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Namwali-Serpell

Namwali Serpell

In January, on Facebook, 2015 Caine Prize-winner Namwali Serpell announced a new short story titled “Triptych: Texas Pool Party.” Published in Triple Canopy, it narrates the 2015 McKinney, Texas pool party incident in which a police man tackles and restrains a 15-year-old black girl. What draws us to this story is how, while being political fiction at its most engaging, it remains a compendium of purely lyrical prose whose stylistic beauty complements its subject in an interesting way.

It is divided into three parts: “Summertime,” told by the tackled girl; “Perseus,” told by the tackling police officer; and “What Was Said,” a collection of on-the-spot reactions from condemning observers and defensive police officers and everyone else.

It is only natural to present the tackled girl’s point of view first as she is the emotional center of the incident—the real 2015 story as well as this fictionalized 2017 version. She is chatty, reeling off observations in the way that a seemingly extroverted 15-year-old girl would at a pool.

The heat rises up, sings against the skin. Clothes fall off, swimsuits blossoming from beneath, in colors as neon and elaborate as the sunset to come. We dance and we dance. All of this beauty, all of this rolling, dipping brown flesh, like desert dunes in the shadow or desert dunes in the sun.

A 15-year-old black child aware of the negotiability of her presence.

Frowning white ladies by the pool shaking their heads at us. Country-ass dudes with bellies hanging over their shorts, with that look in their eye. We catch snatches of words from their conversations: allowed, refusing, too many, drugs, uncomfortable.

But it is in deciding to also present the officer’s perspective, in humanizing him, that Serpell allows the incident to take full shape, its implications starker. And yet it is his also-chatty perspective that has the finest prose and imagery, a lyricality imbued him to temper, but not obscure, his own brutality.

I am no thug, I am no pig. I am no unkempt hick or prick. I am Lord of the Law.

Just as an eagle spies in an empty field a snake sunning itself and strikes from the rear, securing with eager claws the writhing scaly neck lest the snake turn with its deadly fangs—thus do I, swooping headlong through the void, attack her from behind.

And this lyricality is political. In granting him the voice he denies the girl, his thought processes are fleshed out, the absence of moral contradictions in him becoming stranger and stranger despite his observations, revealing the depth to which he has taken the places of people in the world around him for granted.

Her snakes of hair, braided like whips, fling in my face. I trap them, a web beneath my palm. Her tender torso is wrapped in thin smooth cloth the color of raw sun, her slender arms are mere vines. I root her face. Down. Into the ground. I am on my knees now. I am kneeling on her.

It is important to note the allusions and imagery. The classical references employed serve to contrast them even more: the girl and other blacks there are “many-eyed Argus, many-headed Medusa” while the officer is “Prometheus on his rock, Sisyphus on his hill.”

We see also how his choice of comparisons contrast with his observations. He thinks of her “snakes of hair” after previously comparing himself to an eagle and she to a snake–he something flying and overseeing, she something crawling and easily defeated. All the while, he ignores his observations of her “tender torso” and “slender arms” which are “mere vines.” In his head, we pick out passive conflict. He knows she is a child but still sees her as dangerous to himself, a trained security veteran. In a world without racial profiling, it should be incompatible antithesis, but in Texas, in southern USA, in a country led by a black man, it seemed normal to him, this aversion of middle-aged whiteness to adolescent blackness, normal enough to describe her cries thus: “The girl is calling, like a child, for her mother.”

“Like a child” when she clearly is one. From this moment, though, his conflict surfaces.

I can still feel, under my other knee, the bolts of vertebrae along her spine, which is like a chain that runs down her body and branches at her young pelvis. Oh, fragile bones! Fragile, quaking bones! Bones, nerves, veins: all these splitted lines inside her body, linking her yet open mouth to the rounded heels of her yet naked feet. She seems small, but I know that she is legion.

He has a moment of realization.

As I kneel there upon her, a strange serenity descends. The burn of my bravery swirls in my veins, an intoxicating drowse. The beast approaches and recedes in a blur. Time slows. Ticking minutes dilate to vastest centuries. Like the chill condensation that slithers from the roof of a cave, gathering at the very tip of a stalactite that hovers above a pool of water as still as glass—thus does time draw at once into a point and a swell. Thus does this moment brim still over a stillness. A breath of wind and the drop will drop, dispel the spell, and send out the circles of consequence.

But Serpell grants him a bit of reprieve towards the end of his section, allows him the opportunity to reconsider everything.

Gut churning, I will watch the YouTube of this story over and over, watch myself roll like a boulder over a girl (fifteen years old, fifteen years old), watch myself pinion her. I will hear her voice calling mother. And one day, as I sit there clicking refresh, I will realize, sudden as a bolt, that the condition of this story is an invisible eye. A white kid standing behind me, holding his phone up, tracking me, his little screen framing this fray.

This perspective given the police officer becomes clearer in the last section during the to-and-fro between his colleagues and onlookers. It underlines the importance of voice, who has it, when they get to use it.

Stop talking. You’re going to jail if you don’t knock it off. There are three of us out here, and [inaudible] of you.

Reading Serpell–her 2010 Caine Prize-shortlisted “Muzungu” and 2015’s winning “The Sack”–has always been like counting crisp dollar notes. But here, we have a story whose prose is beautiful partly because its subject is ugly.

 

Read “Triptych: Texas Pool Party” in Triple Canopy.

 

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Post image via Imagenation

Facebook link image via NBC news

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, an academic, and Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review ("Mulumba," 2016), Transition ("A Tenderer Blessing," 2015), and in an anthology of the Gerald Kraak Award for which he was shortlisted ("You Sing of a Longing," 2017). His work has further been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2016 and a Pushcart Prize in 2015. He attended the 2018 Miles Morland Foundation Creative Writing Workshop. He is the curator of the ART NAIJA SERIES, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, ENTER NAIJA: THE BOOK OF PLACES (October, 2016), focuses on cities in Nigeria. The second, WORK NAIJA: THE BOOK OF VOCATIONS (June, 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. He studied History and Literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is currently completing a postgraduate programme in African Studies and Pop Culture, and teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, and is working on a novel. He is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. When bored, he just Googles Rihanna.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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