The English Department proudly congratulates Professor Namwali Serpell on her inclusion in this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories. In what follows, Professor Serpell discusses her story, entitled “Muzungu,” as well as the relationship between her creative writing endeavors and her work as a literary critic.
While it was published in 2008 in Callaloo (30.4, Fall 2007) and selected for The Best American Stories 2009 this past spring, I wrote this story four years ago. Back then, I was still a grad student in English at Harvard; I was living in Somerville, MA; I was working on my prospectus. This account speaks to two feelings I have about writing. One, there is always a drag between a thing’s inception and a thing’s reception. That drag can manifest as nostalgia, as loathing, as the plain shock of the self riven by time: I wrote this? I did? When? Fail better, indeed.
Second, writing literature and thinking about literature—as a scholar and as a teacher—have evidently never seemed incongruent to me. They don’t always blend, of course. There is a curious hostility or anxiety between writers and critics about their respective uses and abuses. It cuts both ways. I have heard writers foolishly declaim their bardic naïveté in all things critical, as though to write a novel requires no analysis or even, say, thought. All over the academic world, there are critics who say “I tried once but I was no good” while privately scoffing at any colleague with a modicum of poetic ambition or style. I feel incredibly fortunate to have escaped both versions of idiocy in the wonderfully mixed and protean Berkeley English Department, where writers teach and teachers write: wild beautiful things, in equal measure.
Truth be told, I have oft felt myself divided not just by time but by the exigency of choosing. But every time I am put upon to make a choice between writing fiction and writing about it, I end up doing both. Time seems to stretch to make this possible. My mother believes that I am incapable of doing one without the other so maybe they’re symbiotic. Maybe my critical interests tend toward theories of reading because I’d like to be read. Maybe I write stories in my head on the morning march from home to office because I teach novels that inspire me. I don’t mean inspiration in the sense of kittens or golf on a poster; I mean inspiration in its etymological sense. The words of others blow breath at mine; they lift them like wind and get them fluttering.
It is perhaps more turbulent inside me than all that. I could not fit this quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into my English 45C lecture today but it seems an aptly monstrous image to vivify these mumblings about my dragging—split—inevitable self: “and whatever Hyde had done, he would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll.”