Future Selves: On Nana Nkweti’s “Walking on Cowrie Shells”

June 30, 2021   •   By Lee Thomas

Walking on Cowrie Shells

Nana Nkweti

THE PURE ENERGY of the words strikes first, the thrumming, soaring, frenetic pace of Nana Nkweti’s expression. The Cameroonian American writer’s debut story collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells, opens with a biracial American couple in some kind of trouble with their adopted African daughter. “It Takes a Village Some Say” depicts the halcyon early days of the family, with parental-savior illusions still in place. “[T]he poor, poor barren Salikis were finally a family. Gone from duo to trio. And after nine bumpy, oops-riddled months; we were getting the hang of things with the evidence to prove it: snapshots on IG; thousands of page views for Bringing up Baby/Bébé/Mtoto/Bimbo, our interracial, multicultural child-rearing blog.” These dreams begin to crumble when the Salikis’ perfect daughter gets caught taking expensive trinkets from her classmates. Nkweti skewers the parents’ superficiality and naïveté, and when the viewpoint shifts to their daughter, the reader finds out just how deep the delusions run. The teenager addresses the reader with crackling defiance: “Don’t @ me with your outrage. Je suis rien commes des autres. I’m a hustler. You were warned from the start.” Throughout, Nkweti devotes herself to the dual themes of obligation — familial, cultural, financial — and subversion. Her characters constantly try to slip the cage and fly free.

In “Rain Check at MomoCon,” Astrid wanders Comic-Con with her two friends, Mbola and Mimi. The high school senior has escaped her controlling Cameroonian mother for the day. Astrid’s partner in comic-book dreams, Young Yoon, feeds her writing ambitions. But visions of artistic fame chafe against her parent-charted course: an Ivy League engineering degree. “Astrid sometimes caught her mother eyeing her long, wayward limbs in exasperation, as if her growth spurt was somehow a calculated rebellion. Astrid tries to be good, she does, but the harder she tries the harder her mother becomes, still.” A classic tale of old country versus new shifts when Astrid discovers that a photo of a disadvantaged cousin her mother has used to control her for years may not be what it seems. The young aren’t the only ones with secrets.

Nkweti’s characters struggle — struggle to be seen, struggle to break free of old superstitions, struggle to defy a system that insists poison is truth. In “The Devil Is a Liar,” Temperance frets about telling her mother, Mercy Ngassa, her doubts about her unborn child. Religion in this story is a form of control, but also a means of protection — both prison and stronghold for Mercy. When Temperance confesses, Mercy croons, “My faith is in you, my daughter.” For a blissful instant, her mother transcends the dictates of her religion. But the very next moment, Nkweti sweeps that reassurance away when Mercy falls back on a terrifying spiritualism. Don’t be too sure, Nkweti insists; people change, but rarely in the way one hopes.

Characters wrestle against the weight of history as often as familial expectation. In the searing “Schoolyard Cannibal,” told in the second person, the reader slips into the experience of an immigrant child, absorbing a constant, ambient resistance. “African booty scratcher. Betchu live in a tree,” her black classmates taunt. A child’s injured bewilderment radiates from the page: “Later, hurting in places unknown, you ask your family Why do they hate me? and What about me is wrong?” The cumulative weight of these injuries, moral and physical, builds. As a college student, the protagonist erupts with hives, and “a patient school therapist explains that this is how the body purges upset. No matter how long suppressed.” None of these stories end with a miraculous healing. Even where revelations occur, they never erase scars.

Nkweti uses genre tropes to subvert our expectations. She employs the zombie story, the fairy tale, and the confessional in order to invert conventions. Her zombie story, “It Just Kills You Inside,” has a disclaimer below the title: “(Based on True Events).” At this point in the collection, the reader knows better than to believe even that winking assertion. A “fixer” named Connor travels to Africa to investigate reports of the undead walking among the living. He brings a healthy dose of skepticism to the endeavor:

Boogeymen are real in Africa, folks. Both the real ones and the sticky crude imaginings that ooze up from the darkest of hearts. They are gold-epauletted military despots who disappear your loved ones in that bump in the night. Or Big Pharma execs donating untried and untrue drugs to guinea pig villagers for tax write-offs. And then there are the workaday nightmares that complicate waking life, come courtesy of the tribalist, the spiritualist, the herbalist. This is why the first reports were dismissed as so much hinterland superstition, bush whispers in the dark.

The story jumps around in time, adding a jerky chaos on the sentence level, the words shambling toward the reader like so many zombies. As Connor cooks up a cover story to help the government make their troubles go away, he drips with condescension:

This is what we will tell the fair-haired father when he swoops in, cameras flashing, to collect his convalescing child. This is what we will tell you. The only truth you’ll ever know. And you’ll accept it because you once set out sugar cookies for Santa, you trust deeply in the power of your voice and your vote, and expect that when you die, when you are nothing but bone and bliss, there lies a new beginning, a sweet hereafter.

It’s a parody of the zombie-hunter as protector, the bravado of the action hero. As Connor observes, “You have to understand that people wanted to be lied to.” Deftly, brilliantly, Nkweti exposes her characters’ righteous indignation, their furious sense of clearly seeing truths that others refuse to acknowledge.

That huffy indignation — whether of a teenage comic geek or an overbearing auntie — can be downright hilarious in Nkweti’s hands. In “It Takes a Village Some Say,” an exchange between Winsome (as her parents call her) and her prep-school classmates undermines the phenomenon of wokeness:

Amber H, who considered herself “super-woke” for inviting half our school’s POC population to her silk pajama-clad shindig and for that one time she retweeted #blacklivesmatter “protesting” yet another dystopian shooting by public servants sworn to protect and serve, said, “You’re not that kind of ‘Indian,’ Vish.”

“I think it’s pronounced ‘Native American,” I chimed in, between yeasty mouthfuls of ragged bread torn from a pumpernickel bowl brimming with spinach dip.

Winsome toys with her classmates in more ways than one. She has figured out a grift that will set her free in America, the ultimate escape velocity achieved.

The levity of Nkweti’s writing can make even passing descriptions a delight:

She knows the Pentecostals love a good tambourine — a jangly rejoicing; Catholics crave a holy hush, hums of contemplation; while the Southern Baptists are ones for gamboling and holy rolling — lovers of big-voiced belters, soul claps, and organ riffs that settle on the sermons of their high-stepping reverends like a hype-man’s cape across a shoulder blade.

Occasionally the writing veers into the overwrought: “The very definition of buttoned up: this man in navy-blue Brooks Brothers and Presidential pocket square, in a custom-fit Turnbull & Asser of crisp, creaseless white. Too quiet, he was, as if the intricate Eldredge knot of his silk tie were a garrote at his throat.” But the sheer speed of Nkweti’s expression allows for correction in midair, and her keen descriptive eye provides more pleasures than missteps. One example among many: she has Mami Wata contacting selkies and sirens on Facebook. Her inventiveness dazzles.

In the final stanza of her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou writes:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

In Walking on Cowrie Shells, Nkweti subverts the cage at every turn. Yet even her liberated protagonists harbor prison bars of the mind. Connor, the zombie-PR man, muses on what brings the undead back:

I thought about the times when the living was easy, about dying hard — collapsing in the midst of a dead run from your hut, fleeing for your life, hard-scrabble though it was, then it’s all over, all that existence and subsistence. But then it’s not, there’s a second chance, but you are different now, naught but a sleepwalking version of yourself, the you of you yowling — “wake up, wake up” — inside. Then one day you do.

Understanding the ways that others hem them in only sets these characters onto another plane of striving: even the undead must contend with bigots. Nkweti demands that her readers see, then see again.

The final story in the collection, “Kinks,” follows Jennifer Tchandep as she falls in love with a controlling Afrocentrist who makes her begin to question everything about herself.

No matter how many boardroom doors Jennifer walked through, sometimes she felt her steps falter — in the Ghanaian beauty shop, at Awing tribal meetings, she felt like a counterfeit African, felt the unworthiness of the maid’s child tiptoeing through the servants’ entrance lightly, quietly, like she was walking on cowrie shells.

Who has a right to be where? Who is allowed to be herself? Who belongs? Nkweti holds these questions to the light, turning them one way and another, refracting them through doubt and defiance. As Astrid stands toe-to-toe with her quarrelsome friend on the subway platform, her mind goes from fight to pure flight:

But then suddenly there is a lightness. She feels freed and filled with an awareness of her life beyond this moment, a future that is hers to choose, so she hopes. And there’s that tingling again, the itching, sticky glow of it under her skin. She knows the truth of it now. Feels the zip of energy, the same zing up her spine after writing the perfect sentence. A power she has censored all of her days.

One pictures Nana Nkweti herself in the elevated space of creation, uncensored, blissfully free.


Lee Thomas is a fiction writer and critic living in Los Angeles. She recently finished a story collection.