Respected Zambian Lecturer Sishuwa Sishuwa has taken issue with US-based Zambian writer Namwali Serpell after she announced that she will be promoting her acclaimed novel, The Old Drift at a public lecture at the Chinese Confucius Institute in Lusaka.
In June, Ms. Serpell is due to travel to her home country Zambia on a brief promotional tour of her novel which is set in Zambia.
She is expected to give public lecture at the Chinese Confucius Institute, a building at the University of Zambia Great East Road campus and she will also give another talk to students at the American International School of Lusaka.
But Dr Sishuwa who teaches at the University of Zambia took to Twitter to call out Ms. Serpell and described her decision to host the book event a Chinese run institute as bizarre.
“How bizarre for someone of Namwali’s conscientiousness. Are there no suitable venues in Zambia owned and operated by Zambians that could host her public lecture? Was UNZA’s NELT or Vet Lecture Theatre fully booked? And how about first going to, say, Matero Girls Secondary School?” asked Dr Sishuwa.
He twitted, “The Confucius Institute is indeed located at UNZA, but there is an important difference between its physical location and its ownership and symbolism, one that l imagine is never lost on you. You are going to Zambia to launch a book, set in Zambia, in a Chinese-owned building?”
Dr Sishuwa stated that there are many venues that are central and within a stone throw of the Chinese venue that could have hosted the public lecture.
“Do you think a Chinese or American major literary event in those countries would be held at a Zambian school or venue?”
But Ms. Serpell immediately retorted defending her decision to pick her choice of venues.
“Yup, I live in America. But this particular notion–that an adult novel with sex and violence and political ideas way beyond the ken of young minds ought to be used for “stimulating” them–is universal. African literature, especially, must be “inspirational” rather than art. The Confucius Institute is at UNZA, and the event is being organized by the Lusaka Book Club. We tried to hold it at the Lusaka National Museum but they charged too much for the venue. I insisted the events be free. The timing is only because Thursday is the last day of school.”
She went ahead to challenge Dr Sishuwa and all those that had issues with the venues picked to go ahead and organize alternative venues.
“If you can sponsor/organize an event elsewhere on campus—or a venue that would suit your symbolism better—and that remains accessible, central, and free to the public, go right ahead,” she challenged.
“And what I’m saying to you is that symbolism costs money, effort, and organizational time. I’ve explained how we ended up here. It was not our first choice and it was not by virtue of making a political choice. Would you prefer I do no events at all or charge people to attend?”
She added, “I would also note that I myself did not make any specific choices. And the decision to call out the author of a book on Twitter based on your political hobbyhorse shows a breathtaking lack of awareness about how literary events actually get organized and who sponsors them.”
“And I’ll be completely honest here–the change from the museum to Confucius Center happened without my knowledge, but I said it was fine because I understood it to be part of UNZA. Doing an event on campus means a lot to me. If there are other UNZA venues, PLEASE ORGANIZE!”
She wrote, “Frankly, doing events at home at all is more important to me than venue. The “first” stop is by virtue of timing. I’m flying from a translation center in Canada, arriving on Weds and going directly to AISL to do an event. School closes Thurs. (I should have said no?).”
But Dr Sishuwa responded, “Namwali. Perhaps on a different issue, where you retain the critical distance, you would have seen the point: the breathtaking lack of critical thought in choosing the venue of your public lecture and your first major audience in Zambia. In any case, best wishes.”
“Namwali, if the selection of venue had mattered to you, you would have had the last word in the same manner that you insisted that it becomes a free event. You didn’t organise, but you were not indifferent to the Chinese venue, or to the American venue being your first main stop.”
But the Lusaka Book Club, the event organisers have weighed in the debate and defended the choice of venues.
“Firstly, having hosted a public discussion (not a lecture) for Namwali in 2015, after she won the Caine Prize, she reached out to us in January informing us that she would be coming to Zambia in June and asking if we would be willing to organise a similar event for The Old Drift. She mentioned that the AISL had written to her asking if she could speak to some of their senior students and that the school was open to parents and the general public also attending. We felt a more central location with ample parking and a bus stop would be easier,” says the Lusaka Book Club.
“Our proposed venue was the Lusaka National Museum. Namwali’s concern was that the event be free. The Club’s concern was to successfully host the event and hopefully raise some money for charity. Here on Twitter, we came across a great organisation to support: NaTubelenge.”
“Thus, members agreed to prioritise a cheaper venue in order to leave more money for fundraising. Several members had attended events at the Confucius Institute at the University of Zambia and suggested it as an alternative cheaper venue. This seemed fortuitous. We felt that symbolically, the University was accessible and not elitist. The Confucius Institute seemed ideal because we only had to call the centre manager and book. The chairs could also be arranged the way we wanted. Unfortunately, this was as deep as the symbolism went.”
“So the other lecture theatres were never a consideration because we didn’t want to have to start writing to Deans and looking up student timetables etc. Again, the deeper meaning never crossed anyone’s mind. It was just a book discussion at UNZA. That oversight is on US,” the Lusaka Book Club admitted.
“We considered an event for younger readers hosted at Kamwala High School, but anyone who has read Namwali’s writing knows that she writes for adults (The Old Drift is not for your pre-teen son or daughter). AISL event is for A-Level/Diploma students.”
The Lusaka Club has since apologized to those that may have been offended by the choice of venue.
“To all those offended by the enthusiasm of the literature department of a private International school for using their initiative in reaching out to a Zambian author, inviting her to visit their school and said author for accepting the invitation. Nevertheless, we’re sorry for taking the Confucius Institute at UNZA as just another Chinese constructed facility like New Government Complex, Levy Mwanawasa Hospital or NIPA Conference Centre. Also sorry for not wanting to disrupt classes by not picking a lecture theatre.”