Within an hour of hearing that she had won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a top honor given to science fiction published in the UK, Namwali Serpell also heard the news that the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor would not be charged for her murder.
“I received these two pieces of news about being a black woman in 2020 and it felt like a kind of whiplash, but it’s a feeling I’ve grown used to,” she told the BBC. “So I’ve been trying to figure out how to acknowledge both the honor that this award grants to my novel and the feeling that the political revolution I’m describing in the novel is yet to come.”
She decided to donate her prize money, £2,020.00, to the Louisville Community Bail Fund, with the goal of helping those who have been detained while protesting Breonna Taylor’s death. In a Twitter thread today, Serpell connected that decision to her resistance against a system that pits writers against one another for cash prizes while failing to compensate so many others for their work. She also acknowledged that she supports paying writers for their work, and she has accepted some prizes that did not release a shortlist.
Read the whole thread—it’s a model in redistributing power as much as it’s an indictment of a system that consolidates that power, and the resources it confers, for only a select few. This isn’t the first time Serpell has redirected her prize money; in 2015, she split her Caine Prize winnings (£10,000) among the shortlisted authors in an “act of mutiny” against what she described as the prize’s “race-horse” approach to writers.
There’s a long history of writers who have donated prize winnings to charitable or activist causes, but this one feels like a necessary beacon for us right now, and I’m going to put it out there: What would happen if literary prizes themselves followed her call to rethink the structures that uphold them? It’s a question she asked, more broadly, on Twitter: “My novel is about a horrific past and a dystopian future. The question never ends: How do we turn despair into revolution?”