Aug 2, 2010

Muzungu by Namwali Serpell - A Review

I’ve been catching up on my reading, and in doing so finally read Namwali Serpell’s short story, ‘Muzungu’. Namwali is a Zambian writer currently based in the U.S. 'Muzungu' was short listed for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. The prize was awarded to Olufemi Terry (Sierra Leone) for ‘Stickfighting Days’ but Namwali’s entry was a worthy contender.

The story centres around, Isa, the young daughter of expatriates living in Lusaka. Her parents are social butterflies caught up in the world of entertaining and being entertained; her father, the Colonel, drinks himself into daily oblivion.

Isa as an only child is often left alone with only her dolls to keep her company. As the story unfolds over the course of a day, Isa ventures into the servants’ quarters and is confronted by a different set of circumstances to which she is unaccustomed. Here she is an outsider, and the ‘blacks’ do not treat her differentially as she is used. It dawns on her that she is different, and they are also different.

Personally, I believe the strength of the writing saves the story from just being yet another story of racial awareness. While the story itself is not necessarily unique, it does make the reader think back to our own childhood experiences of racial identity. At what point did I become aware that were distinct nuances in skin colour (race)? Was it a traumatic event or just a small blip on the radar that otherwise went unnoticed?

Serpell has a canny ability to draw the reader in, and paint a vivid picture of the scenes she is describing. Here’s an example:
“Only then did Isa notice the baby sitting on the young woman’s lap. In fact—she moved closer—the child was sucking on the woman’s breast. Isa knew about breastfeeding but she’d never seen it before. She couldn’t tell whether the baby was a boy or a girl; it had short hair and was naked except for a cloth diaper. She wanted to turn away but she couldn’t stop looking at the way the child’s lips moved and the way the breast hung, oblong and pleated like a rotten pawpaw”.
Now before you roll your eyes after reading the above excerpt, keep in mind that the story is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old and therefore her observations would be appropriate for someone that age.

In summary, I could take or leave the story in and of itself, but I enjoyed Serpell’s fluid writing and look forward to reading more from her. I’ll be interested in hearing other opinions. If you’ve read it, what did you think of the story and/or the writing?

You can find ‘Muzungu’ in The Best American Short Stories 2009 edition, and in the 2010 Caine Prize collection. Both can be purchased on, and other bookstores.


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