Walking on Cowrie Shells: Short Stories


Nana Nkweti
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An adoptee leverages her new parents to fast track her fortunes. A sword-wielding teenager navigates a crush at Comic-Con. A jaded PR man tries to spin a zombie outbreak in West Africa. A mother and daughter search for spiritual meaning in the midst of a family crisis. A water goddess sacrifices her power for the fisherman she loves.

 In these stories, Caine Prize shortlisted author Nana Nkweti pulls from mystery, horror, realism and myth to showcase the complexity of characters whose lives span Cameroonian and American cultures. A dazzling, inventive debut, Walking on Cowrie Shells announces the arrival of a superlative new voice.

Shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing


‘These genre-leaping stories are funny and heartbreaking and wonderfully ferocious; it’s been ages since I’ve read sentences with this much verve and snap. Walking on Cowrie Shells is a delightful, rollicking debut.’
—Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House

‘Nana Nkweti’s exuberant collection is full of stories that weave together love and friendship, horror and comedy, all with great deftness. The characters, straddling continents and cultures, carving out a place for themselves, remind me of home. A wonderful debut.’
—Yaa Gyasi, author of Transcendent Kingdom and Homegoing

‘This feels like a taster of an author who could craft novel after novel, each pivoting to a new realm . . .  it’s a debut collection that sings from the page, story after story.’
—The Skinny

‘A vivacious collection with sentences that sizzle on the page . . . Nkweti’s book is sharp and gorgeous.’
—Women’s Review of Books

‘Nkweti’s beautiful and immersive debut collection challenges hackneyed depictions of a monolithic Africa through an array of dynamic stories that reflect the heterogeneity of Africans and the Cameroonian diaspora. . . Whether Nkweti is writing about water goddesses, zombies, or aspiring graphic novelists, she reveals and celebrates the rich inner lives of those who do not fit neatly into social and cultural categories. But the author’s prose shines the brightest; Nkweti’s sentences soar, enthralling the reader through their every twist and turn, and often ending with a wry punch . . . This is a groundbreaking and vital work.’
—Publishers Weekly

‘Explosive prose and imaginative plots characterize this debut collection… Nkweti’s stories offer a wonderfully immersive experience . . . Deliciously disorienting at times and always energizing, [Nkweti’s] style calls to mind code-switching as well as the rich polyvocality of America . . . Boisterous and high-spirited debut stories by a talented new writer.’
—Kirkus Reviews

‘Walking on Cowrie Shells is a virtuosic, kaleidoscopic debut, one that rejects the paint-by-number templates of storytelling to refresh our sense of what fiction can be and do. Nana Nkweti’s supersonic prose breaks the sound barrier as she crisscrosses genres and cultures and continents, from a zombie outbreak in Cameroon to a künstlerroman set at Comic-Con. Satirical, playful, keenly critical of the racist stereotypes and received narratives that limit women’s lives, these polyphonic tales are a joy to read. Nkweti’s ambitious, amphibious tales capture the diverse and complex experience of ‘hyphenated Americans’ who, like Nkweti, have deep roots in Africa and America. It would be impossible to overstate how much I love this book, and its author.’
—Karen Russell, author of Orange World

‘Nana Nkweti trills and enchants. This totally vibrant collection spins a wonder of love and horror. Each fresh universe is more captivating than the next. Always human, Walking on Cowrie Shells searches through the real and into the hyperreal. Nkweti’s words are dazzlingly energetic, world-ranging and straight-up brilliant.’
—Samantha Hunt, author of The Dark Dark

‘What an intoxicating book! Magical, funny, inventive and joyous, Nkweti’s tales remind us what storytelling can be.’
—Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less

‘Let us thank whoever granted Nana Nkweti her all-access-pass to the human soul, for with it she is able to gain entry into the lives of women and men, children and adults, the damaged and the damaging, the human and the not-quite, all with equal clarity and conviction. Walking on Cowrie Shells is a collection of verve, audacity, and consummate control. That it is her first book makes it all the more astonishing.’
—Kevin Brockmeier

‘Dazzling stories that are as diverse as they are vibrant . . . Nkweti displays her virtuosity and elasticity through her prose. With the ease of a master, she shifts between points of view, between American and African slang, and between the straightforward and the avant-garde. Each story offers not only a different subject but also a different approach, a new plan of narrative attack to conquer each emotional landscape. The result is an intense, sweeping and altogether stunning reading experience.’
—Bookpage, starred review 

Dimensions: B format paperback with flaps
Published: 5 May 2022
Length: 176 pages
ISBN: 9781911648277
E-ISBN: 9781911648345
Cover design: © Walter Green

Publicist: Jordan Taylor-Jones
Agent: Katie Dublinski at Graywolf Press
Foreign rights: The Marsh Agency

About the author

Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian-American writer, Caine Prize finalist, and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her award-winning work has garnered fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross, Byrdcliffe, Kimbilio, Hub City Writers, the Stadler Center for Poetry, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Clarion West Writers Workshop.  

Nana’s writing has been published in journals and magazines such as Brittle Paper,New Orleans Review, and The Baffler, amongst others. Her short story collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells, was published in the US by Graywolf on June 1, 2021.  

Walking on Cowrie Shells

It Takes a Village Some Say

Don’t believe everything you read in the tabloids. We’re nothing like the others. We’re not the Slick Salikis splashed page to page in the papers; a couple so utterly obsessed with living the good life, so con- cerned with keeping up appearances that we pimped out our own daughter. Fabrications. Rag sheet revisionist history. All of it. We did our best by Our Girl.

She was eleven years old when we got her, Our Girl. She came to us with a shocking expedited-shipping efficiency, after years of adop- tion delays: endless home studies, background checks, credit checks, health checks—then ding-dong, ding-dong, a child, handily home- delivered. Imported from the motherland. She was bundled up in this sad little polyester coat, the color of off-brand cola—fudgy-brown, tasteless, fizzy—utterly useless in warding off the cold and bluster of that winter night. We pulled her shivering frame into the warmth of our home and she scuttled off to an entryway corner—so straight- backed and vigilant between our coatrack and umbrella stand.

Her guardian, Mrs. Ndukong, a booming storm cloud of a woman, thundered in behind her. Teeth chattering. Chatter chattering: Hello, hello! It’s so cold, so cold. They had just been to Houston she told us (so warm! ) and then on to (so windy! ) Chicago. She pronounced the latter “Qi-cargo,” sounding vaguely reminiscent of some new age travelware boutique, a nag champa–scented place specializing in vegan carry-ons for the ashram hermitage set. It was the kind of shop we might have frequented in our East Village heydays; before our vacation fund be- came the baby fund, before we moved out of the city to a home with a backyard and a swing set and a better school system for our some- day children.

“The girl? Call her anything, anything you like,” she said. “Call me Aunty Gladys. ‘Mrs. Ndukong.’ Hmph. So formal, so formal. We are good friends now, no so?” Her bobble-headed yes preemptively set- tled the matter to her liking.

We were seated in the formal living room. We could see that Aunty Gladys was impressed. She was meant to be. It was our showcase par- lor: chandeliered, marbled, credenzaed; a place where we received guests with a dazzling solicitousness typically the dominion of am- bassadors feting visiting state dignitaries. Our Girl sat mutely by the flames of our hearth while we beamed at her from the comfy remove of a Chesterfield sofa.

“Mrs. Du . . .” we began, our eyes locked on each other, before we turned, opening up to our newfound “good friend.” “Aunty Gladys, you have no idea how long we’ve been waiting for this. We’re just so grateful—”

“Nonsense, nonsense. It is the girl’s family that should be grate- ful,” she answered. “Grateful that one of you is from Cameroon so she will know her culture. Not grow up like these young girls twerking their makande on television. Godless Americ—” she stopped to gape silently at the salt and pepper set we made sitting there “—sorry, sorry. The cold has scattered my brains.”

Gurnaik Johal for the Guardian, 30 June 2022: What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in June

Heather McDaid for The Skinny, 5 May 2022: ‘A debut collection that sings from the page, story after story’

The New York Times, 9 July 2021: Nana Nkweti’s Tales of Cameroonians at Home and in America

The New Yorker , 7 June 2021: Briefly Noted 

Martha Anne Toll for NPR, 7 June 2021: These Stories Dance Deftly Between America And Cameroon

Oprah Daily , 7 June 2021: 20 Best New Books of June 2021

Kerri Arsenault for Literary Hub, 3 June 2021: 10 Short Story Collections to Read This Summer

Matthew Jackson for Bookpage, 3 June 2021: Starred Review

Debutiful, 1 June 2021: 10 Debut Books to Read This June 

Afreada, 28 May 2021: Exerpt: The Statistician’s Wife

Ainehi Edoro for Brittle Paper, 26 May 2021: Nana Nkweti’s Walking on Cowrie Shells Offers Diverse and Complex Story-worlds

Publisher’s Weekly, 13 April 2021: Starred Review

Kirkus Reviews, 10 March 2021: Starred Review

The Millions, 11 January 2021: Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview

The Rumpus, 11 December 2020: What to read when 2021 is just around the corner

The Johannesburg Review of Books, 17 February 2023, Read an excerpt from Nana Nkweti’s debut short story collection Walking on Cowrie Shells

US edition

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