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Introducing our longlisted authors: Namwali Serpell

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Namwali Serpell

Meet the authors longlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award

Introducing our longlisted authors: Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a recipient of a 2020 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. Her first novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth, 2019) won the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book prize for fiction “that confronts racism and explores diversity” and the LA Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. It was shortlisted for the LA Times’ Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction, longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of the Year, and a book of the year by New York Times critics, The Atlantic, and NPR. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for women writers in 2011 and was selected for the Africa 39, a 2014 Hay Festival project to identify the best African writers under 40. Her first published story, Muzungu, was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2009 and short listed for the 2010 Caine Prize for African writing; she went on to win the 2015 Caine Prize for her story The Sack.

She is longlisted for the story: Take It

In Berkeley, a homeless teenager stumbles across a college party where everyone has cast off their inhibitions – starting with their clothes. Intrigued by its unusualness, he finds himself drawn to an older girl, despite the hostility of her companions. This is an original, tense, funny and poignant story about the opportunities and risks that present themselves when the status quo shifts.

What inspired you to write the story? Is it drawn from personal experience?

Yes, this happened at a naked party I went to as an undergraduate, but on the other side of the US and in the late 1990s. A couple of the other college students at the party thought it would be funny to ask some young black boys who were walking by in the neighbourhood to come in. To my amusement, the kids ended up stealing the clothes, shoes, accessories, etc, that the hosts had made all the guests take off and store in bags. It seemed to me the perfect retribution for an inappropriate invitation. It also captured the race and class tensions I experienced at that town/gown border then, and again ten years later when I was living on the border between Berkeley and Oakland, where I set the story.

How does writing short stories differ from writing full-length fiction, and what do you enjoy about writing in the genre?

This piece was actually written as part of a novel I’m working on, as many of my stories are, so it would be a bit fraudulent for me to claim anything definitive about the difference! I’ll just say that I think with a short story, you can capture something – a mood, an idea, a psychological phenomenon, an event – in one fell swoop. But it also lets you leave threads hanging that a novel will generally tie together or string out. This means the ambiguities in a story can be both sharper and more open; the reader, in fact, might have to do more interpretive work, or at least more pointed interpretive work, about whatever the story wants to capture. You can also be more experimental, even difficult, because you won’t fatigue the reader at length.

How do you write? Longhand or typed? Why does your chosen method work for you?

I type, because I think at the speed I type. I write by longhand slower than I think, so I tend to lose ideas and feelings and images along the way. I’d rather get all of those down first, then delete the unnecessary ones, both as I go, and later on during revisions.

Which short story collection by another author would you recommend?

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories.

What’s your favourite short story of all time? Who would you cast to read it?

I find this sort of question impossible to answer, but given what I’m musing on at the moment, I’d say Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, and I’d cast Brian Tyree Henry.

Who would you cast to read the story you have entered?

Daveed Diggs

What are you reading now?

The Decameron and Middlemarch, both new to me.

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