Caine Prize winner Namwali Serpell: A writer's writer

The Caine Prize

The story "The Sack" by Zambian writer Namwali Serpell was selected as the winner of this year's Caine Prize, the top accolade for African short story writers. South African author and chair of the panel of judges Zoë Wicomb praised the story, calling it "formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects." RFI spoke to winner Serpell about why she decided to split her prize money with fellow shortlistees.


Q: What’s your reaction to receiving this prize?

NS: I’m very pleased. I was shortlisted in 2010 for a very different story called “Muzungu” and I was really surprised that this story was nominated and shortlisted, because it’s quite a strange story and quite surreal. I didn’t know how well it would resonate with readers, so I’m very happy about that.

Q: You are the first Zambian to win the prize as well. How would you describe "The Sack" to our listeners?

NS: It’s a story about two men and they live in a house together. One of them is quite sick and the other is his caretaker. But over the course of the story you discover that they’ve known each other very well for a very long time. They’re friends, but they’re also rivals   they were rivals in love over the same woman who has died and who they’re mourning over in very different ways. And the thing that instigates these revelations is the arrival at the house of a boy who sells fish. I call him the Isabi boy   isabi means fish in Bemba, which is a Zambian language. When he comes to the house, one of the men sort of adopts him and he becomes kind of a proxy child for them, because the woman they loved gave birth to a son and she died in childbirth. Neither of the men know whether that son was their own or the other persons’, so it becomes a way of opening up all of these tensions that have kind of festered over years and years of being friends and enemies.

Q: As you said, there are love rivals, but there’s also some political tension as well.

NS: Yes, there’s a lot of references to a failed political movement that these two men started with the woman that they loved. My sense of freedom fighters in Zambia is only growing as I do more research for a novel I’ve been working on. I’ve been researching in particular a figure from Zambian history who was a freedom fighter, Edward Makuka Nkoloso. I’ve been learning about the history, but the story itself is sort of a parallel universe that the political movement they start which doesn’t come to fruition is in a kind of parallel universe to Zambia’s own history.

Q: The Caine Prize includes a residency at Georgetown University in the US, an invitation to participate in three literary festivals in Cape Town, Nairobi, and Abeokuta, Nigeria, as well as 10,000 pounds (14,000 euros). And you’ve decided to split the money with your fellow shortlisted authors.

NS: I made that decision about a week ago, before the prize was announced. I knew that the other four stories were brilliant. I’ve gotten to know the other four writers during the past week we’ve spent in London together and doing panel events and readings. And I also felt very strongly that writing really isn’t a competition. There are writing competitions and they are wonderful, they help promote writing, they act as a kind of form of 21st century patronage for writers. But when it comes to how we feel about writing as writers together, talking about words, talking about literature, talking about life, I don’t think we really enjoy being pitted against each other. I decided, you know, that I have a job as an academic. I thought what’s least important to me about this prize is the money. I feel very honoured to have people read my work and I feel very honoured by the judges’ choice to grant me the award. But getting to know the other writers and reading their work and talking with them has been really the highlight for me.

Q: There is some discussion on the continent and in the African diaspora of people who say African writers will not get the recognition they deserve until they win a “western” literary prize. What is your take on that?

NS: One question would be: what does the recognition they deserve mean? Do they mean recognition from the West? Do they mean international recognition? Or do they mean recognition from fellow readers and writers in their own countries? One of the reasons why I did want to split the money was, as describing it to my fellow shortlistees as a kind of mutiny or as a kind of form of protest because it does seem that the resources for a prize like this are very much based in the West, and it’s unfortunate in a way that you can’t really have a proper conversation about who should be reading African literature, who should be writing African literature; you can’t really have that conversation when there’s money hanging over the conversation that, of course, we all as starving artists, need. Something I’ve found very interesting is that there’s all sorts of new initiatives on the continent: Kwani?, Jalaa, the collective of writers in Nigeria who are putting together writing for people in their countries written by people in those countries, and achieving real recognition just in terms of the quality of the work. There is a matter of prizes but there’s also a lot of grassroots stuff happening, I think, at home, and very keen on that, largely because the work coming out in these magazines like Wasafiri, Chimurenga, or Kwani? is so great. It’s so innovative and it’s pushing the boundaries of what writing can do as such. So for me, the question is, we can talk the politics of it, but I think from the writer’s perspective we just want to write and we just want to read good writing.

Q: And with that in mind, can you recommend a book to our listeners?

I’ve been raving to my sister, and to my mum, and to all of my friends about the works of Elena Ferrante, the Italian writer. She’s written a quartet of books called the Neapolitan Series, that have been translated over time. I think the fourth one will be translated in the Fall, and the first book of that series is called “My Brilliant Friend”. It’s just one of the most remarkable portraits of a female friendship and of women as artists. Just the language of it is incredible, and I just think she’s absolutely brilliant. She’s writing under a pseudonym, which I also find really fascinating. But every single person I’ve given that book to has loved it, so I can’t help but keep recommending it.

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