106. Muzungu by Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell's Muzungu, her first published story, was shortlisted for the 11th Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010. The story was first published in the African Diaspora journal Callaloo and later selected and published in The Best American Short Stories 2009. I is also one of the stories in the Caine Prize Anthology, A Life in Full and other stories.

Muzungu tells the story of a young precocious girl, Isabella (or Isa), and her relationships with the people and things around her. Isa is the daughter of expatriate parents and, at age nine, has come to understand what being white meant. She is also an intelligent girl who prefers having conversations with adults to children and who thinks Athena is better Aphrodite. She loves fractions too. However, this characteristic was expertly handled so that any hints of Einsteinian traits were avoided. For instance, when she follows Chanda to the servants' quarters and is called muzungu by one servants' relatives, she runs to her father to seek its meaning.

Isa's parents - Sibilla and Colonel Corsale - seems estrange from her. Whereas the father is a drunk; preferring to drench himself in alcohol to holding complete conversations, her mother is either serving and doting the party-visitors or doing another thing. All through the story Isa was almost never seen in their company and the only time he goes to her father, he was in a drunken stupor. Besides, though her parents keep servants at the servants' quarters, she is not allowed to play with the servants' children, not even with Chanda who is closer to her in age. And this makes Isa, an only child, lonely. She is unable to fraternise with the her parents' friends' children who come to the parties his father organises. They seem too childish and cry at the least opportunity.

In addition to her introversion, Isa has 'teenage' doubts about her features and keeps looking in the mirror. She thinks her nose hangs too close to her upper lip and will usually push it up with her fingers. She is also afraid of inheriting her mother's hairiness.
She checked her face for hair (an endless, inevitable paranoia) and with a cruel finger pushed the tip of her nose up. She felt it hung too close to her upper lip.
In effect, just like any other preteen, Isa entertains fears and harbours insecurities. And Namwali did an excellent job in the way she treated them without giving in to stereotypes, which would have been the easy way out.

In addition to this vivid portrayal, devoid of the overly-dialogue that one encounters in stories with children as protagonists, is Namwali's excellent use of language and beautiful narrative. The author's sense of observation is acute - and this is enhanced by her point-of-view narrative style - carrying to the reader the smell, taste, and feel of the story. The reader inevitably feels attached to the narrator seeing whatever it is she is seeing and doing whatever it is she is doing. At a place where Namwali describes the Colonel's drunkenness, she writes
The Colonel liked to drink from the same glass the entire day, always his favorite glass, decorated with the red, white, and green hexagons of a football. As his drunkenness progressed, the glass got misty from being so close to his open mouth, then slimy as his saliva glands loosened, then muddy as dirt and sweat mixed on his hand. At the end of the evening, when Isa was sent to fetch her father's glass, she often found it beneath his chair under a swarm of giddy ants, the football spattered like it had been used for a rainy day match.
Per the title Muzungu - ghost - race and identity is the major theme threading through. For instance, though Ba Simone and her children live on the same compound as Isa and her parents, the contrast between the kind of life both lead is stark: food, dressing and language are dichotomous and diametrically opposing, each family occupying an extreme locus.

However, the focus Namwali's story is on the characters and with detailed descriptions she delivered. It is clear from the dearth of dialogue or its sparing use that Namwali's strength lies in intricate, spicy narrative than in dialogue. She made reading this story a joy to the mind. The choice for the award would have been between Namwali's story and Alex Smith's Soulmates, though none won.
Brief Bio: Namwali Serpell was born and raised in Zambia until she moved with her parents to the United States in 1989. Her first published story Muzungu was selected for 'The Best American Short Stories'. Her recently completed novel Furrow is set in the Bay Area of US. It is the tale of a 12-year old girl who loses her younger brother. As an adult this girl meets a man who looks just like her brother, however this seeming reunion unfolds deceit and delusion. Breaking is a work in progress and looks at three Zambian families - black, white and brown - over the last century. In September 2011, together with six other writers, Serpell was awarded the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards. Namwali Serpell works as an Assistant Professor of English at University of California, Berkeley.

ImageNations: 5.0/6.0

Other Caine Prize Shortlist: The Life of Worm by Ken Barris (2010)


  1. Oh yes, I like the sound of this book! I love it when a child protagonist is clever, but not precocious enough to be annoying. This is a book I bet I would enjoy. Thanks for the very thoughtful and interesting review, Nana!

  2. @Zibilee, thanks for your comment. However, this is not a book. It is short story.

  3. You've finally shared your thoughts on which of the stories should have won. I am yet to read this story though.

  4. Sounds like another interesting story. Am loving your progress through these stories!

  5. @Geosi, What about the winner? You would read my review soon.


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