Inside Fiction: ‘Account’ by Namwali Serpell

by Carey Baraka

Readers of Namwali Serpell’s work are no strangers to her ‘unusual’ and experimental writing style. Her short story, Account, on Enkare Review this week is in the format of a bank statement and the credit card transactions therein, “read slowly and carefully, the way detectives read bank statements,” give us the sad and tragic tale of a young girl.

INTERVIEWER

The entire story, Account, is a bank statement. What was the process of writing this story like?

NAMWALI SERPELL

I was recovering from surgery when I wrote this story. I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed working on the design layout. I wanted it to look exactly like a real bank statement. I was pleased to learn that I succeeded with at least one reader. When I emailed it to my agent, he thought I had been on such strong pain medication that I had deliriously sent him my own bank statement by mistake! 

INTERVIEWER

Did the idea of writing in this style provoke the story or did the story come first then the idea to writing it this way?

NAMWALI SERPELL

The form came first. I am very interested in new technological forms, as in my story “The Book of Faces“; my story, “Zo’ona” in the latest Caine Prize anthology, also revolves around a bank statement and includes emails, automated customer service, SMSs, and Skype. Because I travel so much, monitoring my bank statement is a big part of my life. Whenever I receive an alert from my bank about a purchase made in a new place, I automatically humanize the operation. I imagine a person hunched over a screen somewhere in India or the midwest United States, tracking my purchases, noticing the change in the pattern, and saying “Aha!” as they pick up some red phone. I also check my own statement a lot to make sure I haven’t been blocked or hacked. Every once in a while, I notice purchases I’ve forgotten making. I often laugh at this patent reflection of my emotional life─a pair of shoes after a hard week; a pile of books before a holiday; repeated purchases at the same bar on a Friday night. The combination of that human monitor (a reader) and that legible record of my month (a story) led me to the form. I selected a dramatic plot─  an avenged rape ─ based on an article I had read about the 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The puns came last to keep the reader laughing or at least eyerolling as the story grows dark.

INTERVIEWER

Did you at any point worry that your readers might not ‘get it’ and how did you resist the urge to explain?

NAMWALI SERPELL

Yes, and I still think that readers will find it obscure unless they read slowly and carefully, the way detectives read bank statements. The biggest crux of ambiguity for me was the line item about her co-pay on the rape kit. Spelling it out would have made it easier to understand the story, but I felt almost certain that a hospital would not use the actual word on a bill or a credit card statement. That they charge the victim for a rape kit at all is horrific.

INTERVIEWER

What is the research process like for you and at what point of the writing process should it be done?

NAMWALI SERPELL

The research for this story was conducted entirely in my bed, online. I did it as I wrote and as I revised.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of process in character, story and style which one do you enjoy the most and which one gives you a hard time?

NAMWALI SERPELL

I enjoy them all, but I think characters are the hardest for me. They’re slippery. As much as I want, like Nabokov, to treat them as my “galley slaves,” they don’t easily submit to my will. My twenty-first century Artemischia, for example, was much more interested in hunting than in making art.

INTERVIEWER

Readers generally identify writers by their unique styles, do you worry about experimenting with different writing styles and how your readers will respond to it?

NAMWALI SERPELL

Whenever I am urged to “find my voice,” I respond, a little petulantly, by saying “I am playing with my many voices.” I write for my own pleasure more than to be identified with a brand. And I want each piece to achieve its own shape rather than to be yet another in a series. What I know is that, no matter how wildly I experiment, my oldest readers always note the Namwalian strains of a piece in their comments. I think this is because they are close friends or relatives who know many sides of me. I am multifarious. So is my writing. 

INTERVIEWER

Which books or writers have influenced your style?

NAMWALI SERPELL

Too many to name. Honestly. I am an associate professor with book storage problems.

INTERVIEWER

Random shower thoughts, midnight mulling, conversations- what influences your writing?

NAMWALI SERPELL

All of the above. I often random get thoughts between the hours of midnight and 4am. Conversations with readers and editors are incredibly useful to me. And the shower is a good time for me to synthesize ideas─it is my sorting room.

INTERVIEWER

There are some general habits that writers tend to have. Do you have any peculiar writing habits?

NAMWALI SERPELL

No, I don’t think I do. 

INTERVIEWER

What is the one writing advice that you have received that has remained tried and true to you?

NAMWALI SERPELL

The one I always pass on is “read more.” The one I try to hold myself to is “selectivity of detail,” that is, choose the most evocative image or figure for a passage rather than flooding it with several.

INTERVIEWER

There has been quite the chatter about defining the African story and what African Literature should be. What are your thoughts on this?

NAMWALI SERPELL

I am a writer, I am a Zambian, and Zambia is in Africa. I am, by definition, an African writer. This connects me to other African writers in the past and present; this is a form of solidarity that I cherish. But, as this story attests, not everything I write is “African Literature,” because I am also an immigrant writer, a black writer, a woman writer, an American writer, and so on. The labels don’t bother me because they intersect in productive ways. As Toni Morrison once said, “I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.” The best way to prevent the question of African literature from being so broad as to be meaningless is to keep it as a question. To say “this is African literature” or “this is not” or “it exists” or “it does not exist” is both Sisyphean and silly. To ask oneself and each other the capacious, generative, and ongoing question “what is African literature?” is a much better way to continue all this lovely chatter!

INTERVIEWER

Your debut novel, The Old Drift, is coming out in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

NAMWALI SERPELL

I call The Old Drift “the Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.” It follows three Zambian families, a hodgepodge of different races and cultures, across three generations. It covers two centuries (1850 to 2050) and plays with fantastical and science fictional elements. In broad terms, it is a story about how we ought to live, politically and personally, given the existence of error.

(c) Enkare Review, 2016

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