“A Storytelling Masterclass”: Gillian Perry on Nana Nkweti’s WALKING ON COWRIE SHELLS (Graywolf Press)

Nana Nkweti is unafraid. Unafraid to interlace myth and reality. Unafraid to embrace the polyphony of voices that tell her stories. Unafraid to breathe life into characters of differing ages, careers, and moral compasses. Nkweti’s debut collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells, captures the experiences of the fearless—water goddesses, teenage graphic novelists, Akata sisters, immigrants, all heroines in their own right. With her dazzling, sonically-driven prose and beautiful structural moves, this collection stands out as both a celebration of the African-American experience and a masterclass in storytelling.

The introduction to “Schoolyard Cannibal” showcases some of the best of Nkweti’s prose:

Youth makes you too apt a pupil of coarse lessons it takes decades to unlearn. Your headmistress, a family television—ancient, venerable—cased in oak heavy and vast as the Encyclopedia Britannica, entire. Poor, poor pickaninny, pick a program. Poison. Drink in definitions as you sit transfixed on a grainy carpet, chin on the kickstand of your knuckles. In looney toons, you are a jungle bunny—drum-bottomed, tuber-lipped. You coon for that rascally rabbit. Savage beneath smiles. In sepia broadcasts, you are a darkie, cowering to a towering Tarzan—a broad-framed, onetime Olympian, swooping down from treetop fiefdoms to be your savior, your civilizer. There is a peculiar lull as your agile young mind absorbs these images, so at odds with those of parents and uncles and aunties cum doctors and lawyers and engineers. A chimpanzee familiar is smarter than them all—these spearchuckers, these cannibals. A cruel tutelage.

Though this is her first collection, Nkweti is already an established and acclaimed voice in the literary community. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, her work has earned her fellowships from MacDowell, the Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop among others. Her story, “It takes a Village Some Say,” was a AKO Caine Prize for African Writing finalist (and is featured in this collection). Her publications in The New Orleans Review, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere are stepping stones to the stories that appear in Walking on Cowrie Shells, and feature the same lyrical prose and dynamic characters that are housed in this collection. Now a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, Nkweti teaches courses that explore her various and diverse literary interests. These interests are reflected in the themes and forms that Nkewti plays with in this collection, from the graphic novel to the modern myth. Nkweti’s previous acclaim must give her a small pool of die-hard fans anticipating this collection—I think that anyone who reads Walking on Cowrie Shells will quickly and enthusiastically join the club.

Nkweti’s protagonists are are vivacious, have strong convictions, and are always able to reassert their power by the end of their stories. In “Raincheck at MomoCon,” aspiring teenage comic writer Astrid is able to stand up for herself against frenemy Mbola. Nala, the water goddess of “The Living Infinite,” is able to power through grief with the help of her selkie, siren, and melusine sisters. “Night Becomes Us” protagonist Zeinab ends her story dancing in the New York streets. But reducing these stories to their earned, and often joyful conclusions overlooks the beautiful lines, the interesting structures, and the gut-wrenching emotional notes that Nkweti effortlessly builds to reach these resolutions. We will remember Astrid’s pursuit of comic writing to be a direct conflict with her family’s expectations, rather than just another tug on the fraying relationships she has with friends her own age. Nala’s story is more than grief, it is also about identity, and the parts of ourselves we abandon for love. Zeinab may be pursuing the American Dream, but it is not without the memories of the tragedies she had to endure at her home in Cameroon. Nkweti is skilled in building layered and authentic characters in a handful of pages, characters that can experience the full gamut of emotion and experience, and are never tokens of a singular identity.

On a craft level, Nkewti is experimental, bold, and masterful. Not only do these stories play with structure, they also play with genre and form, flitting in and out of realism, horror, and even young adult fiction. “Kinks” follows an editor through different stages of her hair, from “Relaxed” to “Shorn.” Each season of Jennifer’s hair also marks a shift in her romantic relationship with an author who she works with—this points to Jennifer’s hair as an essential tool to understand her identity. Not only is this an effective marker of change and time passing in the story, it also reveals the fraught dynamics of her relationship as Jennifer’s hair becomes a way for her partner to exert control. This allows the structure to reveal themes without Nkweti having to reveal her hand. “The Statistician’s Wife” similarly uses pattern to reveal theme, in interspersing Data Set Entries of real crimes that mirror the crime the Statistician is accused of. In repeating these true incidents of violence, it becomes clearer and clearer that the statistics are in fact, not on the Statistician’s side. Nkweti’s moves here do not feel overwrought or even too tongue-in-cheek; they are truly clever. These explorations into structure bleed into Nkweti’s more speculative stories, such as “It Kills You Inside” where a PR professional is trying to spin a zombie apocalypse in Africa. Though the conceit of the story is rich, it is the manner in which Nkweti zooms into the climax, narrowing in on a specific moment and getting the closest to the protagonist at the pivotal moment that offers the most to chew on. In also spinning the story for us, until it becomes too personal to this character to do so any longer, the climax sits heavier, the gut punch hurts. This proves that even when Nkweti explores other genres her polished storytelling and structuring remains, and sometimes shines even brighter than the original brilliant ideas.

Following the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Namwali Serpell, and other African American superwomen, Nana Nkweti is asserting her place as a rising literary star with Walking on Cowrie Shells. These stories speak to the multitude of subjects that fascinate Nkweti, and her storytelling expertise. This collection is more than a summer read, it is the beginning of a long and wonderful career.

Walking on Cowrie Shells, by Nana Nkweti. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, June 2021. 200 pages. $16.00, paper.

Gillian Perry is a first year MFA candidate in fiction at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She writes about women, and the spooky, weird, and out of place. Her work has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly.

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather. Buy our merch.