Zambian-American novelist Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift has won the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best sci-fi novel of the year. Serpell will receive a cash prize of £2020, as well as an award plaque.
Serpell’s win is historic, at least, for us in the African literary side of things. Her win makes it the first time that African authors are winning the prize two years in a row. Tade Thompson won the award last year for Rosewater, a novel set in Nigeria about a mysterious alien biodome. These wins are telling. African sci-fi is making a space for itself in the global landscape of the genre.
The Old Drift is Serpell’s debut novel about three Zambian families whose fates intertwine over three generations in what was once a colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi river. The novel was an instant hit upon its release in 2019 and has graced books of the year lists by the likes of the New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME Magazine, and Brittle Paper‘s Notable African Books of the Year.
The Authur C. Clarke Award was established in 1987 and has been won by one other African writer, aside from Serpell and Thompson. South African speculative fiction writer Lauren Beukes won the award in 2011 for Zoo City.
Serpell was surprised and honored by the recognition:
WHAT?! I'm so surprised and honored and delighted! Thank you so much. WOW WOW WOW! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tade and the judges and @ClarkeAward! It means so much to me to have this recognition for my novel–SFF readers are incredibly discerning. Thank you! https://t.co/gcdKtjyI98
— Namwali Serpell (@namwalien) September 23, 2020
In a separate Tweet, Serpell shared her absolute delight at The Old Drift being described as “stealth sci-fi” by the Clarke Award judges.
Chair of judges, Andrew M. Butler, explained to The Guardian, “The Old Drift is, as one of our judges put it, ‘stealth sci-fi’, with inheritance and infection at its heart. Our pandemic-ravaged world reminds us how connected our world has been for the last century or more – and this book points to the global nature of science fiction.”
Tade Thompson expressed further praise for Serpell’s work on Twitter, stating,
“The Old Drift is, to me, the great African novel of the twenty-first century. The scale, the characters, the polish and lyricism of the passages all conspire to tell an unforgettable tale. At last, a book that acknowledges that the African lives with the fantastic and mundane.”
Congratulations to Namwali Serpell!