Zambian writer Namwali Serpell was recently announced as the winner of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. Here, we chat to her about writing and sharing her prize:
Congratulations on winning the Caine Prize, how do you feel about it?
Winning has given momentum to my own writing career. I have been working on a novel, which I am calling for now, The Old Drift, and have been travelling doing research in England, India, Italy and Zambia. I was actually in India when I found out about the nomination. The Sack [her Caine prize winning story] is the last chapter of the novel; it just felt like everything was coming together and that fate was smiling upon me.
Are you an African writer who writes African Literature? Are titles important to you?
I am a Zambian writer. I am a black writer. I am a female writer. Those things are things that feed into my work; they are not things I carry as a flag. I am interested in Zambia because it is where I am from, but I’m also interested in it because of the combination of random things that to me are very Zambian. When I go home and explore all these interesting intersections of culture and of class and of people, I’ll often find a word that interests me. For example, movious is a Zinglish (Zambian English) word that sort of means nomadic. And it describes me perfectly. Or I’ll find myself drawn to a concept, say a religion like Nyau, the animistic religion practiced by the Chewa people, where you can combine artefacts of Christianity, Kung-Fu cinema, and Zambian local folklore.
Why did you choose to share the Caine Prize money?
A lot of people say competition is inherent to our species; this is how evolution works. But I do not think that is true. To me it felt really strange and the contrast between how I felt about those writers and the competition that was being imposed on us was too much for me. That is why I made that decision. I don’t expect other people to do that. I do not expect this to be a template or some kind of requirement that everyone who wins a prize has to split it. I actually feel like the Prize committee in London and other prize committees can restructure the prize to change the competitive aspect. The reality of it is that all five people on the shortlist could have won the prize. Everyone should be rewarded equally.
Are awards like the Caine Prize important and necessary? Do they validate your work?
I think literary awards play an important role as a kind of modern day patronage system, which gives support to writers. With the awards, personally I am flattered that someone has read my work. What has changed in my desire for external validation has been time, specifically moving from my 20s to my 30s, and having a stronger sense of my own taste and my own internal compass for literary judgement. I now say that I write for myself and that is a natural progression for many women; they just become a bit more confident as they get older.
Any advice to young aspiring writers?
Write as if you are sending a letter to your smartest friend. Someone who understands you and who is intelligent enough to pick up on what you are doing. That way you know your audience and you know whom you want your words to reach. So when some other person steps in and says they don’t like your work, you can say, ‘Well that is not for you. It is for a different kind of reader.’