Nana Nkweti on the Impact of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Complexities of Multicultural Identity

The Author of Walking on Cowrie Shells in Conversation with Jane Ciabattari

Nana Nkweti’s first story collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells, proceeds with boundless energy, mixing and matching genres, jumping free of genre rules and bumping against unexpected turns of phrase, with a satiric aftertaste keeping it real. Her launch this month puts her into a historic moment; she’s of a cohort of authors whose first books were in the works when Covid hit.

“It’s been a surreal, M.C. Escher steps of a time,” she says, “all of us traveling into the seemingly infinite unknown—navigating a global health crisis, national civil rights reckoning, Fortean phenomena—blizzards in Texas! Blood-orange wildfire-lit skies! The stuff of National Enquirer and New York Post headlines. Like everyone else, all I could do is keep moving through, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Before the world tilted on its axis in 2020, she explains,

“I was smack dab in the middle of editing Walking on Cowrie Shells, on the academic job market traveling hither and yon for campus visits, then later that year moving to a new state, new workplace, [and] new home (the University of Alabama). To say things have been in flux is an understatement. Thankfully, I have an incredibly strong support system—a close-knit cadre of family and friends who Zoom it up with me—for game nights, for gabfests—quite frequently. Teaching is also a touchstone—incredibly fulfilling to talk to smarty-pants students about all things literary and watch them blossom as writers themselves. Just finished my first academic year teaching an undergraduate Graphic Novels class as well as Fiction Workshop, Speculative Fiction, and Page to Stage: Acting for Fiction Writers graduate-level courses. The acting class sessions were a hybrid experience that included writing assignments drawn from personal performance, dramatic text readings, and a studio-style element with improv group exercises and interactive theater games that let us be playful and creative (body warmups to Lizzo). Great stress-reliever.”

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Jane Ciabattari: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Which authors influenced you at the time? Which life experiences? And how did you begin the path?

Nana Nkweti: Hmm, there really was no “trumpets blaring, harps strumming” epiphanic moment of decision. I was a little nine-year-old, bookish bluestocking of a child who read voraciously—Lizzie Bennett was my imaginary bestie—and writing stories naturally followed. Now, privileging the idea of becoming a full-time writer was another thing. While I never stopped writing through the years—either solo or in groups of creative friends and formal workshops offered in NYC, it took a bit for me to acknowledge to myself that writing was my calling. I went the good immigrant first-born child route: working my way through college, sponsoring my siblings’ return to the US, getting a “real” job, and sending money back home to fam in Cameroon. Only after everyone was more or less set up in life, did I feel comfortable making the choice to write full-time.

The authors who have influenced me are legion. I read everything under the sun, so ultimately every text is a teacher in some respect (even if the takeaway is what not to do). I must say I am a sucker for sentences and particularly love books by ballsy women writers planting their flags in genre territories that were formerly male-dominated. Think Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Bradley Sheldon) in Spec-Fic or Annie Proulx’s modern-day Westerns.

JC: How would you describe the impact of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on your work? Who were the most influential teachers? Professors? Your fellow students?

NN: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop offered me swathes of wonderfully uninterrupted time to focus on completing work that went on to be honed using feedback from keen workshops. Iowa is a UNESCO World City of Literature so you’re steeped in a world of lit programs—International Writers Program, Spanish Creative Writing MFA, Nonfiction MFA—and bookshops galore and readings by world-class visiting authors. Suddenly, this thing you’ve done all your life is taken uber-seriously by everyone you know and their mama! It was a dream. I made many life-long friends who are cheering on the release of this book.

For instance, I was one of a trio of Black women admitted in my year along with Yaa Gyasi, author of Transcendent Kingdom and Homegoing, and Alexia Arthurs, author of How to Love a Jamaican, and they’re my peeps till this day. Ditto on the teacher/professor front. I met so many wonderful mentors. For instance, I had the pleasure of participating in a semester-long science fiction workshop with Kevin Brockmeie—time spent revisiting treasured authors and further pushing the envelope in my own writing. In our capstone class, he gifted us all keepsake tin robots—mine is a hot pink/neon green number I named Makossa Mechanica.

JC: How many of the stories in this collection did you write at Iowa?

NN: Writing this book has been a journey of over a decade, with my Iowa years a cauldron for honing preexisting pieces and creating new work. “The Devil is a Liar” and “It Takes a Village Some Say” were written in a Spring 2013 workshop helmed by Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less.

“It Takes a Village Some Say,” first volume “Our Girl,” was a standalone story for my Spring 2014 workshop with Karen Russell. At Iowa, I workshopped iterations of “Dance the Fiya Dance” (formerly “My Own Flesh and Blood”), “Kinks,” The Statistician’s Wife,” and “Raincheck at MomoCon” (published in a lit journal as “Marginalia” and previously workshopped in an NYC class as “Picture, Perfect”).

JC: In this first collection, you set stories in Cameroon and the US, and in Cameroonian communities in the US. How much time have you spent in the US (your birthplace), and in Cameroon? How do the complexities of being multicultural—“Camerican,” as you put it—feed your work?

NN: My developmental years unfolded between two chocolate capitols: I was born and raised in Washington, DC, then moved to Africa, spending my teen years in Yaoundé, Cameroon, before returning to the States for college and career opportunities. As a Camerican woman with these roots in Africa and the United States, I naturally gravitate towards writing characters who have hybrid identities. This book offers a panoramic window into the complexity of present-day African, diasporic identities. Particularly hyphenated Africans with everyday problems. I jokingly tell people I lived in Africa for years and never met a warlord yet somehow there seems to be an Uzi in every other chapter of the “serious” literature from the continent geared to the West.

I don’t want the only time folks recognize our humanity to be when someone is pointing a gun at us.

Those stories are vital and need to be told, yes, but should be balanced by counterpoint narratives. I don’t want the only time folks recognize our humanity to be when someone is pointing a gun at us. It was also important for my own African diaspora perspective—which is a departure from the traditional immigrant fish-out-of-water narratives like Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I turned to stories by hyphenated-American authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Charles Yu for that understanding of being a Third Culture Kid. Like their own protagonists, my characters are often centered in a Western identity and the idea of life “back home” is complicated.

JC: You’ve described yourself as having “eclectic literary interests including sci-fi poetry, graphic novels, speculative fiction, medical humanities, the African diasporic experience, and works by female authors in genres such as horror, western, Afrofuturism, and mystery.” Which authors are the top influencers of your work by genre? Realism? Mystery? Fable/myth? Horror (zombies)? Speculative fiction? Satire? Graphic novels?

NN: This is a tough one since my reading habits have forever been eclectic. I will now throw out a very small handful of names (many with stories I teach in my classes) and hope that folks understand that this list is neither definitive nor exhaustive.

Realism: What is real these days anyway? We were just dealing with murder hornets!! But here [it] goes—Karen Russell, Yaa Gyasi, Alexia Arthurs, Lee K. Abbott, Kevin Brockmeier, Jennifer Egan, Samantha Hunt, Ian McEwan.

Fable/Myth: Nalo Hopkinson, Carmen Maria Machado, Diane Cook, Angela Carter.

Mystery: Gillian Flynn, Daniel Woodrell, Edgar Allen Poe.

Horror: Stephen King, Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Tananarive Due, Max Brooks.

Satire: David Sedaris, Trevor Noah and his kind, aka my fave observational humor comedians turned book writers. Yvonne Orji’s new book will probably be fire.

Graphic Novels: Marjane Satrapi, Marguerite Abouet, Alison Bechdel, and all the comic book authors whose works I binge-read like one tome including Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and EVERYTHING by Brian K. Vaughan.

Speculative Fiction: Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr., Alice Sola Kim, Shelly Oria, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Sam J. Miller, and so many more works from the Golden Age onward. I lived in those books.

JC: Your story “It Takes a Village,” a finalist for the 2019 Caine Prize for African literature, offers two narratives. “Our Girl” is from the perspective of an American couple who adopts a Cameroonian girl via a trafficker named Aunt Gladys, with the intent of “saving a child” and “giving [her] a better life.” “Their Girl” tells the other side of the story, explaining she is nothing like “those poor, poor telethon kids you scribble letters to and force-feed poto-poto rice ‘just for ten cents a day’.” Indeed, she’s way smarter than they are. How did this story evolve?

NN: I wrote “Our Girl” at Iowa to challenge myself to stretch as a writer. I had just revisited Nabokov’s Lolita and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and felt like trying my hand at an apologia, while the latter story influenced my choice of POV, a first-personal plural narrator. Now, this all sounds very academic in retrospect, but in real life, it’s much more moods and impulses and that article on child trafficking you read way back when that’s still floating somewhere in your subconscious. Everything just percolates until a voice comes to me. And in this case, the “two parts hurt, three parts histrionics” dual voice of the Salikis arose.

A couple that wanted desperately to be understood. And I did understand them because even though they are a bit mercenary in the measures they choose, all they really wanted was a child. Vol. II’s “Their Girl” was written almost a year later when that heroine’s voice rather insistently demanded to speak her piece. She is fierce and ruthless and determined not to be a victim—of circumstances, of the male gaze, of poverty—so she’s decided to come out swinging. I consider the narrators in both volumes unreliable at times, utterly flawed all the time, and single-minded about their aims in a manner that mirrors each other. Both volumes explore the ways in which materialism and late-stage capitalism may warp human interactions—taint love, turn relationships transactional.

JC: “A Mami Wata’s essence is moonlight and desire melded into one,” you write in “The Living Infinite,” which revolves around Nala, who, at 202 years old, has just buried her seafaring husband of 45 years, in New Orleans. “In her homeland, Nala’s clanswomen are worshipped as goddesses till this day, queen of queens reigning on high in a pantheon of miengu, wanton water deities.” Your narrative flows like water, evoking a spirit who is both playful and vengeful, and erotic. How did this story flow into your imagination?

NN: I wrote the first draft of this story in Summer 2015 at the Clarion West Writers Workshop—a six-week speculative writing intensive that pushed me to spin a new yarn each week. I have never written so quickly in my life. I have always loved magical realism—from Morrison to Márquez (he has a shout-out in the piece)—yet I had never written in that vein, even though it’s pretty much my birthright. This bittersweet recounting of a Mami Wata’s relationship with a mortal man draws from West African folklore of sirens and succubi which often channeled societal notions on the dangerous power of independent women and female sexuality.

I’ve found folks like to whip out this mythical notion of a traditional, monolithic “African” as a cudgel to enforce conformity.

The choice of a Mami Wata as the main character shaped the tone and the syntax of the piece with the story vignettes, the memories, coming in like the tide, waves and waves washing over the reader. Vengeful? Well, goddesses deserve their due do they not? Even the semi-domesticated ones. Playful? A sense of humor is a must after centuries lived and especially when you have married a Louisiana boy who is full of jazzy joyfulness. Erotic? Siren, anyone?

JC: Your book title comes from “Kinks,” the longest story in the collection, which covers so much ground, with such wit. In your opening, your narrator, Jennifer Tchandep, encounters eight African hair braiders at the 125th Street subway stop, which sets up the section breaks—relaxed, braided, twisted, pressed, blowout, etc.

Jennifer arrives at work, where she is editing a collection of essays by Dr. Kwame B. Johnson—“oft quoted academic, Black blogosphere sensation,” “He’s Ta-Nehisi Coates meets Marcus Garvey!”—and her lover. She reminisces about their first meeting, their “cultural safaris” to “all things African,” including an Orisha ceremony in the basement of his building. You trace an arc in which Jennifer succumbs to Kwame’s “yoke,” morphs into “some tragic cultural mulatto,” as her friend Ego puts it. “You’re already African… That man is brainwashing you.” At the story’s core, Jennifer describes being the child of a “timid” single mother, one of two Black girls in her Scarsdale elementary class: “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 story raises nuanced questions about authenticity and culture. I’m curious about your inspiration, and how you chose your title.

NN: While the “between two cultures” aspect is particular to these hyphenated-American stories, I think most everyone can identify with the idea of feeling like they are not enough. Imposter syndrome is universal. In “Kinks,” Jennifer is given “the blondest of names” by her mother, was raised as “one of two black girls in a Scarsdale elementary school,” and then went to Yale, a PWI. She has been disconnected from “Black” culture—African and African diasporic. Her arc involves a struggle to assert herself in her romantic relationship even while still defining that very “self,” defining what a multi-valent Black identity means to her, not to the gatekeepers of “authenticity” like Kwame and his ilk.

For instance, African identity is as diverse as the cultures of the 54 states on the continent and the people in the cities and villages therein. But I’ve found folks like to whip out this mythical notion of a traditional, monolithic “African” as a cudgel to enforce conformity, too often claiming their own individual life experiences as the only true template for establishing African identity.

As for the title, it’s an allusion to Black hair, the crooked road to love, and the fraught sexuality depicted in the piece. Originally, I was going to title the story, “The Kinks” but realized the lyrics of “You Really Got Me” might keep popping into people’s heads.

JC: What are you working on now?

NN: I’ve only just recently had the bandwidth to create new work after so much time in production mode with my book. Just wrote a flash fiction piece for the T: The New York Times Style Magazine’s TMicronovel project.

My current writing project is a novella, entitled Fight Like a Girl—an intergalactic bildungsroman about Blue Jupiter, an alien teen from a galaxy far, far away; now growing up in the blighted, urban landscape of Brownsville, Brooklyn. After the interstellar slave ship carrying her family crash lands in the Hudson River, her people are quarantined and interned, forced to fight for first-class citizenship, even as a young Blue fights for a sense of identity. She becomes a girl gangster, then an underground rapper, and later, a folk hero advocating for the rights of marginalized people—aliens and humans alike. The story explores issues of identity, race, class, and gender.

I draw on African and African-American cultures to place Black identities at the center of this narrative universe. For instance, the opening prologue of Fight Like a Girl is written in the style of African American toast traditions which were born out of resistance against oppression—think Stagger Lee and Shine. Complementing that choice, the alien dialect and race featured is my mother’s tribe: the Bamilikes. She is tickled pink imagining sci-fi aficionados at World Con parlaying in African vernacular as they commonly do with make-believe tongues like Dothraki and Klingon.

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Walking on Cowrie Shells

Walking on Cowrie Shells is available from Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2021 by Nana Nkweti.

Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire, is a regular contributor to BBC Culture. She is a former National Book Critics Circle president (and current NBCC vice president/awards and events), and a member of the Writers Grotto. Her reviews, interviews and cultural criticism have appeared in NPR, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, Bookforum, Paris Review, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.





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