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

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
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.

"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."

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.