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Caine Prize Winner: Literature Is Not A Competitive Sport

Namwali Serpell, this year's winner of the Caine Prize. Courtesy of the Caine Prize for African Writing hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Caine Prize for African Writing

Namwali Serpell, this year's winner of the Caine Prize.

Courtesy of the Caine Prize for African Writing

Newly named Caine Prize winner Namwali Serpell says that her "act of mutiny" — as she calls it — was premeditated.

The literary prize, awarded annually to just one African writer for a short story written in English, comes with a financial reward — just over $15,000. The Zambian writer says she'd dreamed up her mutiny days before the Monday ceremony: If she should win, she'd split that sum with her fellow nominees.

"It's such a wonderful group of people, such a cohesive group of writers," she says in an interview with NPR. "And it just felt weird and sad that we were now going to be pitted against each other in some kind of battle royal. I think, for the writers obviously, literature's not a competitive sport."

Serpell, 34, won this year's prize for "The Sack" — a story that's as subtle as it is blunt, claustrophobia and regret cinching up around the reader's ears as the plot shifts and twists in little ways. And while the author might not take home a larger purse than the other shortlisters, she does have something else to show for herself: an effusive citation from the award's lead judge.

Serpell stands beside her fellow shortlisted writers: (left to right) Masande Ntshanga, F.T. Kola, Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi. /Courtesy of the Caine Prize for African Writing hide caption

toggle caption /Courtesy of the Caine Prize for African Writing

Serpell stands beside her fellow shortlisted writers: (left to right) Masande Ntshanga, F.T. Kola, Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi.

/Courtesy of the Caine Prize for African Writing

"It yields fresh meaning with every reading," says panel chairwoman Zoe Wicomb in a statement. "Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects."

"I was a bit shocked," says Serpell, recalling her reaction at the ceremony when she was named the winner. Her family had been following along in Lusaka, Zambia — by the glow of cellphones and candlelight, as it turns out, because there had been a blackout in the area. "I was mostly trying to keep it together long enough to do my acceptance speech."

Serpell left Lusaka when she was still young, leaving the city with her family at age 9. Despite returning for a year in her teens, Serpell has spent much of her life in the U.S. — studying literature at Harvard and Yale, and now teaching the subject at the University of California, Berkeley. Though she lives in California, she has visited Lusaka every year since her family returned in 2002.

The place she comes back to isn't exactly the same as the one she left.

"Gertrude Stein is famous for having said about Oakland, Calif.: 'There's no there there.' But what she's actually referring to is that her childhood home had burned down, and when she went to where it used to be, she said there's no there there," says Serpell.

"Sometimes I feel that way when I go home."

Dirt roads she once tread with friends have been paved, traffic clogs the streets as it never had before, and even on a broader scale, an influx of Chinese immigration and investment has rendered the city radically changed from her childhood.

And yet, at times she's expected to answer for this childhood home she now infrequently visits, or more remarkably, for the literature of an entire continent — and no more so than in weeks like these.

"None of us really like being asked the question, 'Why are you an African writer?' " she says of herself and her fellow shortlisters. "Or 'Are you an African writer?' Or, 'What is Africa and life itself?' But we've been getting these all week."

More On The Caine Prize

The questions, in some ways, are intrinsic to the prize itself. Named for British patron Sir Michael Harris Caine (no, not that Sir Michael Caine) and awarded in Oxford University's Bodleian Library, the Caine Prize has occasionally attracted criticism — even from past winners — alternately for not representing the best of African writing, or for being expected to represent too much. As a prize born on an island, it faces the difficult task of recognizing just one story from an entire continent.

As another nominee for this year's prize, Elnathan John, put the matter in The Guardian last week: "I would prefer not to be a spokesperson at all. Whether for Africa or African writing."

"I think that tension is acknowledged by both the writers shortlisted and the Caine Prize itself. It's also a tension that, I have to admit, is kind of intrinsic to who I am because my father is British of origin," Serpell says. "I think that kind of conflict inside can be a source of criticism, but it can also be a source of productive and interesting clashes."

Though, she says, one step toward resolving some of these difficulties is by simply having more literary prizes on the continent. She lists several collectives and magazines — like South Africa's Chimurenga and Kenya's Kwani? — as proof of a publishing industry that's already thriving from the ground up.

"Having a prize next to the Caine Prize rather than one to displace it, I think, would be the ideal."

For now, though, she's thrilled with the prize — and, by laying down her newly earned winnings, splitting them up and diminishing the duel between writers, she says she's also taking steps toward that change herself.

That and, well, also creating a little insurance plan.

"I keep joking to the other shortlisted writers that if I'm ever unemployed," she laughs, "I will be calling them."

Read an excerpt of "The Sack," the Caine Prize-winning story, below. And read the full thing here.

Excerpt: 'The Sack'

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.

***

J. left the bedroom and went to the kitchen. The wooden door was open but the metal security gate was closed. The sky looked bruised. The insects would be coming soon. They had already begun their electric clicking in the garden. He thought of the man in the bedroom, hating him in that tender way he had cultivated over the years. J. washed the plates from lunch. He swept. A chicken outside made a popping sound. J. sucked his teeth and went to see what was wrong.

The isabi boy was standing outside the security gate. The boy held the bucket handle with both hands, the insides of his elbows splayed taut. His legs were streaked white and grey.

How do you expect me to know you are here if you are quiet? J. asked as he opened the gate. The boy shrugged, a smile dancing upwards and then receding into the settled indifference of his face. J. told the boy to take off his patapatas and reached for the bucket. Groaning with its weight, J. heaved the unwieldy thing into the sink. He could just make out the shape of the bream, flush against the inside of the bucket, its fin protruding. J. felt the water shift as the fish turned uneasily.

A big one today, eh? J. turned and smiled.

The boy still stood by the door, his hands clasped in front of him. His legs were reflected in the parquet floor, making him seem taller.

Do you want something to eat?

The boy assented with a diagonal nod.

You should eat the fish you catch. It is the only way to survive, J. said.

***

I told him about the first dream but I did not tell him about the second. In the second dream, I am inside the sack. The cloth of it is pressing right down on my eyes. I turn one way, then the other. All I can see is grey cloth. There is no pain but I can feel the ground against my bones. I am curled up. I hear the sound of the sack, sweeping like a slow broom. I have been paying him long enough – paying down his debt – that he should treat me like a real bwana. He does his duties, yes. But he lacks deference. His politics would not admit this, but I have known this man since we were children. I know what the colour of my skin means to someone of our generation. His eyes have changed. I think he is going to kill me. I think that is what these dreams are telling me. Naila. I cannot remember your hands.

***

They lifted the bream out of the bucket together, the boy's hands holding the tail, J.'s hands gripping the head. The fish swung in and out of the curve of its own body, its gills pumping with mechanical panic. They flipped it on to the wooden board. Its side was a jerking plane of silver, drops of water magnifying its precise scaling. The chicken outside made a serrated sound.

Iwe, hold it down!

The boy placed his hands on either end of the body. J. slid a knife beneath the locking, unlocking gills. Blood eased over their hands. The fish bucked once, twice. Stopped.

I needed your help, J. smiled.

He deboned and gutted the fish. The boy wiped the chopping board, hypnotised by his own hand tracking thin loops of purple and yellow entrails across it. J. fried the fish in cooking oil with salt and onions and tomatoes. He served a piece of it to the boy, setting the plate on the floor. He set a portion of the fish aside for himself and took a plate with the rest of it to the man in the bedroom.

The room was dark but for an orange patch on the wall from the street lamp.

Who is here?

The isabi boy. J. put the plate on the side table and turned on the lamp.

The man began to cough, the phlegm in his chest rattling as he heaved and hacked. J. helped him sit up and rubbed his back until the fit ceased. When it was done, the man was tired.

Why is the fish boy still here? Did you not pay him?

I gave him supper.

As if I have food to spare, the man grunted. He took the plate on to his lap and began eating.

***

In the first dream, the sack is full and it is being dragged. In the second dream, I am inside it. What will the third dream reveal? You laugh. You say that dreams move forwards, not back. That I am imagining things. But that is why you chose me, Naila. Or at least that is what I fancied then. Now I am not so sure. Some days, I think you loved me for my hands. Other days, I think you threw stones to decide.

Excerpted from "The Sack" by Samwali Serpell, published in Africa39. This story can be found in full on the Caine Prize website and in the anthology Lusaka Punk, from New Internationalist.

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