Death and Grief Loops Over and Over Again in “The Furrows”
Namwali Serpell’s experimental novel uses parallel universes as a larger critique of how we mourn in our contemporary world
By definition, an elegy is a lament for the dead (usually in the form of song or poem). By design, Namwali Serpell’s latest novel The Furrows is also a lamentation, one expressed through the eyes of two characters, both intertwined by circumstance not necessarily fate as one would assume.
At age 12, Cassandra Williams loses her little brother Wayne (age 7) in a day that’s rewound on the page. Perhaps it was by accident or sick twisted fate, from how she tells it it depends on what you, and Cassandra (aka C), choose to believe. After this loss, her life and her family’s life will never be the same and in many ways grief envelopes them so strongly it inhibits, it also haunts. As an adult, Cassandra keeps meeting Wayne but it isn’t her Wayne, it’s another Wayne Williams with his own melancholy and woes that have followed him from childhood as well. Together their lives reach an unexpected crescendo, one I can’t wait for more readers to experience.
Serpell has been awarded a Windham–Campbell prize and a Rona Jaffe Award. Her debut novel, The Old Drift, won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. And, as with all her writing, her prose has a cutting nature to it, sharp and to the point, allowing you to truly feel these characters and their voices so keenly you hold onto what’s said as you turn the page. She and I spoke about the philosophies that came into play in The Furrows and how mourning is at the root of not only the book’s structure but intention and exploration.
Jennifer Baker: It seems like there’s a lack of trust for Cassandra [in The Furrows]. When it comes to her little brother Wayne’s disappearance, she keeps saying, “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” Which was incredibly potent.
Namwali Serpell: On one hand, it was an important line to include in the novel, to make it clear or just give the reader the space to not try to figure this out as a kind of cognitive puzzle of parallel universes or multiple worlds. If what we’re reading about is feeling and if what we’re reading is an elegy, then the repetitions of loss are more like the different images that you would encounter when you’re reading a long poem. And so, you’re feeling what those images do to you, what those narratives stir in you, rather than trying to work out: Well, did it happen this way? Or did it happen this way? It didn’t happen that way, did it? So, I’m trying to guide the reader on how to read the novel. On the other hand, it’s a very strong, confident statement from Cassandra! But when you see her saying it at the end of the novel to Wayne, when he’s in the hospital, it reminds him of Mo, a homeless man who has been living on the streets and who clearly has some kind of mental instability. And there’s a sense that her saying that is actually a kind of deflection, right? She’s trying to redirect you to how it felt, instead of addressing what happened, because actually staring in the face of what happened is too painful for her.
JB: We have these moments where we’re getting different stories of what could happen, as well as these really catastrophic moments later on. Is grief a manifestation of, like you said, “I can’t handle this. What I need to do is find a new way to look at how the story goes.” That’s what I found so captivating about the book was when you keep reading something new occurs—and I’m paying attention to who’s speaking. What’s happening seems to be tied to a type of mourning.
NS: There are two different ways to think about it. So, there’s the fact that these forms of loss and forms of reunion keep repeating. And the repetitive quality to the structure is meant to mimic my particular feeling about mourning, which I’ve experienced and also encountered with other people, which is that when a person that you love dies, they don’t just die once—they die every time that you remember that they’re dead. That feeling, that grief is always erupting. It can be triggered by seeing someone who resembles the lost person or by hearing a song… I used to hear my late sister’s voice sometimes. I was really struck with grief once when I realized I couldn’t remember her fingers. So, there’s a kind of iterative quality to grief that I wanted to enact with the repetition.
I could have stuck with repetition as the main argument, which is that you keep returning to the trauma. Having the different versions of what could have happened goes in a couple of different directions for me, psychologically and philosophically.
One of the imperatives for me was to make the loss of [Wayne] felt. I knew that if I repeated the same loss, that you wouldn’t feel it the same way the second time, because we grew distant from a loss when we revisit it, even if we’re revisiting it from a different perspective. So I wanted to re-inscribe this feeling of loss, while making it less important for us to know exactly how that loss happened, if that makes sense. I think there’s also a very basic, straightforward answer to this, which is that I wanted to enact on the page the kinds of dreams that the person who is mourning can have of their loved one. They appear to us again in different forms.
JB: I was thinking about people I have lost and how that fear of forgetting happens. I didn’t quite have dreams [of them] that I could remember. When Cassandra goes back to those moments [of Wayne’s disappearance], she is very detailed. I’ve seen up close how death can disrupt families, because there’s just something to your point where there’s the potential for forgetting, but it’s also the consistency of the way grief comes up.
NS: I didn’t have this in mind when I was writing the novel, but we’ve seen this in the ongoing pandemic, in the way that people are reacting to death. When it comes to great tragedies, the scale of the death sometimes pushes details to the side. I’ve been struck by the fact that in the pandemic, many people could not bury their loved ones, that they couldn’t be with their loved ones on their deathbed, they couldn’t bury them. They couldn’t mourn them. They couldn’t come together as a family to accept that this had happened. This means that a lot more people are going to struggle with coming to a place… not necessarily of healing, but at least to a place of where you can withstand the pain of loss. Because when you don’t register that something catastrophic has happened, or in Cassandra’s mother’s case, when you make that refusal of death into the basis of your life and your career, and allow it to affect how you deal with your own daughter, your living daughter—then it becomes a pathology. It haunts.
JB: And there is haunting throughout The Furrows. There are cinematically rendered catastrophes that made me question if this is psychological because of the inability to grieve. I am curious if that was all tied back to the inability to mourn these really specific moments that come up for Cassandra and the other Wayne.
NS: Catastrophe is the word that I was using in my head, too. One way to explain the direction that I was going has to do with the subtitle “An Elegy.” This is how we understand the function of moments in a poem, or even just of metaphors as such. If you have an image of a catastrophe in a poem, at the volta of a sonnet, for example, then you understand that it’s an attempt to give the reader a feeling of sublimity, but also of shock. In The Furrows, there’s a great wrongness that I’m interested in registering with these particular images of catastrophe.
This is the thinking behind the idea that your environment reflects your feelings—we call it “the objective correlative.” In Tar Baby, [Toni Morrison] has this extended conceit that the landscape of the island that she’s describing reflects the great wrongness of what’s happening among the characters, this very intimate, internally inflicted violence in the home. And, for me, a great sense of wrongness needs to erupt at the very moment that Cassandra recognizes, so to speak, her brother in this man. Part of that is the “wrongness” of the incest taboo that we all have cross culturally, across history. But part of it also for me at a more philosophical level, and again, this is tapping into what I’ve garnered from teaching Morrison’s work recently, and thinking through the ethics of her work. This is the great wrongness of thinking you can replace someone with somebody else, or that you can fill something that’s missing inside you with another person. And that is one of Cassandra’s big mistakes. Our society is built around narratives that look a lot like love stories. And the particular love story that the novel depicts has a lot of the features we recognize in a love story: mutual attraction, sexual desire, a real sense of a homecoming, as Wayne describes it. Sometimes people come together for different kinds of reasons though—not to heal a wound, or fill a hole, but to realize something, to recognize something. I think one of the interesting things for me in writing the book was realizing that Wayne comes to an understanding of something, but Cassandra doesn’t. And that kind of unreliability in her self-awareness, in her self-understanding, is going to be hard for most readers to pick up. So my rendering of catastrophes throughout the novel is meant to register within the story world the wrongness of her impulse to use love to heal herself.
JB: I love what you say about replacing because that’s advice we get. And when it comes to the corporeal loss of a person it seems there was no aim to replace Cassandra’s brother specifically, but he needed to be filled by something else.
NS: Sometimes I feel like we’re living inside these individual movies that don’t all correspond to each other. The closest we can do is draw our worlds next to each other. I think a lot about the lines at the end of Beloved where it says of Paul D and Sethe, “He wants to put his story next to hers.” There is a sense that Sethe wanted to replace Halle with Paul D. and Beloved wanted to replace Paul D in Sethe’s heart—there’s all this desire to displace and replace that is feeding into and coming out of the very logic of possession that slavery is inculcating within that society. And I would say the contemporary version of that is our capitalist mentality, which is that if you lose something, you can just replace it with something else. You can buy your way out of grief.
I think what Morrison is getting at is that you shouldn’t think your story is going to solve mine or sit inside mine or envelop mine. But our stories can sit next to each other. They can resonate like two strings on a harp might; if you pluck one, the other one vibrates. And the structure of my novel as a whole, which puts Cassandra’s story next to Wayne’s, is my attempt to gesture to that as a better solution than what they seem to come to as individual characters. Especially when it comes to C—she’s trying to lose herself to this man, submit to him, but also to replace what’s missing inside her with this alternative brother.
For the most part, I want readers to understand that the novel is both a reenactment and a larger critique of how we do mourning in our contemporary world, especially when we don’t have the rituals to grieve or to accord rest to those whom we have lost.