Cameroonian American Stories About Rejecting Societal Expectation

Nana Nkweti, author of "Walking on Cowrie Shells," on the multiplicity of African womanhood

Photo of cowrie shell necklace via Wikimedia Commons

Identity is anything but simple in Nana Nkweti’s short story collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells. In “Rain Check at MomoCon,” teenager Astrid Atangana—an aspiring graphic novelist—hides her acceptance letter from Princeton from her Cameroonian parents, quietly rejecting the mold of the high-achieving child of immigrants that her parents expect her to inhabit. In “The Devil is A Liar,” a middle-aged first-time mother, Temperance, struggles to feel like she is an acceptably good daughter to her deeply religious Cameroonian mother, while also maintaining her own hyphenated identity as both American and Cameroonian. And in “Dance the Fiya Dance,” Chambu must contend with constant judgment from her Cameroonian family and community, who deem her too American to be a proper woman for a good man, even as they simultaneously pressure her towards finding one—preferably from Cameroon, of course. 

Walking on Cowrie Shells

In the stories of this effervescent debut collection, the protagonists find themselves at once wanting to meet and subvert the expectations set upon them by their surrounding communities. From gender identity, to ethnic identity, to family roles, the stories’ main characters both long to fit in with and to break the bounds of those ideas. Ideas about what Blackness is in these stories are particularly multifaceted and full of tension—from animosity between African Americans and Cameroonians in “Schoolyard Cannibal,” to competition in a relationship for who is most authentically African in “Kinks,” what it means to be Black in the American settings of these stories is constantly being negotiated by the characters and within the narratives themselves. Ultimately, the question of embracing complexity is the force propelling these stories forward: embracing complexity in order to be fully human.

Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian American writer, Caine Prize finalist, and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has been published in journals and magazines such as Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review, and The Baffler, amongst others.

We discussed the struggles of negotiating multiple cultural identities at once; the ways in which returning to our home countries in adolescence indelibly shaped us; and the ongoing work to resist the pressure of the myth of monolithic Blackness in our work and lives.

Michelle Chikaonda: Many of the Cameroonian American protagonists of these stories are characters who seem to feel like misfits in their worlds, with the stories then mapping out their paths toward making places for themselves within those worlds. How did this come to be a theme that you ended up meditating on?

Nana Nkweti: There are some leitmotifs I consciously incorporate into my writing. For instance, I am a hyphenated-American, multi-cultural woman with roots in Africa and the United States, so I naturally gravitate toward depicting characters who have hybrid identities. I can easily identify that authorial impulse coming to bear on my texts. Now the fun part begins as readers engage in their own meaning-making, decoding themes and patterns embedded like secret codes between sentences, unbeknownst even to me.

Are my characters misfits? I can’t rightly say. I do know they are humans trying their best to “human” and some Mami Watas and zombies too! They are all evolving and yes, sometimes trying to puzzle out where they best fit in the world. In that regard, aren’t we all misfits? Who hasn’t been a teen on that angst-riddled road to adulthood like Astrid Atangana in “Raincheck at MomoCon?” Who amongst us hasn’t grappled with God/Allah/Buddha/Vishnu, questioning one’s faith in times of hardship as Temperance Ealy does in “The Devil is a Liar?”

MC: I know that, as a continent of 54 countries, Africans are far from culturally monolithic. That being said, I felt so many resonances with these stories that, for the purposes of this question, I’m going to temporarily disregard that understanding.

In reading your work I was reminded of how African girls are so often raised with a very heavy-handed push toward the notion of “goodness”—serving community, obeying parents, choosing family over love and personal ambition. As an African woman myself—from Malawi—the spirit of quiet rebellion emanating from these stories’ female protagonists is jarring, but in a great way.

What pushed you to write the boundary-breaking women in your stories? Were there times in which you foresaw other ends they could have come to than what eventually happened in each of the stories?

NN: Sometimes the rebellions are quiet. Sometimes they are thunderous, as is the case of the young heroine in “Their Girl,” who has all the finesse of an Uzi!

Women are complicated. African women are complicated. It was important for me to portray us in all our complexity, in the fullness of ourselves. There have always been specific societal norms and pressures on women. Even in our fourth wave of feminism, even after Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement and Chimamanda’s We Should All Be Feminists, there is still so much “boundary-breaking” work to do. A quick glance at online discussions of women in the public sphere can attest to that.

Why do we still need women to be likeable, sugar and spice and everything nice? Why are women still so incessantly shamed as too fat/too thin/too old/too sexual/too unmarried/too smart for their own good?

Why do we still need women to be likeable, sugar and spice and everything nice? Why are women still so incessantly shamed as too fat/too thin/too old/too sexual/too unmarried/too smart for their own good? Add intersectionality to that and we get stereotyped as Mammys, Jezebels, Sapphires aka Angry Black women. Now add another layer of African identity in the mix, and yet another layer for those born in the West like me. All those layers of societal tip-toeing, walking on cowrie shells so you don’t come across as too Americanized as in “whey, you don’t cook fufu, you’re not married, you don’t want kids, you have your own bank account?”—enough is enough. And of course, this is a gross exaggeration.

African identity is as multivalent as the cultures of the 54 states on the continent and the people in the cities and villages within. But I’ve found folks like to whip out this mythical notion of traditional African womanhood as a cudgel to enforce conformity sometimes. The characters in my book submit to, embrace, tolerate these ideals or reject them wholesale. No one choice is “the right one.” What I explore is these women tackling the notion that the “choice” is theirs to make. 

What pushed me to write into this? I myself have been a feminist for as long as I can remember. The dearest wish of my 10-year-old self was to earn a degree from Oxford and have three girl-children—husband optional. Was I anti connubial bliss back then? Not really.

I just remember having this deep sense, even as a child, that the world needed to do right by women—equal wages, equal educational opportunities, equal everything. Even if my Mom had never taken lil’ me to an ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] march—which still has yet to pass by the way—I could already see inequities in the books I voraciously read. Why did only boys get to have the adventures, for example? At the same time, I still was myself a “good African girl”—in the Olympics of the Mind and Gifted and Talented in America, attending home economics classes and carrying water buckets on my head as a teen in Africa, then later dutifully pursuing degrees as is our way. I embraced this identity while also noting its strictures, the stresses attendant in maintaining that perfect façade. My female characters are allowed to be themselves—warts and all.

MC: One question that haunts these pieces is the question of “enough”—specifically, of whether or not the lead characters can ever be Cameroonian enough or American enough. What do you perceive as the nature of the friction between those identities—both in your stories and in life, if we have time to go there—and why does the oppositional energy between the two feel this strong?

NN: So my collection has a range of lead characters—some quite comfortable in their cultural skin, some not. That “enough” question is complicated and different for each of them. For instance, in “Kinks,” Jennifer’s mother gave her “the blondest of names,” she was raised as “one of two Black girls in a Scarsdale elementary,” and then went to Yale, a PWI [predominantly white instutite]. She has been disconnected from “Black” culture—African and African diasporic. Her arc involves a struggle not to lose herself in her romantic relationship even while simultaneously folding in “being African and Black” into that very “self,” figuring out what those identities mean without the gatekeeping notions of “authenticity’ imposed upon her by Kwame and his ilk. 

I would say that if there is an “oppositional energy” it often comes from without. As a hyphenated person myself, I totally love being able to draw on two cultures, taking the best (to me, at least) and eschewing the worst. Even I had to grow into that acceptance though because all too often people feel the need to categorize and police you. I remember submitting my writing to African fellowships and awards for consideration. and some required I establish “Africanness” by supplying my parents’ passports. Now intellectually you rationalize that this is all admin and eligibility language. But still, it’s yet another moment being reminded that you are Other. 

MC: In a related vein—there is a lot of tension between varying representations of Blackness in each of these narratives. What was your experience of rendering these on the page, especially given the larger cultural myth of monolithic Blackness that often creates real pressure to oversimplify Blackness to a few known dimensions? Was there anything in particular driving your narratives’ investigation of this tension?

Global Blackness is not a monolith. Africa is not a monolith.

NN: Global Blackness is not a monolith. Africa is not a monolith. At times the “tension” occurs in my book as the work instinctively bucks against lazy stereotypes and reductive categorizations—received by Western culture, yes, yet also prevalent amongst Black folks ourselves due to issues like tribalism, national identity, or class. Witness in “The Devil is a Liar,” Andrew Ealy chastising his wife Temperance for being “elitist” as she privileges her own middle-class path to motherhood as “the right” one. Tensions further arise due to internalized anti-Blackness like in “Raincheck at MomoCon,” when Astrid Atangana being “complimented” as “pretty for a dark-skinned girl”—a moment emblematic of the colorism, featurism, texturism issues in our communities. What partly drives me is a hope that we can all see ourselves and move past these arbitrary divisions that keep us from unifying.

What happens sometimes is you come across some people who wants to be cultural gatekeepers, because they try to use their notion of authenticity, to enforce conformity of what their ideal of Africanness is. And that also happens when you’re in African American culture sometimes; there’s a sense of “This is what it means to be Black in America.” I try to complicate those narratives as much as I can. Because while they can be true in some instances, many times they’re not. And I think that continued reliance on those narratives is problematically reductive. So the more I can help illuminate us to ourselves—to all Black people in the diaspora, to the point where we can get over all these misunderstandings and false ideas of each other—the better we will all be.

MC: You really zoomed in on the lives of women in these narratives—not just the young women protagonists, but their aunties, their little sisters, their frenemies. Men don’t get nearly the airtime that women do in these pieces, and when they do get roles they are decidedly secondary roles. Could you discuss in more detail your effort to complicate the notion of womanhood in these stories?

NN: Regarding the roles of men in the book—it really just depended on the character. There are men in this collection I absolutely delighted in writing and two stories that feature male leads—“It Just Kills You Inside” and “The Statistician’s Wife.” Yet I acknowledge that I revel in centering female protagonists and depicting them in all their complexity. 

The notion of a singular African womanhood serves the purpose of perpetuating gender inequality, but it’s not necessarily what actually existed in Africa. Maybe someplace, maybe somebody’s village, but it’s not a monolith, it’s not every village. Growing up, for example, I was that girl who was the one who was carrying water on my head and who naturally has a nurturing disposition; I’m the firstborn of many children. So I was always that kid with that sense of responsibility. But I was also that girl who was with my mom at ERA marches when I was just a baby. At a very young age, I had a sense of wanting more for women than what we were getting; my idea of myself and what I wanted for women was more power, more equality, even then. And all those things are things that I find interesting to explore on the page: to give my female characters the fullness of life. They’re flawed, they’re anti-heroines, and I still love them, all of them. They make choices that I wouldn’t make, and sometimes they make choices that I would make. And I think that’s what the breadth of humanity, of our humanity, looks like.

MC: One thing I noticed was the absence of extensively narrativized trauma, in any of the stories. Even in 2021, it often feels as though Black stories are not legitimized unless they also comprise profound trauma—racialized trauma, violent intra-familial trauma—but none of your stories played into that expectation. Even in “The Statistician’s Wife,” a story whose main thread is domestic violence, the violence is just that: a single thread in a larger, vibrant, non-violent narrative. Could you discuss this decision, if it was a conscious decision, in greater depth?

NN: Trauma depictions in Black narratives are so ubiquitous, and hard to completely get away from. Even when I wrote one story which was veering into that stuff—in “Night Becomes Us,” Zainab is dealing with the violence of Boko Haram in the north part of Cameroon—I address that violence, certainly, but I don’t want that to define her entire life and that entire story.

The notion of a singular African womanhood serves the purpose of perpetuating gender inequality, but it’s not necessarily what actually existed in Africa.

I think that personal stuff is very political, and that showing us our humanity beyond that huge trauma is not just personally important, but politically so. People sometimes behave as if the only stories that need to be told about us are the ones where the only way our humanity is acknowledged is when a gun is being pointed at our heads. Do those stories need to be told? Yes, of course. But should they be the only stories that you get lauded for, or get seen or get seen as the “real” Africa story? No, and I think that’s what I’m always consciously pushing against.

In “The Statistician’s Wife,” for example, it was a very conscious choice that Victoria was more alive, on the page, than she is dead. She’s dead in the beginning, yes, but then you see her, vibrantly, throughout the rest of the story. Because that was what was important to me: how she lived, not that she died. I did not want to have Black women actively traumatized on the page, and I didn’t want to have a Black person traumatized in that way. Because it’s just too easy to show us being mutilated, burned, shot, tortured. Again, it’s not that these things don’t happen—of course they do. But do they have to keep on happening over and over again, narratively speaking—does a protagonist’s raison d’etre have to lie on the bones of my body?

Why do we always have to see these continuous stories where the origin myth of the protagonist’s journey is for a wife and child to be brutally murdered, and for the reader to be almost offered that brutality to feed themselves on? I constantly interrogate those notions, of the function of Black trauma in narrative, in my work.

MC: You made the decision not to translate any of the non-English dialogue, only to italicize. Why? To be clear I believe this was a brilliant choice, but I’ve participated in many conversations with writers around the question of translation and/or italicizing, and I would love to hear your perspective on this.

NN: American English a living language, an amalgam of calques and loanwords reflecting all the people who immigrated here to call this country home. These words are never translated. You come to understand their usage from the context. It’s why an African woman like me has tons of Yiddish vocab—the language of European shtetls—having grown up reading Roth and hearing “schlemiel” and “schlimazel” in the Laverne and Shirley tv show’s theme song. I particularly love celebrating the contributions of BIPOC cultures to the English language literary canon as Hurston does in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Yes, I know that mainstream canonization is not the be and end all of everything, but I love to see it. There is an understanding of the beauty in the words we create, that they should be immortalized. Me, unapologetically inserting our words in my texts comes from a knowledge that they deserve to hold space. As for the notion of italics, I think it’s a personal choice for the author. Some writers like Junot Diaz, who says he is writing for (his) six best friends, choose not to. For me, aesthetically I love the look of italics and feel like they make people wake up and pay close attention—they add flavor, the peppeh to your sauce.

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