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Myth and Metaphor in “Walking on Cowrie Shells”

Myth and Metaphor in “Walking on Cowrie Shells”

  • A review of Nana Nkweti's new short story collection, "Walking on Cowrie Shells."

The final story of Nana Nkweti’s debut short story collection, “Kinks,” bears the book title in a telling passage: 

“No matter how many boardroom doors Jennifer walked through, sometimes she felt her steps falter—in the Ghanaian beauty shop, at Awing tribal meetings, she felt like a counterfeit African, felt the unworthiness of the maid’s child tiptoeing through the servants’ entrance, lightly, quietly, like she was walking on cowrie shells.”

The question of what it is to be African is most directly called into question in this story, but Nkweti navigates the scope of a continent’s characteristics throughout Walking on Cowrie Shells. It is a book notable for the sing-song quality of the prose spurred by repetition of phrases that mirrors the repetition in many of the Cameroonian words Nkweti intersperses seamlessly. She imbues nearly every sentence with metaphor, comparisons that mesh well with or blend into expository prose. She does so with grace and expertise, and a careful hand that refines every genre she dips into. 

Even in stories that aren’t sci-fi or fantasy, there’s a constant sense that they could be. In “Raincheck at MomoCon,” there is something teetering on the edge of magic as Astrid and her friends dress as superheroes. There is something hinting at sorcery when Zora in “It Takes a Village Some Say” makes her boyfriends’ bling disappear and reappear. And then, half-way through the collection, what’s verged on myth and magic but kept a firm foot in reality turns to zombies.

“It Just Kills You Inside,” is a zombie apocalypse with exciting subversions. I thought of Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted as I read; political jargon that is just barely accessible, humorous in its dramatic irony and even in its impending sense of doom. It is even heartfelt and romantic. But this story also rings true with frightening clarity. The comparisons are inevitable when reading with the backdrop of a very real global pandemic. Connor, specializing in crisis management and a dead-man-walking himself, tries to quell the threat of this disaster that is becoming a racialized global crisis; Africa becomes a scapegoat, just as very real epidemics like AIDS and ebola have unfurled into erroneous fingers pointed at one continent. Just as the pandemic that still rages on has resulted in waves of anti-Asian hate crimes. Even when Connor’s involvement with the undead takes a personal, life-altering turn, he refuses to turn to hate or place blame despite the sinister narratives circulating throughout the media. “It Just Kills You Inside” is a story about truth, misinformation, and how those two entities entangle and coalesce. This, too, felt intentionally reminiscent of reality.

In “Dance the Fiya Dance,” the complexities of identity take the lead, along with grief and motherhood, all themes that Nana Nkweti explores throughout the collection. Chambu, a half-Cameroonian akata, engages in catfights and experiences “slut-shaming.” She also mourns a failed relationship and another devastating loss. What floats to the surface from this funny, heartbreaking story are strong familial bonds that outweigh any doubts about Chambu’s role as an African woman—whatever that means. She is a character who transforms, with some faltering but with much bravery, from a journal entry that starts, “I’m not happy,” to one that ends, “We are not what we once were but we are getting there.” There is resilience and rebuilding among all of the trauma, sorrow, and drama.

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Ultimately, Walking On Cowrie Shells showcases the abundant complexities of African culture, most specifically Cameroonian Americans but with reference to Nigeria, Egypt, and other countries. Nkweti doesn’t shy away from “Africa” as a whole. In a line such as, “This was Africa after all—the land of juju, obeah, and kamuti,” the untranslated words clue you in that this is not some trite catch-all; there is something true about Africa in juju and obeah and kamati, even if it is inaccessible to someone who doesn’t know first hand, who doesn’t speak the language. Maybe the truth lies in that outsider’s unknowing. Walking On Cowrie Shells is an illuminating debut that leaves the reader with the same feeling as the final line of the closing story: “Stung by the sheer pleasure of it all.” 

Walking on Cowrie Shells
By Nana Nkweti
Graywolf Press
Published June 1, 2021

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