CBR15bingo Africa This book was a finalist for the Caine Prize for African writing
This 2021 collection of 10 short stories, Nana Nkweti’s debut work, is a riveting read. Each story is thought provoking, some are shocking, all are brilliantly written. This is the kind of book you could read quickly but it deserves to be savored.
Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian American writer, and her stories focus on the experience of being a “hyphenated American.” For some who have come to the US from Cameroon, Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa, a woman like Nkweti is too American, while for some Black Americans she is too African. The term “Akata,” a slur coined in Nigeria for African Americans, is used frequently throughout Nkweti’s stories in reference to her main characters, who usually are women with backgrounds similar to her own. They are the daughters of immigrants who have worked hard to become academically and professionally successful. They find themselves having to navigate the minefield of being “too” one or another (African or American) and who must figure out how to manage their families’ traditional expectations for them (career, marriage, children) versus their own ambitions and desires.
The collection starts out strong with “It Takes a Village Some Say,” a story about an interracial couple adopting a girl from Cameroon. This story is told initially from the parents’ point of view but then shifts to the girl’s, and a very unexpected story emerges. The next story and two others, “Rain Check at MomoCon,” “Night Becomes Us” and “Schoolyard Cannibal,” deal with teen girls or children and the pressures placed on them. Astrid, the child of immigrants, is a dutiful daughter and excellent student who does not want to go to Princeton but instead wants write graphic novels. Zeinab lives with relatives in the US after losing her mother to a suicide bomber; her cousins teach her how to make money as a ladies room attendant at a fashionable club, but the most important thing she will learn is how to deal with freedom (and enjoy it). “Schoolyard Cannibal” is about the images and stereotypes that children encounter and internalize, becoming unable to recognize their worth and beauty no matter what their parents say. Several stories (“The Devil is a Liar,” “Dance the Fiya Dance” and “Kinks”) feature adult female main characters who are struggling to balance their own dreams and desires with the expectations that family and boyfriends put on them. The remaining three stories, “It Just Kills You Inside,” “The Statistician’s Wife,” and “The Living Infinite” are about Zombies, a murder, and a fantasy/love story between a mermaid (Mami Wata) and a human. Each one was outstanding. “The Statistician’s Wife” includes a lot of factual information about murders of African women after they have moved to the US and gotten married. It’s chilling.
I highly recommend this collection. It was eye-opening for me to read about this African American experience. I imagine children of immigrants from other parts of the world will recognize some of the pressures and restrictions that Nkweti reveals in her stories. Nkweti’s unique perspective as a Cameroonian American makes Walking on Cowrie Shells a revelation.