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A Sibling Disappears, and the Mystery Repeats Itself

When the author returned to the draft of “The Furrows” after five years away from it, she had a new experience of grief — her mother’s death — to contend with.

“When my sister died, it was just a total chaos,” she said, but 17 years later the family was “at a stage where we understood what needed to be done, in terms of ritual, in terms of closure, in terms of support.”

This time, her dreams were serene. “I missed her,” she said of her mother, “but there wasn’t this confusion of, ‘Is she gone, is she not gone.’” She’s learned firsthand that “if you disavow your grief, if you pretend that this thing never happened and everything is fine now, it erupts in these kinds of symptomatic ways, in these forms of violence.”

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For the adult Cee in “The Furrows,” these eruptions manifest in profound psychological disturbance. Serpell intended to make the reader feel uncomfortable — by distorting time and memory; by refusing the finality of a body to mourn; by confusing, in Cee’s mind and the reader’s, the identities of her lover and her dead brother in a way that invokes the possibility of incest.

Serpell made clear that this book is not autofiction. She said that before her mother died, “she asked my older sister, ‘Mwali doesn’t have feelings for Derek, does she?’ I was like, Oh no, Jesus Christ, no.”

She wanted readers to see that Cee, a privileged half-Black, half-white woman “who has not actually achieved a true consciousness of race because of her class position,” is “deeply messed up.”

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