Nana Nkweti’s Tales of Cameroonians at Home and in America

By Nana Nkweti

I finished this story collection and wondered, “Is there anything Nana Nkweti can’t do?” In her raucous and thoroughly impressive debut, “Walking on Cowrie Shells,” Nkweti writes across multiple genres including science fiction, young adult literature, literary fiction and suspense, showcasing a host of voices — immigrant and first-generation, elder and Gen Z, human and supernatural, faithful and godless — hailing from the United States and Africa.

Nkweti’s utterly original stories range from laugh-out-loud funny to heartbreaking, and are often both, as in the satirical “It Takes a Village Some Say.” Against the backdrop of social media celebrity culture, we witness the unlikely collision of “findom” — short for financial domination, a sexual fetish arrangement in which a submissive gives gifts and money to a dominant — and the murky business of international adoption. The white adoptive mother of a Cameroonian child observes: “People think Bono and Bill Gates are supporting the continent; they have no idea that it’s us.”

Nkweti proffers no easy solutions to the dilemmas her richly layered characters face, and she challenges our presumptions about who the villains and victims are. Taunted in the playground by Black American classmates (“African booty scratcher. Betchu live in a tree. Bet yo’ mama’s a monkey”), a Cameroonian American girl receives comfort from her mother (“a psychotherapist and a prolific hugger”), who tells her, “They are yearning, learning late to love themselves … you remind them of all they have lost.” This sensitivity, nuance and keen attention to history shine through on every page of the collection.

Romantic love and grief are among the themes in multiple stories. Nala, an immortal Mami Wata (water spirit) and “seasoned seducer of thousands of men,” has lived to the “ripe young age of 202.” But in “The Living Infinite,” she allows her body to age so that she may grow old with her human husband. In “Dance the Fiya Dance,” the freshly single, “Halfrican” Chambu is open to new possibilities while dancing with a stranger at a wedding. “My sister warned me about the dangers of American girls,” he says. “I may only be half American,” Chambu thinks to herself, “but I rub that half against him for all I’m worth.” In “Night Becomes Us,” Zeinab, a young Muslim immigrant and ladies’ room attendant at a nightclub in New York City, dances while no one is watching — or so she thinks. “She closes her eyes, her heartbeat an 808 as she soaks in the music seeping through the walls, and loses all her selves.” Back home in Maroua, Cameroon, she lost her mother to a suicide bomber, another 16-year-old Muslim girl like her.

In Nkweti’s world, every relationship can turn on a dime, and part of the pleasure of these stories is the anticipation of and the satisfaction in the messiness of those turns. In “Rain Check at MomoCon,” a Cameroonian teenager named Astrid writes “slash fan-fiction” about “Luke Skywalker letting Han Solo stroke his light saber during long and lonely desert nights on ‘Brokeback Tatooine.’” She attends Comic Con at New York’s Javits Center with her “so-called friends,” Mimi and Mbola, and her actual friend, creative partner and secret crush, Young “Money” Yoon. Black nerds across generations will feel seen in this story, and the final scene will resonate with anyone who’s ever gotten tired of being pushed around. (Fittingly, the story is accompanied by a few pages of comics, among the several illustrations included in the collection.)

At turns tender and bold, Nkweti’s tales upend racist stereotypes. But her writing flows in such a beautiful way, and her characters’ complexities are so central, that this myth-busting feels like a byproduct and not a mission. Nkweti’s mission seems to be to have a hell of a lot of fun writing exquisite stories about people and places that matter to her. And lucky us, we get to read them. These are stories to get lost in again and again.


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Publish date : 2021-07-09 21:13:50

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