Buzzed Books #94: Nana Nketwi’s Walking on Cowrie Shells

Buzzed Books #94 by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nketwi

As any writer knows, the quality of voice is sometimes elusiveIt is something that you either have and can develop further or do not have until you begin to locate it within yourself. Nana Nkweta’s debut collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells (Graywolf Press), has a voice as pointed and well-aimed as a dart in the center of a bullseye.  While the ten stories in this collection often reflect the immigrant experience or the second-generation American experience, these are not the stories of struggles and assimilation and identity crises that one might expect from the subgenre. Rather, these are stories of characters who know who they are (or are on the verge of knowing) and are not afraid to convey this with force.

At turns fiercely intelligent, caustic, and lyrical, the language of Walking on Cowrie Shells shifts between Cameroonian idioms to American jargon to high-minded pontifications on race and class. Nkweta’s use of voice and characterization is perhaps most finely showcased in the collection’s first story, “It Takes a Village They Say.” The first half of the story is presented through the point of view of Mr. and Mrs. Saliki, who have adopted a young girl from Cameroon and brought them to live with them in suburban New Jersey: “For weeks Our Girl roamed our house merely touching things, eyes saucered, while we followed her hopefully with our own,” the narrators say (“we” and “our” are used to give them a joint identity; husband and wife are comically not individuated here). And, later: “In retrospect, it strikes us as hideous, our bottomless need for validation when we should have striven for her love. Back then, we needed a win, we habitual gold star scholars, six-figure earners, C-suite careerists.”

The setup of “It Takes a Village They Say” is a classic story of manners—a modern-day equivalent of parlors and sitting rooms— until “Our Girl,” Zora, commands the second half of the narrative and cuts through the niceties. Observant, contemptuous, and far cleverer than her conventionally aspirational parents, Zora is a self-described “hustler” who is not afraid to exploit the Salikis and use men for financial gain. Of one male prospect, Zora has this to say: “I looked at him and saw plenty: fattened calves, amber waves of grain. He looked at me and saw exotica… spears, teats… everything jutting.”

While Nkweti has much to show us about the inner lives of Black protagonists, she also dips into surrealism and plays against expectations of genre, inserting a story about a mermaid, a story about zombies, and a would-be whodunit into this collection—each with their own footing in our current cultural landscape. But there are earthier stories, too, and these are where the author’s voice brings her crashing to the forefront of new literary fiction. In “Rain Check at MomoCon,” adolescent Cameroonian girls at a comic book convention unexpectedly find themselves at the height of their powers. In “Schoolyard Cannibal,” the gifted, overachieving young narrator tries to understand her heritage and her place in the world amidst the din of what the world tells her it means to be African.

In “Night Becomes Us,” Zeinab, a restroom attendant at a nightclub, remembers her life in the war-torn homeland, where she survived a suicide bombing. Shattered, displaced, and distrustful of the American Dream, she is still quite capable of self-sufficiency and bold expression. The story ends where many others might begin, suggesting a greater life waiting beyond the page. Similarly, in “The Statitician’s Wife,” the closing line could just as easily be its incipit: “Elliot Coffin, Jr., maintained that he did not kill his wife, but he would be the first to admit that, statistically speaking, he could have.” Whether Coffin killed his Nigerian wife or was even charged with the crime is an almost incidental fact in a story that exposes the horrifying reality of how many Nigerian women are murdered by their spouses… a yearly total that often goes unreported.

Walking on Cowrie Shells closes with “Kinks.” The title alludes to a sexual liaison and the “free and unfettered” hair of Jennifer Tchandep, a young editor having an affair with the esteemed scholar and “Black blogosphere sensation” Kwame B. Johnson. Johnson is quick to dictate how she, as an American Cameroonian woman, should think and feel; he convinces her to endure twelve hours in a hairstylist’s chair to get tightly coiled Senegalese braids, warns her against the trappings of cultural imperialism, and even renames her “Jamila” to replace her less ethnic name. When Jennifer rebels and comes into her own, it is a triumphant and fitting end to a story collection that reverberates with themes of complicity, rebellion, and freedom.

“We are not what we once were but we are getting there,” notes a Cameroonian-American character in an earlier, epistolary story. At their most devastating and effective, Nkweta’s stories are peopled with characters like Jennifer who show us where there is and suggest where we go from here.

Jan Elizabeth Watson is the author of two novels: Asta in the Wings (Tin House Books, 2009) and What Has Become of You (Penguin Random House, 2014). She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was also a Teaching Fellow. Originally from Maine, she now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is at work on a third novel.

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