The Powerful Short Stories of Nana Nkweti’s Walking on Cowrie Shells

This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.

I got to enter a public library a few weeks ago. It was bizarre, almost surreal, to be in a public place again after over a year stuck at home. I browsed the shelves and looked at the community art on the walls. I updated my library card. And, I checked out Nana Nkweti’s new release Walking on Cowrie Shells.

The cover of Walking on Cowrie Shells s shows the title in a rough white font on a black background. Green cowrie shells and triangles are scattered in the background.

As the first book I got to pick out myself from the library in a long time, Walking on Cowrie Shells did not disappoint. Nkweti provides a genre-bending (and blending) collection of short stories exploring relationships, immigration, racial prejudice, and more.

We start with It Takes a Village, Some Say, a semi-satirical take on the international adoption industry. A young Cameroonian girl is adopted by an American couple. We start out with the mother’s perspective as she bemoans where they went wrong and expresses confusion for the stories “our girl” has been telling the media. The tale slowly unravels as we learn more about the adoption process through the girl’s eyes. Her own interpretations of being adopted are widely different from those of her adoptive parents. This story was a finalist for The Caine Prize for African Writing, and it shows. Nkweti’s excellent and beautiful writing shines across the page.

Nkweti plays also with tropes of magic and myth. Her stories range from the realism of a young teenage girl cosplaying and dreaming of making it big as a comic creator to the fantastical–yet startlingly realistically-portrayed–story of a jaded PR manager trying to sell a zombie outbreak as no big deal. In one story she might explore the deep insecurities of a devoutly religious woman struggling to become pregnant with her Preacher husband, and in the next she weaves a tale of a mermaid come to shore after falling in love with a fisherman.

My favorite story in this collection has to be The Statistician’s Wife, which was also published here in AFREADA. A statistician finds himself on the wrong end of a police interrogation after his wife, an immigrant and nurse, is murdered in their home. Dotted throughout the story are his notes and statistics on other similar murders. The opening lines of this story were like a bunch to the face they were so good:

They were bloodhounds worrying a bone. The two homicide detectives sniffed, smelled something off in the pairing of this forty-year-old Boston Brahmin and his young village bride. Elliot Coffin Jr. was as American as Coca-Cola, and capitalism. The bland portfolio of his upbringing was made of Happy Days and hedge funds in happier days, pre-Madoff. He was undisputedly American. His recently deceased wife—Victoria Coffin, née Chiamaka Victoria Okereke, recently of Cambridge, Massachusetts, by way of Lagos State, Nigeria—was not. These simple facts, on their surface, so nakedly banal in nature, had kept Coffin Jr. moored in the sterile Cambridge PD interrogation room, even as his wife lay below on a steel slab in the morgue, soul hovering, body beginning the slow decay that would solidify the truth of her death.

The Statistician’s Wife by Nana Nkweti

There were points in the collection where some of the themes felt a bit over explored. For example, I’m not a person that is usually very interested in explorations of heterosexual romance, which many of these stories focused on. But there was enough of everything else to keep me entertained and engaged that it wasn’t really a bother. This is also an issue I sometimes have with story collections in general. Many authors tend to explore similar themes in the writing, and having all the stories one right after the other can make it feel overdone.

Overall, Nkweti is definitely a writer whose career I will be watching closely. I would highly recommend this collection as an introduction to her work.

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