Namwali Serpell

Spring 2012

Namwali Serpell is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly research in the field of contemporary fiction concerns the relationship between reading, uncertainty, and ethics. Her essays have appeared in CritiqueNarrativeThe Believer, and in an essay collection called On the Turn: The Ethics of Fiction in Contemporary Narrative in English. She is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, where she is completing final revisions to a scholarly monograph called Seven Modes of Uncertainty.

Her fiction has been published in CallalooTin HouseThe Best American Short Stories 2009, and The Caine Prize Anthology. Her short story, “Muzungu,” was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Literature and in 2011, she was selected to be one of six recipients of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for women writers on the basis of excerpts from two novels in progress.
The 2012 Robert O. Collins Award will allow her to combine her scholarly and creative endeavors. She is currently writing a novel, tentatively entitled Zombia, which is set in Lusaka, Zambia. The novel, a multi-generational epic, spans three families and the events of the last century. To ground the novel in historical detail and cultural practices, Serpell will conduct research at the intersection of local mythology and the official record in Zambian history. Topics of interest for the novel include disparate accounts of David Livingstone’s travels, the Lumpa Church Revolt of the 1960s, and the syncretic Nyau belief system practiced by the Chichewa people. This research will also entail exploring the extensive collection of Zambian market fiction at the Jahn Library for African Literatures at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Serpell will then travel to Lusaka for a spell in order to conduct interviews; delve into the archives at the Institute for African Studies; and study a Bantu language, Chinyanja, at the University of Zambia. She hopes to weave the historical and cultural data she garners through this research into a novel that evokes the singular mark that Zambia has made on Africa’s political, social, and literary history.