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“I do like to haunt people”

“I do like to haunt people”

Zambia’s Namwali Serpell won the prestigious Caine Prize with her challenging and dark story of love and hate, then shared her winnings with her fellow nominees. 

The morning after winning the Caine Prize for African Writing, Namwali Serpell is still bright eyed and beaming, despite giving interviews until midnight and having had only four hours sleep.

“I felt very happy and surprised to win the prize,” she says.

“This already contributed to a sense of momentum in my writing. I am working on a novel about Zambia called The Old Drift.” Tongue in cheek, she calls it the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you wanted to read. “I hope winning the prize will make editors interested in it and publishing it,” she says.

Serpell is the first Zambian to win the £10,000 ($16,000) short story prize, described as Africa’s leading literary award, though she was shortlisted in 2010 with her story Muzungu, which was also selected for the Best American Short Stories in 2009. In 2011 she won the Rona Jaffe Award for women writers.

Her Caine Prize winning story, The Sack, is published in two collections – African 39 and Lusaka Punk. It explores a world where dreams and reality are claustrophobic and dark. It’s a story about two men who live together, grow up together as children, fall in love with the same woman and start a political movement that fails. They’re also in a very fraught, longstanding relationship of love and hate with each other.

It is intriguing, enigmatic and sticks in the mind. “I do like to haunt people,” Serpell laughs.

The chair of the judges, South African author Zoë Wicomb, called it “truly luminous…It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading. Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects.”

“People often use the word challenging or difficult about writing that is ambiguous or uncertain,” says Serpell. “It’s what interests me as a reader and I think one of the things that I aspire to is for my reader to co-create the story with me. Unless I leave spaces in my story, there is nowhere for the reader to come in.”

Strikingly, one of the men calls the other “Bwana” in the story. “It’s used sarcastically, between two men who are the same age and the same status that have entered into a relationship of master/servant and of debt,” explains Serpell.

“I’d been doing some research in Lusaka about the political party that achieved independence, the party that Kenneth Kaunda our first president was the leader of, and in the transcripts of their national council meetings all of these freedom fighters refer to each other as ‘Bwana’ and at some point one of them says, we can’t be using this word, we can’t be using ‘boss’ to each other, and so they switch to ‘comrade’. And there’s a kind of play between ‘bwana’ and ‘comrade’ in my story as well because these two men tried, and failed, to create a political movement in Zambia.”

What does the story mean to her? “Your desire to escape your fate will lead you right to its door. If you keep deviating from a path, you will eventually make a circle.” Serpell explains that this story will become the final chapter of the novel she’s writing.

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Serpell also made headlines at the awards with another first, a generous – and also mutinous – gesture that she’d decided on a week earlier if she won. Accepting her prize, she announced that she was sharing it with the other four finalists. Literature is not competitive, she said. “The only way I can critique that is by sharing the money. That undoes the premise that there’s one winner who’s better than the other four.”

During the lead-up to the prizegiving, the five finalists – the others being FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga from South Africa, and Segun Afolabi and Elnathan John from Nigeria – got to know each other. “I tried to convince them to do it with me,” says Serpell. “There are other writers who have given up their prize money – NoViolet Bulawayo, the Zimbabwean writer [a Caine Prize winner in 2011, who gave away the Etisalat prize] – so I know it is done. I was worried that my family – checking my sister’s phone by candlelight in Lusaka – would be upset with me but they were very supportive.”

Serpell grew up in Zambia until she was eight, when her parents moved to the US with her and her sisters. Her British-Zambian father is a professor of psychology and her Zambian mother is an economist. Her parents returned to Zambia for a year when she was 15 and returned for good in 2002. She still visits often. “I am very nomadic so I don’t know if any place is truly home to me. But I generally find that when the word leaves my mouth with reference to myself or where I’m going or what I miss, I mean Zambia,” she says.

Serpell holds a PhD from Harvard University and is an associate professor teaching Anglophone literature at Berkeley in California and the author of a book of literary criticism, Seven Modes of Uncertainty. “I like to say that my academic work and my creative work speak to each other but that I’m not privy to the conversation!” she jokes. Current African writing is so eclectic that the trend, she says, if there is one, is innovation. “The imperative to present an entire continent in one light or another – whether it confirms or undoes stereotypes – can only serve as a limitation,” she says.

Why did she become a writer? “I have always been a voracious reader. I am pretty much made up of words at this point!” And that’s the advice she gives to aspiring writers too. “The only requirement to be a writer is to read,” she says. “Frankly, just read more, that’s what I always advise young writers.”

You can read Namwali Serpell’s award-winning short story, The Sack, online at CainePrize.com.

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Written by Alexa Dalby

Alexa Dalby is a freelance arts and business journalist, with over 20 years varied experience of writing and broadcasting about Africa, and is currently assistant editor of African Business and African Banker magazines. She is a film critic and a specialist in African and Middle Eastern cinema.

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