Nana Nkweti cleaves open worlds shaped by Cameroonian heritage and American individuality, deftly revealing complex cultural exchanges in these immersive, genre-bending short stories.
Nana Nkweti is a maximalist writer, a ventriloquist of many voices with a keen sense of history fused into the now. In Walking on Cowrie Shells, she has created an exuberant, insightful short story collection that is hybrid in its cultural standpoint and delightfully genre-bending too. In ten stories and less than two hundred pages, Nkweti cleaves open an immersive world of hyphenated Americans: caught between heritage belief systems bound with loyalty to the older generation, and the compulsion to forge unfettered, individual identities, particularly for young women. Her protagonists are ‘Camerican’ – that is, both Cameroonian and American. They are shaped by a life if not always directly lived in Cameroon, then profoundly influenced by this homeland as well as a sharp awareness of its too often negative perception by outsiders. In one characteristically confrontational and economic exchange: ‘I looked at him and saw plenty: fattened calves, amber waves of grain. He looked at me and saw exotica: spears, teats – everything jutting.’ They are also protagonists filtered through a cultural diet from everyone and no-one’s-land, shot through with the shortcut language of social media, bi or trilingual speech habits, commercial slogans, and a proliferation of genres from literary to graphic fiction, from true crime reportage to zombie apocalypse. The result is a heady yet beautifully crafted cocktail that deserves to be read and re-read.
In the opening story, ‘It Takes a Village’, a suburban family variously known as ‘the slick Salikis’ and ‘the poor, barren Salikis’, adopt a Cameroonian child, arranged by a disconcerting matron figure demanding to be known as Aunty Gladys. The portrait of suburban life as an outwardly gratifying but inwardly tense game of one-upmanship, all digitally filtered and evidenced as the times require (‘snapshots on IG; thousands of page views for Bringing up Baby/Bebe/Mtoto/Bimbo, our interracial, multicultural child-rearing blog’) is witty and uncomfortably truthful. Yet the story goes further, executing a mirroring trick. The first part of the story tells of the Salikis’ hard-won fulfilment in becoming parents, despite secretly maxing out financially and – it turns out – being frauded in more ways than one. The second part is claimed by the adoptee herself, cut loose and empowered. The story shines a light on the contradictions of suburbia and does not hesitate to throw this open to a global perspective, showing also the child who was not adopted, the one with the ‘slight defect, no worse than any other kids we knew… with their bend-bend legs and rocking-pony gaits – all thanks to poorly dosed polio vaccinations at the free government clinic.’ Shifting perspectives and characters who upturn expectations have the reader gaze in one direction, then in another, and back again, revealing complex lines of cultural exchange in deft strokes.
What makes Nkweti’s collection a joy should be apparent from this, but what also makes it such an admirable achievement, technically and for sheer creativity, is that she always remains humble to her characters. She lets her characters do the talking, contradicting one another, changing their minds and dramatizing the tensions between generations, genders and cultures. Nkweti’s feel for alliteration, sound patterns, and intruding, overlapping voices contribute to a style that serves these multi-faceted purposes so well, to both sensual and intellectual satisfaction.
In ‘Rain Check at Momo Con’, Astrid Atangana and her friends, ‘the self-styled Nyanga Girlz’, attend a Comic Con convention where they, along with ‘mild-mannered accountants’, can shed ‘their daytime skins’ and ‘for a brief time’ all be ’heroes.’ While Astrid plunges into the hyperreal world of costume and crowded booths hemmed in by panels depicting epic swordplay, she ranges over scenes from her family life, particularly the threat of ‘The Photo’, a cliched image of poverty her mother uses to threaten her into achieving the immigrant goals of hard work and high attainment, telling her the girl in the donation bin T-shirt is her cousin Adama in Cameroon. This threat is thrown into a thought-provoking mind map in the story, where white parents reference ‘children starving in Africa’ to make their children eat their brussels sprouts, and Astrid finds this cousin Adama on Instagram leading a heavily followed dream life. But Astrid has already internalised the fact that, unlike for her white classmates, there is no ‘mystery malnourished African child behind door number two,’ but rather an experience of many realities colliding in a way she must work out for herself how to navigate – possibly, as the story envisions (in dynamic prose as well as graphic illustration), in the form of ‘an avenger, fifty foot tall, fearless, katana in hand.’ Or, from the final story, ‘Kinks’: ‘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 servant’s entrance, lightly, quietly, like she was walking on cowrie shells.’
In these rich and detailed portraits of marriage, family, and friendship in many forms, Nkweti’s contrasts and counterpoints are fruitful by their abrasiveness, but tenderness also seeps through the gaps. Her exploration of love yields the idea that it is very often a matter of hard work and imagination, a process of flawed assimilations and compromise. In ‘The Statistician’s Wife’, a widower from an inter-racial marriage is questioned by homicide detectives when she is found dead, the story punctuated by fragments of data depicting domestic murders. The difficulty of anyone defining or defending themselves in a world of partial and racialised evidence is evoked, and Nkweti skilfully navigates open-ended conclusions around an uneasy awareness that statistics tell everything but the truth. As in the whole collection, Nana Nkweti celebrates the micro and macrocosmic powers of the short story form in vividly unforgettable ways.
Feature image: Nana Nkweti by Shea Sadulski, courtesy of Indigo Press.