Namwali Serpell, Zambia’s first Caine Prize Winner

Namwali Serpell (left) and  Africa39 editor, Ellah Allfrey at the 2015 Caine Prize award ceremony.

Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell (left) and Africa39 editor, Ellah Allfrey at the 2015 Caine Prize award ceremony.

Namwali Serpell, an associate professor of English in the University of California, Berkeley, won the £10,000 Caine Prize award for ‘The Sack’(pdf), published in the ‘Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara’ anthology. In the hallucinatory story, two men and a boy are haunted and trapped by the memory of a woman. Serpell’s previous story, ‘Mzungu’, was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize. In 2014, she published ‘7 Modes of Uncertainty’, a book of literary criticism.

Serpell said her story was about two men who had known each other since childhood, how they have gone through “a long process of trying to build a political movement together, which failed, and in the process falling in love with the same woman, who died. It’s about trying to come to terms with that”.

“It has multiple inspirations,” she added. “When I was 17 I had a dream about a sack, and I didn’t know if I was on the inside or the outside. I found it very disturbing. The Japanese horror director Takashi Miike’s Audition, which also involves a sack, is another inspiration, and it also draws from an encounter I had with [another student] when I was a graduate student.

“I was studying American and British fiction, and she was studying African contemporary fiction, and her theory was that any time you saw a sack in African literature, it was a hidden reference to the transatlantic slave trade. I was kind of writing my story against that.” (Source: The Guardian)

Serpell shared the prize money with the other short-listed authors:

“It is very awkward to be placed into this position of competition with other writers that you respect immensely,” she says to BBC News. Taking the full award makes her feel like she is in some kind of “American Idol or race-horse situation.” Literary competitions are not about fighting to the death to win a prize but about supporting people you respect. […] Still Serpell’s decision to split the cash is a first. (Source: Ainehi Edoro, Why This African Writer Wins 15,000 Dollars But Receives Only 3000)

Last year’s Caine Prize winner was Africa39 author, Okwiri Oduor.

Writing for Africa in Words, Lilly Kroll was one of the many readers who predicted Serpell’s story would win the prize this year:

I am leaning toward a prediction that Namwali Serpell will be the winner of this year’s Caine Prize for a number of reasons. For starters, a win for Serpell would go some way to deflecting one of the major criticisms the Caine Prize has faced in recent years: that its winners are from a disappointingly small pool of African nations, even considering its Anglophone criteria. Serpell is the only shortlisted writer not from Nigeria or South Africa – two countries that have been well represented on Caine shortlists since its start – and would be the renowned prize’s first Zambian winner. She is also a writer very much ‘on the rise’; since appearing on the 2010 Caine Prize shortlist for her first published story ‘Muzungu’, Namwali has become an associate professor in the English Department at Berkeley, authored a book of literary criticism and been selected as one of Bloomsbury’s ‘Africa 39’, firmly assuring her status within the so-called new generation of African writers. […] (Source: Blogging the Caine Prize: Namwali Serpell’s ‘The Sack’, Africa in Words)

'7 Modes of Uncertainty' (2014) by Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell.

‘7 Modes of Uncertainty’ (2014) by Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell.

African literature scholar, Aaron Bady, wrote about Serpell’s story, that:

[…] If “The Sack” is about reading—if “reading” is what’s inside the sack—then it’s a sack whose outside contains everything else in the world: call the outside of a sack “the inside,” and suddenly it contains the whole world, bounded in nutshell, troubled only by bad dreams. If it’s about race, then it’s about how we struggle to look beneath surfaces that reveal nothing more than new surfaces. As we oscillate between white and black, between J and J, the inadequacy of the only thing we have becomes ever more perilously obvious. And if the story is about gender—and this, too, is what it’s primarily about—then it’s about the inevitable flattening of masculinity into violence when men are deprived of an other to be masculine against, the narcissism of the subject which men use women to blunt and muffle. Or perhaps it’s about something else entirely? Perhaps it definitely is.

I found these things when I looked in this sack, in part, because I dreamed about them and then they came to life. You might dream something different, and find it. You might have no choice but to do so, because you have to choose. As Serpell observes in ‘Seven Modes of Uncertainty’, this is where reading cannot escape the problem of ethics: literature produces free choice because the reader must decide what something means,and yet it’s a free choice which the text forces on us. That’s an uncomfortable place to find yourself, as reader, to be forced to take responsibility for what you chose to put in the sack. Passivity can be an alibi for readers who prefer to keep their hands clean, to let the author carry the burden. But what if, instead of playing detective, soothsayer, code-breaker, psychoanalyst—instead of being readers who follow the trail of breadcrumbs as mindlessly as ants—what if we are projecting our dreams forward as we read, living out what we imagined into existence? One retreat from that paradox—that freedom which becomes mandatory as you slide your hand along the Möbius strip and inside turns seamlessly into outside—is to take refuge inside the withheld narrative object, the un-said, to disown responsibility for the dream by finding it in the sack, suspending it there, burying it there, waiting for it there. It’s not in me, you might say, it’s in the sack. But if there is one thing “The Sack” does, it turns out, it’s to insist on turning that sack inside out. (source: Inside Out: Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack”, The New Inquiry)

In Issue 39 of The Quarterly Conversation, a review of the Africa39 anthology highlighted Serpell’s work and the peculiar beauty and innovation of ‘The Sack’.

Namwali Serpell (Zambia/U.S.A.) is an academic (UC Berkely), critic, and writer of astonishing ability and range. Two recent texts serve to highlight her versatile gifts: “The Book of Faces” (n+1, Online only, 25/07/2014)—an ekphrasis of a Facebook news feed—and “Skin Her” (n+1, Issue 21, Winter 2014)—a consideration of Scarlett Johansson’s recent alien forms.

“The Sack” is a grim gothic. Three generations of men are in a house together where they are haunted by a woman—presumably dead—and her history, a part of which they have each been. Comrade J. runs the household, while “the man” awaits his death, and “the isabi boy” hangs around in disconcerting quietude. “The boy’s mind was empty but for a handful of notions—love, hunger, fear—darting like birds within, crashing into curved walls in a soundless, pitiless fury.” A big fish is slaughtered early in the day, and the big man (“bwana”) is slaughtered in the evening. They all dream of the woman, Naila. J. “dreams of her used cunt” but “had long ago decided to hate that woman: a feeling which had clarity and could accommodate the appetite he had once felt for her body.” The sick man “still loved her . . . scratched invisible messages to her in the sheets.” The thoughts of the three swirl and mix in a dismal dreamscape. Reality is slippery and unwieldy, like the bream they capture and eat, like the body in the sack of which the man dreams, like the pregnant baby slipping out of Naila—“She is gone. / She has been gone for a long time.”—of which J. dreams, and like their dreams themselves. The terrible sack about which the man dreams, which moves about as though the corpse or limbs within it are alive, recalls that other terrible sack (a makeshift body-bag) containing a brutalized and maimed undead body in the film adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s horror, The Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999). The men’s shared nightmare, Serpell’s surrealism, are chilling and enjoyable. (source: ’39 Africans Walk into a Bar’, The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 39)

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read ‘The Sack’ by Namwali Serpell, ‘Rag Doll’ by 2014 Caine Prize Winner, Okwiri Oduor (Kenya), ‘Sometime before Maulidi’ by 2014 Morland Scholar, Ndinda Kioko (Kenya), ‘The Banana Eater’ by 2009 Caine Prize Winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda), as well as many other impressive stories by authors from Africa South of the Sahara and its diaspora.

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