Q&A: Namwali Serpell

Shortly before Namwali Serpell became the sixteenth winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, I had the chance to ask her a couple of questions about reading her winning story ‘The Sack’ and its many modes of uncertainty. This Q&A forms part of a follow up series to our 2015 Blogging the Caine Prize, posted in the run-up to our review of this year’s Caine Prize anthology, Lusaka Punk. I was quietly and then not so quietly confident that Serpell’s story would win this year’s prize even before I had read the rest of the shortlist; it is a near on perfectly formed example of what fiction can be and do. I urge anyone who has not read it to do so, and after that you can join us in waiting for the novel it forms a part of…


Namwali Serpell

Lilly Kroll for AiW: This is the second time you’ve been nominated for the Caine Prize – what does the prize mean to you as a writer, and could you say a little bit about what, if anything, it means to the current climate of African literature?

Namwali Serpell: It means a great deal to me. I feel honored and encouraged and the prize will give momentum to my writing career. I am also very happy to represent Zambian writing and a more experimental form. The more diverse the prize becomes, the less strange it will seem to maintain the insanely broad term, “African Writing.”

The phrase ‘modes of uncertainty’ kept cropping up for me as I read ‘The Sack’, and not just because I had recently read your academic bio…. How does your academic work intersect with your creative writing? Do you feel that they complement one another or are they sometimes at odds?

I always say that while my creative writing and my scholarly work speak to each other, I am not privy to the conversation. I like to compare the relationship between these two sides of myself to the moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s incredible novel when Jekyll complains of Hyde “scrawling in my own hand blasphemies on the pages of my books.”

Following on from these notions of uncertainty, how important is it to you that people ‘get’ your fiction?

If by “get,” you mean “understand,” I would say that to understand is only one of many ways to read and it is not always the most important.

A lot of writers cite innovation and experimentation as reasons for working within the short story form – do these resonate with you or are there deeper reasons for being drawn to the genre? 

Yes, I like using the short story as a space for concentrated experiment. Because my own notion of experiment is often quasi-mathematical -or structural- I find the short story especially amenable to this. It offers constraints within which I can play.

It is somewhat of a tradition for Caine Prize finalists to use the accolade as ammunition to publish their first novel – to what extent do you see your current short fiction work as ‘practice’?  Is there something else – a novel, perhaps a different form altogether – in the pipeline? 

“The Sack,” and my previously shortlisted story, “Muzungu,” are both excerpts from a novel in progress, entitled The Old Drift. They are not practice pieces; they are pieces of the larger puzzle I am putting together.

In light of what happened with the Guardian’s decision to cut out half of your brilliant response to their question about heroes of African literature over the weekend, I’m wondering if I could borrow a question from your own Twitter timeline….  How can we change the conversation about “African” writing? Is it still possible to generate interesting debate around the age old question, ‘what is African literature’ or should we be talking about something else entirely?

Yes, there are other questions that would generate different and more vibrant conversations. “What is African literature?” is essentially unanswerable and tends to devolve into rigid binaries (this is African literature v. this isn’t) or sweeping vaguenesses (everything is African literature; there is no such thing as African literature). I find questions about the relationship between, say, form and politics, or genre and ethics much more interesting. Perhaps tweaking the question slightly to “What does African literature do?” would be a start.

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Namwali Serpell’s first published story, “Muzungu,” was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2009
and shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. unnamed (2)In 2014, she was selected as one of the most promising African writers for the Africa 39 Anthology, a project of the Hay festival. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, n+1, McSweeney’s (forthcoming), Bidoun, Callaloo, The San Francisco Chronicle, The L.A. Review of Books, and The Guardian. She is an associate professor in the University of California, Berkeley English department; her first book of literary criticism, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, was published in 2014.


LillyLilly Kroll is a graduate from the University of Sussex, where she completed a dissertation on diasporic identity and Afropolitan imaginings in the writing of Taiye Selasi. She is interested in the marketing and reception of contemporary anglophone African literature, states of in-betweenness, and West African stringed instruments. She has not yet found a way to combine these three things but is working on it.

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Read Lilly’s  AiW review of  Serpell’s ‘The Sack’, part of AiW’s ‘Blogging the Caine Prize’ 2015.

Ranka Primorac’s ‘Acts of Mutiny: the Caine Prize and ‘African Literature’’, an in-depth article which forms part of Africa in Words’ 2015 series of comment pieces on the Caine Prize, is here – posted in the run up to our review of Lusaka Punk.

Lusaka Punk and Other Stories is now available from The New Internationalist. The Caine Prize 2015 anthology lusaka punkcontains the 5 short-listed stories and those from the two week Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop which took place in Elmina, Ghana this year, with Leila Aboulela and Zukiswa Wanner.

Short-listed Stories:
The Folded Leaf by Segun Afolabi (Nigeria)
Flying by Elnathan John (Nigeria)
A Party for the Colonel by FT Kola (South Africa)
Space by Masande Ntshanga (South Africa)
The Sack by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)
The Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop Stories 2015:
#Yennenga by Jemila Abdulai (Ghana)
The Road Workers of Chalbi by Dalle Abraham (Kenya)
Wahala Lizard by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
Nehushtan by Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)
Swallowing Ice by Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana)
Lusaka Punk by Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia)
The Writing in the Stars by Jonathan Dotse (Ghana)
Burial by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria)
The Song of a Goat by Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone)
Princess Sailendra of Malindi by Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya)
Blood Match by Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi)
Coloured Rendition by Aisha Nelson (Ghana)

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Last week Nomonde Ntsepo chatted to Masande Ntshanga; next week, our Caine Friday Q&A will be with Pede Hollist, discussing the Caine Prize workshop.

You can find out previous pieces on this year’s shortlisted stories as part of the Caine Prize blogathon at the following links:
John Uwa’s AiW review of Segun Afolabi’s “The Folded Leaf” (Nigeria) | Read “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri .
Madhu Krishnan’s AiW review of Elnathan John’s “Flying” (Nigeria) | Read “Flying” in Per Contra.
Doseline Kiguru’s AiW review of F. T. Kola’s “A Party for the Colonel” (South Africa) | Read “A Party for the Colonel” in One Story.
Nomonde Ntsepo’s AiW review of Masande Ntshanga’s “Space” (South Africa) | Read “Space” in Twenty in 20.
Lilly Kroll’s AiW review of Namwali Serpell’s “The Sack” (Zambia) | Read “The Sack” in Africa39.



Categories: Blogging the Caine Prize, Prizes, Q&A, Writers

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