On 18th May 2014, Namwali Serpell gathered alongside colleagues, students, friends, scholars, and readers at Adobe Books in San Fransisco to launch her work of literary criticism, “7 Modes of Uncertainty”. Namwali, whose short story, “Mzungu”, was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2010, is that special type of African littérateur who writes literary fiction and is also professionally trained in rigorous, academic criticism.
Synopsis of “7 Modes of Uncertainity”
Literature is rife with uncertainty. Literature is good for us. These two ideas about reading literature are often taken for granted. But what is the relationship between literature’s capacity to unsettle, perplex, and bewilder us, and literature’s ethical value? To revive this question, C. Namwali Serpell proposes a return to William Empson’s groundbreaking work, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), which contends that literary uncertainty is crucial to ethics because it pushes us beyond the limits of our own experience.
Taking as case studies experimental novels by Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Bret Easton Ellis, Ian McEwan, Elliot Perlman, Tom McCarthy, and Jonathan Safran Foer, Serpell suggests that literary uncertainty emerges from the reader’s shifting responses to structures of conflicting information. A number of these novels employ a structure of mutual exclusion, which presents opposed explanations for the same events. Some use a structure of multiplicity, which presents different perspectives regarding events or characters. The structure of repetition in other texts destabilizes the continuity of events and frustrates our ability to follow the story.
To explain how these structures produce uncertainty, Serpell borrows from cognitive psychology the concept of affordance, which describes an object’s or environment’s potential uses. Moving through these narrative structures affords various ongoing modes of uncertainty, which in turn afford ethical experiences both positive and negative. At the crossroads of recent critical turns to literary form, reading practices, and ethics, Seven Modes of Uncertainty offers a new phenomenology of how we read uncertainty now.
Excerpt of “Mzungu” by Namwali Serpell
Isabella was nine years old before she knew what white meant. White in the sense of being a thing, as opposed to not being a thing. It wasn’t that Isa didn’t know her parents were white, although with her mother, this was largely a matter of conjecture. A layer of thick dark hair kept Sibilla’s face a mystery. And even though as she aged, this blanket of hair turned grey then silver then white, a definite movement toward translucence, Isa never could properly make out her mother’s features. More distinct were Sibilla’s legs, tufts of fur running like a mane down each thick shin, and her strange laugh, like large sheets of paper being ripped and crumpled. Isa’s father, the Colonel, was white but it often seemed as if pink and grey were battling it out on his face. Especially when he drank.
Her parents had settled into life in Zambia the way most expats do. They drank a lot. Every weekend was another house party, that neverending expatriate house party that has been swatting mosquitoes and swimming in gin and quinine for more than a century. Sibilla floated around in a billowy Senegalese boubou, sending servants for refills and dropping in on every conversation, distributing laughter and ease amongst her guests. Purple-skinned peanuts had been soaked in salt water and roasted in a pan until they were grey; they cooled and shifted with a whispery sound in wooden bowls. There were Tropic beer bottles scattered around the veranda, marking the table and the concrete floor with their damp semi-circular hoof prints. Full or empty? Once the top is off a Tropic bottle, you can’t tell because the amber glass is so dark. You have to lift it to check its weight. Cigars and tobacco pipes puffed their foul sweetness into the air. Darts and croquet balls went in loopy circles around their targets, loopier as the day wore on.
The Colonel sat in his permanent chair just beyond the shade of the veranda, dampening with gin the thatch protruding from his nostrils, occasionally snorting at some private or overheard joke. His skin was creased like trousers that had been worn too long. Budding from his arms were moles so large and detached they looked ready to tumble off and roll away into the night. And as though his wife’s hairiness had become contagious, his ears had been taken over—the calyx whorl of each had sprouted a bouquet of whiskers. The Colonel liked to drink from the same glass the entire day, always his favorite glass, decorated with the red, white, and green hexagons of a football. As his drunkenness progressed, the glass got misty from being so close to his open mouth, then slimy as his saliva glands loosened, then muddy as dirt and sweat mixed on his hand. At the end of the evening, when Isa was sent to fetch her father’s glass, she often found it beneath his chair under a swarm of giddy ants, the football spattered like it had been used for a rainy day match.
Isa had no siblings and when the other expatriate children were around she was frantic and listless in turns. Today, she began with frantic. Leaving the grownups outside propping their feet on wooden stools and scratching at their sunburns, Isa marched three of the more hapless children inside the house and down the long corridor to her bedroom. There, she introduced them to her things. First to her favorite book, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Second to the live, broken-winged bird she’d found in the driveway. Third, and finally, to Doll.
“And this is my doll. She comes from America. She has an Amurrican accent. Her name is Doll.”
Bird and Doll lived together in an open cardboard box. Isabella stood next to the box with her chin lifted, her hand pointing down to them. Due to the scarcity of imported goods in Lusaka, Isa was allowed only one doll at a time, and this one had gone the way of all dolls: tangled-haired–patchy–bald. Forever smiling Doll, denied a more original name by her fastidious owner, sat with her legs extended, her right knee bent at an obtuse and alluring angle. From Doll’s arched left foot a tiny plastic pink stiletto dangled. Her perforated rubber head tilted to one side. She seemed interested and pleasant. Bird, also on its way to bald, cowered as far away from Doll as possible, looking defeated. Isa poked at it with her finger. The bird skittered lopsidedly around the box until, cornered, it uttered a vague chirp. Alex and Stephie, prompted by Isabella, applauded this effort.