The Living and the Dead - A Short Story by Namwali Serpe - from New Daughters of Africa - 2019
“I dream of Victoria, said J. The English name was steely in his mouth. My black hand in her white hand. The Queen’s smile, true and full. Her crown like the sun, with jewels and gold. I ask: Will you honor us, Your Majesty? She nods. It will come to you when you accept it. Christianity, Commerce, Civilization”
A few days ago among my Google Card Announcements there was a story about Namwali Serpe
the 2020 Winner of the Arthur C. Clark award for best science fiction book of the year for her debut set in Zambia novel The Old Drift. I was pleased to see she has a story, “The Living and the Dead”, included in New Daughters of Africa, so I decided to start my reading of Namwali Serpe there.
The story begins in Gabon, not far from Lambaréné. A powerful man has just died. He is tended by slaves he has freed. It takes a while to understand that it Albert Schweitzer. It seems his medicine box was missing, some of those in his entourage think the box was stolen in order to cause his death. We learn that Schweitzer is called “Bawana”, a Swahili term for “master”. We learn Schweitzer tried to force Victorian era values on those he freed, not being above striking someone in the face with a whip.
We see how the body of Schweitzer is treated according to the traditional ways of his followers. There is at first a dispute over what to do with his body but the group leader, Abdullah, decides the body should be taken to England for burial. Numerous of his followers accompany the body to England. They are taken around and shown off in fancy affairs. They don’t like the food and miss their homeland.
The story is a very thought provoking work on colonial rule, not just of territory but of minds. I liked this story so much I ordered her debut novel, The Old Drift.
Namwali Serpell was born in Lusaka and lives in New York. Her first novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth, 2019), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book prize for fiction “that confronts racism and explores diversity,” the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, and the L.A. Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 2020. It was short listed for the L.A. Times’ Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction and long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown in 2019. It was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2019 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, NPR, and BuzzFeed.
She is a recipient of a 2020 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. In 2014, she was chosen as one of the Africa 39, a Hay Festival project to identify the most promising African writers under 40. In 2011, she received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Her first published story, “Muzungu,” was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2009 and short listed for the 2010 Caine Prize; she went on to win the 2015 Caine Prize for “The Sack.”
She is a Professor of English at Harvard University. Her first book of literary criticism, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. Her second book of essays, Stranger Faces, is forthcoming with Transit Books in Fall 2020. Her nonfiction book, American Psycho Analysis, is forthcoming with Columbia University Press. From https://www.namwaliserpell.com/