An associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley; Namwali Serpell emerged winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing- the first Zambian to win the prestigious prize. Despite her busy schedule, she made out time to talk to Praxis about Caine Prize and her winning story, The Sack. Read:
Congratulations Namwali Serpell on winning the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2010, your first published story, Muzungu, was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. In 2014, you were chosen as one of the Africa 39, a project of the Hay Festival. Now in 2015, you have been declared winner of the Caine Prize with your story, The Sack. The first Zambian to win the prize. What do these mean to you?
I feel delighted and grateful. I am especially pleased that the judges chose to honor the darker, more experimental story of the two.
Would you say the Caine Prize has, so far, done well in its aim at ensuring growth and support for Literature in Africa?
Yes it has, judging by the sheer number of shortlisted writers who have gone on to publish successful novels, support African literature in their own ways, and shape interesting and influential careers.
I read The Sack once in the Africa 39 collection and didn’t quite understand it. I tried to discuss the story with a reading partner who unfortunately hadn’t gotten to the page where I was. When I heard the story had won the Caine Prize, I returned to the story, with a pen and a notepad. After a third read I concluded that the story tells the psychological and often time, long lasting effects of riots, rallies and their aftermaths. Am I correct?
That is one reading of the story, yes. My hope is that my work will inspire many different readings, even ones that conflict with each other. I decline to arbitrate their relative validity.
What inspired the story?
Audition, a Japanese horror movie by Takashi Miike; Tales of Zambia, a set of nonfiction essays by Dick Hobson; No Country for Old Men, a novel by the American writer Cormac McCarthy; “Meeting with Enrique Lihn,” a story by the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolaño; a dream I had when I was seventeen; and a conversation I had when I was twenty seven.
The narrative in The Sack varies. The story begins with the old man narrating his dream to J. using the present tense. Then it shifts to the third person narrative in past tense. Then back to the first person, with the old man speaking to himself (or Naila’s picture on the wall). Every time the old man is alone and speaks of his dream, he uses the simple present tense in the first person voice. But in addressing J. or the ‘isabi’ boy, the voice becomes omniscience. Why have you written such way?
If I had more to say about it, I wouldn’t have written the story as I did.
So then writers should first, write as they want to? Are there any rules one must keep in mind while writing?
There are no universal rules when it comes to writing.
The dream, like the story’s plot, isn’t chronological. One cannot exactly say, ‘this is the beginning, the middle and the end’. In the first dream, there is a sack being dragged. The second dream reveals the man inside. But how did he get in? The third dream goes back to what ought to have been first, someone ‘tugging the mouth of the sack up over my thighs’ and on and on. Was this a conscious effort? Did you not worry that you may get your readers lost at some point?
The dreamer says the chronology of the dreams moves “back” and “backwards.” Careful readers would note that, but to lose readers—or make them feel lost—can sometimes be an aim of the writer.
I would like to think that “sack” in the story is symbolic?
But even a symbol, by definition, crystallizes many meanings.
Aside fiction, you have written a book of literary criticism; Seven Modes of Uncertainty. How do you manage to be both a writer, especially of fiction, and a critic? With the strictness it demands, I would like to think not many critics can write fiction so freely.
I am privileged to be neither wife nor mother. In other words, my time can be devoted entirely to my vocation.
It is safe to say then that being a critic does not exactly affect how one writes; fiction especially?
To quote Toni Morrison: “I know it seems like a lot, but I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.”
And how do you combine lecturing with writing?
I manage my time very carefully.
In what ways has teaching affected your writing?
It has required that I learn to manage my time very carefully. I have also had occasion to read and revisit incredible works of literature in order to teach them, and the best way to improve as a writer is to read more.
Back to Caine Prize. Are there any demerits of the prize you may want to talk about?
My act of dividing the award money between the shortlisted writers constitutes a comment on the current structure of the prize.
Your act of sharing the prize money with other shortlisted writers has birthed ‘Literature is not a competitive sport’. Could you please expatiate on that?
Literary prizes are a key mechanism in the twenty-first century machine of artistic patronage. But I think that they can be structured differently. For example, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award I received in 2011 was given to six women; we each received the same honor and the same amount of money.
But doesn’t your applying twice to the Caine Prize make it seem quite competitive already? What then were your motives, at the respective times, for applying for the prize?
I did not apply to the Caine Prize. To quote the Caine Prize rules, “There is no application form. Submissions should be made by publishers.”
And as a winner of a prestigious literary prize, I would like to know what in your opinion, makes a good story.
Good stories, like good people and good questions, come in a variety of forms. The only thing that characterizes every good story I’ve read is that I wanted to read it to the end, and sometimes, again.
Since many people consider writing depressing, it poses to be more so for those who are struggling to find their feet in the field. What words can you say to young writers who wallow for lack of validation?
Great writing neither requires nor seeks validation. Read. Then read more. And write.
Thank you, Namwali Serpell.