Socialist Worker

A new African epic, with Afronauts

by Esme Choonara
Issue No. 2647

The Old Drift is an astounding novel about Zambia that is rich in history, politics and extraordinarily fine storytelling.

It begins in 1904 with a white settler on the banks of the Zambezi and ends 120 years later with a revolutionary misadventure in the same river.

The novel focuses on the inter-generational adventures of three Zambian families, with different origins, whose lives connect and collide repeatedly throughout the book.

The novel defies genre—part family saga, part magical realism, it quietly slides into dystopian science fiction in the final chapters.

If that isn’t enough, the narrative is repeatedly punctuated by a chorus of philosophical and very self?assured mosquitos!

Key moments in Zambian history suffuse the novel. There are struggles for independence—which was only won in 1964, controversies at the creation of the new nation state, the legacy of colonialism and the spectre of imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Construction

One chapter is set during the construction of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi. It forcibly displaced tens of thousands of local Tonga people and saw more than 80 construction workers killed.

The novel is carried along by the strength and intelligence of its women characters. They prove to be the real radicals, despite many tragedies and obstacles.

There is some magic—an Italian peasant who grows hair all over her body and a blind tennis player who defies her white family to join a Marxist discussion group. We see the struggles of rural life as well as the harshness and occasional solidarity in the compounds around Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.

The author also engages with the fascinating true story of the Zambian Afronauts—a rudimentary but wildly ambitious space programme started by freedom fighter Edward Mukuku Nkoloso in the 1960s.

Nkoloso’s star recruit is the brilliant young Matha Mwamba whose story in the novel spans high revolutionary drama and heartbreak.

The Old Drift is not just inventive and powerful—it is also surprisingly funny and plays brilliantly with language. It uses different narratives to create the space to question how history is created and told, but without falling into the trap of postmodernism.

It is a beautiful, rewarding and thought-provoking novel.


The Good Immigrant USA

The Good Immigrant USA is a collection of 26 personal essays by writers exploring race, identity and culture.

It’s interesting reading for anyone engaged with contemporary debates around race and class.

The book is a follow up to the The Good Immigrant, published in Britain to wide acclaim.

Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman.
Published by little, brown, £16.99

American Boys

American Boys is a book of portraits capturing the trans-masculine community across the United States.

The young people featured have vastly different experiences and their personal stories published alongside the portraits show this.

The pictures are evidence of the rapidly expanding conceptions of gender sweeping the world.

Photographs by Soraya Zaman
Published by Daylight,
Out on 18 April

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