Voice Leading

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 176 pages. $16.
Nana Nkweti. Photo: Shea Sadulski/Out of Focus Photo Studio.

I spoke with Nana Nkweti during the odd time after my first vaccine shot but before my second, when I felt stuck between the world as it has been since March 2020 and the world as it could be, post-immunity. This sense of being caught in two realities at once felt reminiscent of Nkweti’s debut short-story collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells. As embodied in characters like a pastor’s wife carrying a miraculous pregnancy after years of infertility in “The Devil Is a Liar,” an adopted daughter who isn’t at all like what her parents expect in “It Takes a Village Some Say,” and a jaded publicist during a zombie outbreak in “It Just Kills You Inside,” distinctive voices lead readers through a minefield of expectations. The stories in Walking on Cowrie Shells bleed through several genres including magical realism, horror, and folklore. Nana and I talked about the short story as a form, relying on voice, her readers’ expectations, and decolonizing our ideas of what good fiction can be.

SARAH McEACHERN: Do people read short stories differently than novels? If so, how does that affect your approach to writing?

NANA NKWETI: Instinctively, I find myself writing short stories. As writers, we hear these maxims about the industry like, “publishers prefer novels because they sell more.” But before the algorithms get their hands on one’s thinking, we focus on the big picture of where fiction can go. And writing short stories is just naturally where I prefer to go. As a form, they are incredibly accessible to readers especially in our hard-driving, fast-paced world. Short stories offer us delicious, bite-size pieces of fiction.

I love their density. I love being able to triumphantly draft a dreamworld over the course of a month, or sometimes, even the course of an afternoon. Short stories allow me to concisely convey all that I want to say and for many writers and readers out there, they offer the chance to immerse oneself quickly and simply in the skin of others. I think that’s why short stories work so well in literary journals and workshop classes.

Did these stories feel short to write?

I write characters who impose their syntax, their way of speaking, and their concerns on me immediately. As to how long that process unfolds, the original draft sometimes takes up to a month to realize. Then you revisit the story again and again for structure or to slow down a scene for deeper immersion and meaning making. I’m typically happy with my initial sentences, which pretty much stay the same, especially when I’m cooking with gas since language is my jam.

A story like “Kinks,” I wrote some time ago and its initial form was maybe fifteen pages long, and while it’s about twenty-five pages now, that original fifteen-page kernel remains. Other experiences have happened to me over the intervening years, and I’ve thought, Okay, I can add that and insert that and give this section of the story even more depth.

One of my favorites in this collection is “The Devil Is a Liar.” It’s told in third person, but the church-speak of the characters bleeds into the narration during other scenes, including a conception. Could you talk about how these very particular characters are coming out in your stories on a sentence level?

I’ve interacted with a lot of the places and worlds that are in my stories. I’ve absolutely been in those African charismatic churches so that lyrical and sermonic narrator emerged organically. My siblings and I, we go all over the map—we’re very much like the heroine from “It Takes a Village Some Say” in that regard. We’re code-switchers because we are who we are. We’re Cameroonian, having grown up in Francophone Africa, sharing our internal family-speak, and having lived in predominantly African American enclaves in Brooklyn, and then also in Washington, DC. So, we traverse through several registers and types of speech.

These different narrators have voices that are very insistent, and when they start speaking in my stories, I think, Oh, that’s the vernacular of their world and I understand them. And it makes sense to me. Once I know what those voices sound like, that’s when the writing starts to flow easily for me. It’s like a story that the character is telling independent of me. It’s the voice that pushes me through a narrative. I’m not a structure or outline person with short stories. I’m just going around the mulberry bush with these voices and these characters, and they’re like, “OK, look at this, and I’ll tell you how I would tell my friends about the situation.” I’m just capturing their cadences and the specificity of their worlds.

You mentioned Zora from “It Takes a Village Some Say.” I love how this story about an international adoption is presented as a bifurcated narrative—the first part told in a plural POV by the adoptive parents, and then in the second part, their daughter Zora is speaking. How does “It Takes a Village Some Say” set up the rest of the collection?

I’ve got to give credit to my genius editor at Graywolf, Steve Woodward. He wanted to put “It Takes a Village Some Say” first as the thesis statement for the entire collection. It has this idea of code-switching and highlights my interest in subverting expectations around African identity. The changes in POV prepare readers for the wide range of characters throughout the collection, each inhabiting entirely different spaces and mindsets. These creative impulses are all encapsulated in that very first story, setting up expectations with the readers, our literary contract. That first story says, “Don’t get cozy in your assumptions.

It’s fascinating to consider, because if your people aren’t ready, and if I didn't have a wonderful editor who knew how to position things, then some readers might have felt a sense of dissonance. My suggestion? Read one story, sit with it as you would a novel and allow it to be its own thing. Don’t rush into the next expecting to read a tale that’s a cousin of, or belongs exactly to, the same world that you just visited. Imagine it’s like you’re at a wonderful resort and you just went skydiving, but tomorrow you’re headed for a day at the spa.

Or like going to Epcot one day and Animal Kingdom the next. You’re still at Disney World.

Exactly! That's perfect. You’re still at Disney World, but you might be on an animal safari today looking at lions, or you might be on a roller-coaster ride. Every moment isn’t meant for adrenaline junkies. Sometimes things are going to be quiet, and things are going to be intimate, while some other things are going to be laugh-out-loud funny.

I often find that people are taught to read fiction in a way that really centers Western storytelling. One of my favorite writers is Louise Erdrich, and her novels offer a beautiful blending of Western expectations around fiction alongside a Native storytelling tradition. Your stories seem similarly interested in questioning the expectations readers approach a story with, and how many of these ideas about fiction are really a product of colonization.

I’ve been fortunate this semester to have a number of graduate fiction-workshop students from all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It’s made for some compelling discussions about exactly this subject. In the beginning of our class, I asked all my students to bring in works and short stories that they wanted to emulate, and which codified some of their own interests and pursuits as writers. They brought a wide variety of stories. I’m getting Elena Ferrante and Toni Morrison but I also had a student who brought in Yoko Ogawa’s Granta piece, “Harmonica Hare.”

Ogawa’s story offered a perfect jumping-off point for conversations around Western notions about plot and structure that are often imposed on Eastern writing traditions. Just seeing that on the page helped me understand that this writer, who had Japanese and Filipino ancestry, had had their writing affected by all these Western ideas of the parts “necessary” to make up fiction. When we would workshop our pieces later on, I could return to these ideas and reflect back that certain craft elements—a strict structure, a main character, a plot—are available to you, but we don’t have to be pedantic or try to superimpose a structure that is alien to the kind of storytelling someone is trying to write.

There’s the publishing industry and what they want, but if you’re fortunate enough to work with people who are trying to help you find a story’s own internal wiring, then you just continue in that world and do what you do best. When you try to play to the crowd or play to that alleged perfect reader, you may start to lose the joy of writing for yourself.

Sarah McEachern is writer in Brooklyn. Recent work has been published by the Ploughshares Blog, BOMB, The Believer, The Rumpus, Split Lip, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Full Stop. Personal essays and fiction have been published by Entropy, Catapult, Pacifica Literary Review, and Pigeon Pages, among others.