentangling fact from not-fact. Has your thinking about the value of uncertainty changed in the six years since you published that book?

A

Namwali Serpell

— No, it hasn’t. There has been a parallel conversation in the public discourse about irony, which we’ve seen the alt-right and fascist politicians use as an excuse (‘my racism was just a joke’, etc). My take on both uncertainty and irony is not that we need to do away with or bracket them now that they suddenly seem dangerous or threatening or trivialising or distracting for the polis. (Who are we, Plato?) It’s that we need to learn their uses and intricacies, their pitfalls and possibilities. To attend closely to anything is to privilege it, but my hope is that my work is as attuned to the bad and ugly as it is to the good when it comes to these phenomena. I personally feel far more capable of action when I better understand the roots of my doubt — and accept that it might be foundational to the human enterprise — than if I try to dismiss it or clear it up.

 

We need better, finer literacy in these matters, and I believe reading literature can help with that. Being able to discern the difference between irony and sarcasm, to be able to recognise how uncertainty can be constructed and weaponised, is literacy. Being able to understand how the uncertainty about Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault was wrought — as mutual exclusion (it either happened or it didn’t) rather than multiplicity (several witnesses reporting different takes) — is literacy. As is being able to perceive that, when we have incommensurable values in an uncertain situation, like those of teachers vs parents vs teachers who are parents during this pandemic, we have other models available to us than mechanistically calculating who gets their interests served first (Bentham). We might instead reframe the whole structure of how this society does childcare so that these values, though they may ultimately be incommensurable, aren’t pitted against each other, can all be accommodated (Hegel). Irony and uncertainty aren’t going away and we certainly shouldn’t try to ban them. (Who are we, Big Brother?) We should try to understand them, their implications and their effects, rhetorically and politically.

Q

The White Review

— This made me think of Stephen Colbert – an ironist who has recently abandoned irony, seemingly (though I don’t know if this is right) to better meet the political moment. Do you think he lost his nerve?
A

Namwali Serpell

— I don’t know him or his work well enough to say! It’s been interesting to see John Oliver and Trevor Noah negotiate this Scylla and Charybdis. And to be honest, one of the reasons I spend so much time on Black Twitter is that the highest forms of contemporary irony – poker-face, shade – are still very much alive there when it comes to how we talk about the news.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

has recently completed a PhD about the ethics of rewriting at UCL. He is coming to the end of a first novel and is at the early stages of a new project about the present tense.


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