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“I Don’t Think Writing is a Competitive Sport” – Namwali Serpell on Why She is Sharing Her 2015 Caine Prize Money

Lusaka Punk and Other StoriesAfrica39Who is Namwali Serpell, and what makes her 2015 Caine Prize-winning short story “The Sack” so compelling?

At the announcement, Zoë Wicomb, chair of the judging panel for this year’s prize, said of the story which was first published in Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, and now included in Lusaka Punk and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015:

“From a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading. Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects. ‘The Sack’ is a truly luminous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.”

Aaron Bady, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas, teaching African literature, wrote an analysis of Serpell’s award-winning story for The New Inquiry. He shares his experience in discussing it as part of his “Global Contemporary Short Story” class and explains how he thinks we should read “The Sack”, which could be seen as “a story that is susceptible to being read as an allegory of reading, if one is so inclined to read it that way”.

Read his article:

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.

Serpell did an extraordinary thing when she accepted the award: She announced that she will be sharing her prize money with the other shortlistees. CNN’s Sophie Eastaugh spoke to her afterwards, asking why she chose to do this.

Eastaugh’s report on the interview is presented as a summary of five things you need to know about the Caine Prize winner – the first Zambian to take home this title. These are:

1. She’s sharing her prize money
2. She has been shortlisted for the Caine prize before
3. Born in Lusaka, she has lived in the US over half her life
4. She’s a dedicated bookworm
5. She’s a feminist

Read the article to find out more about these five factoids and see why Serpell is sharing the £10 000 with Segun Afolabi, Elnathan John, FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga:

1. She’s sharing her prize money

In accepting the award on Monday at Oxford University’s Bodleian library, Serpell announced that she will be sharing her £10,000 ($15,400) prize money with the four other shortlisted writers.

“It felt like a way to make a statement about the way that these literary prizes work,” she told CNN. “They don’t always support writers, but rather use them to drum up some excitement. I don’t think writing is a competitive sport.”

Her entry was chosen over stories by two Nigerians and two South Africans; Nigerian writer and former Caine prize winner Segun Afolabi’s “The Folded Leaf,” Elnathan John’s story “Flying,” South African FT Kola’s “A Party for the Colonel” and Masande Ntshanga’s “Space.”

“I tremendously respect and admire the writing of the other candidates, so it was very easy to do,” she explained. “I don’t think writers like to compete with each other for money.”

Serpell’s win did not come as a surprise for Africa in Words writer Lilly Kroll. Read her article to see why:

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.

Read Serpell’s winning story, “The Slack”:

There’s a sack.
A sack?
A sack.
Hmm. A sack. Big?
Yes. Grey. Like old kwacha. Marks on the outside. No. Shadows.
That’s how I know it is moving.
Something is moving inside it?
The whole sack is moving. Down a dirt road with a ditch on the
side, with grass and yellow fl owers. There are trees above.
Is it dark?
Yes, but light is coming. It is morning. There are some small birds
talking, moving. The sack is dragging on the ground. There is a man
pulling it behind him.
Who is this man?
I can’t see his face. He is tallish. His shirt has stains on the back. No
socks. Businessman shoes. His hands are wet.
Does he see you?
I don’t know. I’m tired now. Close the curtains.
Yes, bwana.

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Image courtesy of The Guardian


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