Walking On Cowrie Shells, Nana Nkweti's debut book of short stories, walks an impressive tightrope between laugh-out-loud comedy and breathtaking profundity. A Cameroonian American, Nkweti is a Caine Prize finalist and alumna of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her book covers a range of subjects and geography, all within a brief 180 pages, illustrated with occasional photographs and drawings that amplify the stories.
"It Takes a Village Some Say" opens the collection. The story follows a Cameroonian girl given up by her family for the opportunity to grow up in America. The girl's adoptive family, also Cameroonian, satirizes American upward mobility. They enroll their daughter in every activity, spoiling her in a consumer frenzy that does not end well. "Volume I" of the story is narrated by the adoptive mother — "We did our best by Our Girl," who was "imported from the motherland."
"Volume II" of the story, narrated by "Their Girl," provides the opposite view. "Don't @ me with your outrage," she tells her American parents. "Je suis rien commes des autres. I am a hustler." Nkweti does not translate the French or Cameroonian phrases peppered throughout the collection, adding to the reading adventure.
Narration in the stories alters between first and third person. Some stories are set in America, some in Cameroon. Some travel between the two. Nkweti executes this back and forth between cultures with exquisite skill, remaining just far enough outside each culture to make keen observations, delivering finely observed detail with a wicked sense of humor.
A linguistic pole vaulter, Nkweti bends language like a master. Readers will enjoy her frequent, unique plays on words. "I give good read," says Their Girl in the story above. Or, in a riff on home invasions, "Young and Astrid swapped home evasion stories involving synchronized watches and draconian parental curfews." Or, this jarring description: "The tea is raw and silken, larval."
Nkweti hovers at the edge of pop culture, familiar with its highs and lows, as well as its pervasive impact on contemporary life. "Rain Check at MomoCon" is an engaging story about schoolgirls who attend a Comic-Con convention at New York's Javits Center, "surrounded by freaks and geeks." The girls, from Cameroonian and other immigrant families, adventure out into the world of cultural conflicts. Astrid's brain continues "a weeklong streak of randomly churning out M words, morphing her into some Tourette tic-ish freak." Mimi has a voice that speaks "of razor blades under the tongue." She radiates "this rude-gal aggro energy that Astrid had all too often taken the brunt of."
No one escapes ridicule. Mimi lives in East Orange, to be contrasted with the "bizzarro West Orange, where her asylum-seeker parents braid hair, tend other people's lawns, and receive ill-considered hand-me-downs and hand-outs from their West Orange kin." In this story, as in others, Nkweti dives into the clash between Black Americans and Black immigrants. Astrid and Mimi's friend Mbola attends a "crowded high school with metal detectors and girls named after luxury cars and liqueurs like Alizé and Lexus."
Rich portrayals of Cameroonian elders, particularly women who have an extraordinary gift of the gab, thread through this collection. Nkweti immerses readers in the smells and tastes of Cameroonian cuisine and the sound of local patois, women clucking their tongues and trying — often fruitlessly — to enforce moral codes on the girls in their care.
"It Just Kills You Inside," a story set in Cameroon, begins "Boogeymen are real in Africa." Africa is "the land of juju, obeah, and kamuti." This story takes on the brutal impacts of white colonialism in Africa, and the narrator is a (presumably white) crisis management operator, hired when a "Burst oil pipeline wrecked the endangered ecosystem of some tree hugger's wet dreams or after your company's homicidal aspirin spree killed dozens, tamper-proof seals about as secure as a buck-toothed virgin on prom night."
The narrator goes through multiple wives, ending with a local woman, Mambe, a Bakweri conjurer and the mother of his only child, Chelsea. Mambe saves the narrator's life, and the story complicates from there, part reality and part conjured.
"It Just Kills You Inside" was the one story that I felt struggled to stay within its boundaries. It was well constructed, and like all Nkweti's stories, fiendishly clever, but I couldn't help wondering if this story wanted to grow into a novel.
This is a minor complaint, however, in a collection that is piquant with witticisms and remarkable, innovative prose. WALKING ON COWRIE SHELLS is a terrific read, each story different and varied from the one before. Nkweti has proven herself a bright new star. I, for one, cannot wait to read what she writes next.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.