WALKING ON COWRIE SHELLS by Nana Nkweti (BOOK REVIEW)
“A Mami Wata’s essence is moonlight and desire melded to one. Nala knows this in her marrow, in her fins. Lasirèn, Yemanja, Oxum, Erzulie, Jine-Faro, Santa Marta. Their bloodline flowed through miles of sandy lagoons and tidal estuaries along Africa’s coast. In her homeland, Nala’s clanswomen are worshipped as goddesses till this day, queen of queens reigning on high in a pantheon of miengu, wanton water deities. They are the descendants of Mojili, a spirit-ruler hailing from a time before man, her name so powerful, so revered, it could not be uttered before small children lest they perish.”
Nana Nkweti’s debut short story collection Walking on Cowrie Shells (2022) demonstrates the range of the Cameroonian-American writer’s remarkable fiction. Nkweti’s fiction gleefully crosses genre boundaries, mixing the fantastical and the bizarre with sharply observed character pieces. The stories cover a wide range, but are linked by Nkweti’s playful imagination, her deft characterisation, and her fascination with those who are caught between different cultures. Walking on Cowrie Shells is an engaging collection that marks the debut of a striking talent, a writer unafraid to engage with the speculative and the fantastic in inventive ways.
Nkweti’s writing uses the fantastic, the speculative and even metafictional techniques to explore the difficulties, triumphs, contradictions and discrimination faced living across multiple characters, frequently drawing on her Cameroonian and American heritage. ‘The Living Infinite’ is perhaps the most fantastical story in the collection, and tells the moving story of Nala, a Mami Wata – an African water goddess – who renounces her powers so that she can live a mortal life with Byron, the New Orleans-born fisherman she falls in love with. The story is full of sensual magic, drawing on Cameroonian folklore to tell a love story between people in two different cultures, one of whom must give hers up to live with him. Nala finds herself a stranger in New Orleans, but also amongst her family of magical water spirits, who don’t quite understand this strange human man she has fallen for or the very different life she has chosen with him. The collection’s most speculative story is ‘It Just Kills You Inside’, a brutally cynical look at how Western media portrays Africa as a centre of poverty and disease, in which Connor, an embittered journalist, is hired to help cover up a zombie outbreak in Cameroon. The story expertly dissects neo-colonialist attitudes that are embedded into how Western culture perceives and talks about Africa, and feels particularly pertinent after both the Ebola outbreaks and the worldwide COVID pandemic. It is at once very darkly funny, an incredible work of characterisation, and remarkably thought-provoking.
Other stories are less explicitly speculative or fantastic, but still engage with speculative or fantastic tropes. ‘Rain Check at MomoCon’ is a wonderful story about fandom. It’s the story of Astrid, a cosplaying teenager who writes comics with Young, her secret crush. Astrid has to navigate her fandom and her writing, which go against the expectations of her African family, who have a very different idea of what her future will look like than she does. It’s at once humorous and touching. Other stories touch on fantastical ideas without ever explicitly tipping over into the fantastic. ‘Night Becomes Us’ engages with the tropes of vampire fiction to tell a story about a woman who has moved to the USA to work in club bathrooms. ‘The Devil Is a Liar’ explores the contested role of religion between a mother and daughter undergoing a family crisis, and while nothing explicitly supernatural ever occurs, the story is built around ideas of faith, spirituality and how one might feel the hand of God in one’s life. Other stories engage more with ideas or tropes from thrillers. ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’ is a tightly constructed tale that switches between the perspectives of an adoptee child trafficked from Africa and her rich adopted parents, in which Zora the daughter manipulates her adopted family’s fortunes in a masterful heist to reclaim her own sense of agency. Like ‘It Just Kills You Inside’, it has many cutting and pertinent things to say about the West’s attitude towards Africa, and delivers them in a darkly humorous package. ‘The Statistician’s Wife’ explores violence between African women and their American spouses through a murder mystery.
The remaining stories in the collection cannot be called speculative or fantastical in any way, but are arguably the most powerful and stylistically inventive stories present. ‘Schoolyard Cannibal’ exorcises years of institutionalised racism forced onto African and Black children via the school system, incorporating images from the Warner Brothers cartoon Jungle Jitters, artworks ‘If It Bleeds, It Ledes’ and ‘Africa Is Not a Country’ by Idongesit Daniel, and a photo of a Shaka Zulu Queen Mother in order to make its powerful rhetorical point. And the final story ‘Kinks’, a story structured around the changes in how its protagonist Jennifer arranges her hair based on how she is relating to her African heritage that day, uses its complex structure to critique patronising boyfriends who impose their interpretation of Africanness on their mixed heritage girlfriends. The story is again whipsmart in terms of its characterisation, and amongst its structural games includes a QR code that links to an in-universe blog read by one of the characters in the story. These stories show just how fearless and inventive Nkweti is as a writer. She is utterly unafraid to experiment with form to tell the kind of story she needs to tell.
Walking on Cowrie Shells is a remarkable collection, full of inventive and boldly experimental writing. Nkweti is a fascinating writer who creates with admirable passion and intensity, as well as brilliantly drawing character and filling her stories with sharp humour. I look forward to seeing what she does next.