C. Namwali Serpell’s Seven Modes of Uncertainty has roots in her observation that while she found great pleasure in the experience of not knowing what’s really happening in a book, she hated feeling uncertain in her life. Seven Modes is an attempt to draw the uncertainty we recognize in stories into relation with the familiar uncertainty of life, and to consider whether literary uncertainty could perhaps help us understand how to actually live with the anxiety of not knowing.
Serpell argues that literary uncertainty affords diverse modes of experience with aesthetic, affective, and ethical dimensions, and that it emerges over time from a reader’s shifting responses to complex structures of conflicting information. Think of the destabilizing feeling of a shifting point of view, of hearing the same story from a different perspective, or of a scene repeating until what seemed normal grows dream-like, uncanny. She uses readings of books by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Toni Morrison, and Tom McCarthy to show that novels are “structurally suggestive,” affording readings that in turn afford ethical experiences, positive and negative.
Fairly or not, this study of how literature can influence by disrupting what we think we know is itself given a hint of uncertainty when one learns that Serpell herself is actually a decorated writer of fiction. Indeed, this month her short story The Sack won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, awarded annually for outstanding English-language short fiction by an African writer. The Caine, which has been described as the African writing equivalent of the Booker Prize, carries a £10,000 award, a sum Serpell opted to share with fellow shortlistees Segun Afolabi, Elnathan John, FT Kola, and Masande Ntshanga. Serpell described the decision as an act of “mutiny,” and showed the capaciousness of her concern for structure in explaining that choice to Huck magazine:
Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching about mutiny that that word is so present to me. It came from a sense that the prize itself is structured like a competition. Prizes are often competitions, but this particular prize brings the shortlisted writers together for a week before the ceremony. We did panels together. We did readings together. We hung out together. We drank together. We ate together and we talked about our families and our work.
When you spend that much time supporting each other, it felt horrible to be pitted against each other. You could feel the difference in the atmosphere when we would all be talking and hanging out and a stranger would come up and say: “Good luck,” or “Who do you think is going to win?” Suddenly the tenor would change. It’s so uncomfortable to be asked to compete with your friends. Writing to me has never seemed like a competitive sport.
The more I thought about it, I figured the reason the prize is structured this way is because of the money. The money has to go to one person and for people to be interested, we have to drum up this sense of drama. I thought instead of attacking the prize, which is a wonderful thing, I’ll go for the source of its structure, which, for me, seemed to be the money.
In the BBC Africa “Masterclass” video below, produced to mark Serpell’s Caine Prize win, she describes the power and possibility of short stories:
Readers can perhaps look forward to further ethically productive uncertainty at Serpell’s hand: she’s at work on a novel.