Namwali Serpell wins prize for promising women writers

UC Berkeley’s Namwali Serpell, an assistant professor of English and a novelist, is one of the winners of the 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, which is given annually to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers.

The awards of $25,000 each will be presented to recipients on Sept. 22 in New York City.

Namwali Serpell

Serpell’s work has appeared in the journal Callaloo, as well as the Bidoun and The Believer magazines. Her first published story, “Muzungu,” was selected by Alice Sebold for inclusion in “The Best American Short Stories 2009” and was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Serpell has indicated that she will use her Rona Jaffe Award next year to take a break from teaching  to concentrate on her writing. Serpell said she will travel to Zambia, where she was born and lived until her family moved to the United States in 1989, to conduct essential research for her novel in progress, “Breaking.” She described the book as an epic set over the course of the last century about three Zambian families — black, white, brown — caught in a cycle of desire and retribution.

“I envision a sprawling, grandiose novel that captures my home country while speaking to the larger historical shifts that gave us a world of in-betweeners,” Serpell said.

She has almost completed her first novel, “Furrow,” which begins with a 12-year-old girl who loses her younger brother. As an adult, the girl meets a man who resembles him, but this seeming reunion unfolds deceit and delusion as it becomes known that he is a con man, torn between the scam, his attraction to the woman, and their shared sense of familiarity.

Celebrated novelist Rona Jaffe (1931-2005) established The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program in 1995. It is the only national literary awards program of its kind dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively.

Since the program began, the foundation has awarded more than $1 million to emergent women writers, including several who have gone on to critical acclaim, such as Elif Batuman, Eula Biss, Judy Budnitz, Lan Samantha Chang, Rebecca Curtis, Rivka Galchen, Kathleen Graber, Frances Hwang, Aryn Kyle, ZZ Packer, Tracy K. Smith, Mary Szybist, and Julia Whitty.