On the Season One finale of Ursa Short Fiction, co-hosts Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton talk to Nana Nkweti, author of the acclaimed short story collection, Walking on Cowrie Shells (Graywolf Press).
Nkweti’s story “Dance the Fiya Dance,” performed by Enih Agwe, was featured in Episode 15.
On her journey as a writer:
“The journeys are long and sometimes the road is rocky, but you have to do it. I think that the real journey is from Nana Nkweti age 9 writing little sci-fi Jane Austen mashups, that was very much my trajectory. I was a bluestocking young woman who was just really introverted, and most of my besties were in books. And I always knew that I was going to write stories.
“So, fast forward many, many, many years, and me finally privileging that writing self and allowing myself to put my voice in the world, that’s the journey.”
Author photo by Shea Sadulski / Out of Focus Studio
About the Author
Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian-American writer, Whiting Award winner, and AKO Caine Prize finalist whose 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. Her first book, Walking on Cowrie Shells, was hailed by The New York Times review as a “raucous and thoroughly impressive debut” with “stories to get lost in again and again.” The collection is also a New York Times Editor’s Choice, Indie Next pick, recipient of starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and BookPage; and has been featured in The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Oprah Daily, The Root, NPR, Buzzfeed, and Thrillist; amongst others. The work features elements of mystery, horror, myth, and graphic novels to showcase the complexity and vibrance of African diaspora cultures and identities. She is a professor of English at the University of Alabama where she teaches creative writing courses that explore her eclectic literary interests: ranging from graphic novels to medical humanities onto exploring works by female authors in genres such as horror, Afrofuturism, and mystery.
Episode Links and Reading List:
- “Dance the Fiya Dance” (Ursa)
- Walking on Cowrie Shells (Graywolf Press)
- Nana Nkweti’s website
- “Nana Nkweti’s Tales of Cameroonians at Home and in America” (Deesha Philyaw, The New York Times Book Review)
- Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
- Bloodchild, Octavia Butler
- “The Secret Sci-Fi Life of Alice B. Sheldon” (NPR)
More from Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton:
- The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw
- The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton
Support Future Episodes of Ursa Short Fiction
Become a Member at ursastory.com/join.
Nana Nkweti: The first sentence of that story goes, “I’ve got 38 aunts called Comfort and all of them are assholes.”
Dawnie Walton: Hi everybody. I’m Dawnie Walton.
Deesha Philyaw: And I’m Deesha Philyaw.
Dawnie Walton: And this is the Ursa Podcast, where we geek out on all things short fiction. On this podcast, we’ll interview authors like today’s illustrious guest, Nana Nkweti. We’ll discuss collections and stories we love and shine a light on new writers and those who never got their due.
Deesha Philyaw: But we’re not just talk, we’re publishers too. Over at ursastory.com, we’ve created a new home for short fiction from some of today’s most thrilling writers, as well as emerging voices. With stories you can read on your phone and audio stories that you can listen to right here in your favorite podcast app. We’re doing all of this with support from you. Become an Ursa Member today by subscribing on the Apple Podcasts or by going to ursastory.com/join.
Dawnie Walton: And like I mentioned today, we are talking to Nana Nkweti, the author of Walking On Cowrie Shells. Now I’m going to give a little bio information on Nana, but then we’re going to get really loose and tell a story about what happened when all three of us met up in Miami. So, first of all, let me say, Nana, I love your Twitter bio. I have to read that first: “Camerican. Cultural Carnivore. Professor and Professional Prose-Slanger.”
Nana Nkweti: I love it. Say it with some bass.
Dawnie Walton: So, now, I’m going to do the buttoned-up version. Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian American writer and an AKO Caine Prize finalist, whose work has garnered fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross, and many, many others. Her first book, Walking on Cowrie Shells was hailed by The New York Times, by Deesha Philyaw, in fact, as “A raucous and thoroughly impressive debut” with “stories to get lost in again and again.” Her work features elements of mystery, horror, myth, and graphic novels to showcase the complexity and vibrance of African diaspora cultures and identities. She’s a professor of English at the University of Alabama, where she teaches creative writing courses that explore her eclectic literary interests. Nana, welcome.
Nana Nkweti: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Thank you, Dawnie, thank you, Deesha. I’m so appreciative to be here.
Deesha Philyaw: We are happy to be talking with you again, after, as Dawnie said, our fun time meeting you in Miami.
Dawnie Walton: So, let’s paint the picture.
Nana Nkweti: Uh-oh, I thought what happened in Miami stayed in Miami.
Deesha Philyaw: What had happened was…
Dawnie Walton: It’s all love here. So, it is late November. It is a precious window of time between when the Delta variant eases and Omicron came and put its foot on our necks. So, that’s where we’re at. It is cold in New York City. It is cold in Pittsburgh. We are looking forward to some warmth, some heat, beaches. We get to Miami; we’re excited to meet each other. It rains almost the entire damn time, it rains. And so, there’s a big party that everyone’s excited to go to. It was going to be at the… what’s it The Standard? The rooftop on The Standard. We all packed our cute clothes. We’re excited. It’s still raining.
So, it was me and you and Dantiel Moniz, and Brian Broome, the Kirkus winner for, Punch Me Up To the Gods. It was Chet’la Sebree, the poet, it was Black excellence. It was incredible. And we are also excited because Nana Nkweti is coming.
Deesha Philyaw: In the house.
Nana Nkweti: Boom, boom, boom.
Dawnie Walton: In the house. We are crowded under this awning because it is pouring outside and we’re trying to stay dry. And Nana comes through with her family and they are dressed to the gods.
Deesha Philyaw: To the nines.
Dawnie Walton: So, Nana sits with us, we were talking about all things lit world, we’re kiki-ing, we’re laughing, we’re feeling like kings and queens because this is our night. Nana’s family has gone inside, they’re getting their drinks. They’re actually having a party, a good time. When they come back out, Nana says to her sister, “Can we take a picture? Can you take a group picture of us?”
And so we’re huddled up and we’re trying to get ourselves together and get our poses and everything. And she’s taking the picture and changing the lighting and everything. And I think Nana at some point you said something to your sister, “come on,” and finish taking the picture. And your sister said, “I’m sorry, I’m not used to hanging out with book nerds like y’all” and we fell out. And let me tell you…
Deesha Philyaw: We were like the cool kids, but then…
Dawnie Walton: Listen, she busted that bubble. And let me tell you, I fell in love with you then, I fell in love with your family, because it felt so real and so warm and I felt like I knew you a little bit more than any bio could say. So, we are so happy to have you here.
Nana Nkweti: First of all, Dawnie, let me say that the way you tell the story, I was like, “what happened next?” You had me riveted, and I was there. I was like, “Oh no, they did not.” Oh, my goodness.
Dawnie Walton: Oh, my gosh. Okay, well now let’s get into our little conversation. Your collection is absolutely stunning.
Nana Nkweti: Oh, thank you.
Dawnie Walton: …And so eclectic and had me laughing, had me thinking. I am just curious about the journey of this collection, from writing it, to finding the right publishing home for it, all of that good stuff.
Nana Nkweti: Well, you know the journeys are long and sometimes the road is rocky, but you have to do it. I think that the real journey is from Nana Nkweti age nine to writing little sci-fi-slash-Jane Austen mashups, that was very much my trajectory. It was like a bluestocking young woman who was just really introverted, and most of my besties were in books. And I always knew that I was going to write stories.
So, fast forward many, many, many years, and me finally privileging that writing self and allowing myself to put my voice in the world, that’s the journey. You go to school, you’re a good daughter of immigrants, so you’re gonna to law school. You’re going to get the safe job. But then finally making sure that my family was okay, that these very fancy folks you were talking about, have had all gone through school and were educated and then finally going back and saying, “Hey, what about that book I’ve always wanted to write? What about that book that I have in me? It’s my time now.”
Deesha Philyaw: That’s really beautiful.
Nana Nkweti: Oh, thank you.
Deesha Philyaw: And you kick off the collection with a lovely and very specific dedication to your parents. And so, in what ways did your family contribute to the spirit and wisdom of this collection?
Nana Nkweti: My family as Dawnie’s anecdote revealed, we’re incredibly close knit, they’re very, very interested in the world and they’ve got a range of people. And it’s just like being in that place where you have a family that allows for you to be all your multiple selves, to be Whitman-esque and contain those multitudes, it was wonderful.
I grew up in a house with my father and my mother always having books around us. We always had a library, a space where that was kind of privileged. It was like the holy of holies. So, I was reading books from a very young age that might’ve been way too inappropriate for my young tender years.
Deesha Philyaw: Been there.
Nana Nkweti: But it was just a wonderful inculcation and introduction to reading and just reading books, with literature, with a capital L, to… my brother actually read the encyclopedia from A to Z when he was young.
So, that’s the kind of family I grew up in, where we’re just really privileged reading and that kind of space for the imagination. So, yeah, that’s my family and my mom and pops… I knew that the book was going to be dedicated to them from the very beginning because I knew that they were the blueprint for that.
Dawnie Walton: I love talking about point of view. You and I both went to Iowa, and we talk about point of view all the time. And I actually, disagreed with a lot of our professors about what they had to say about point of view. But what I want to say is that I really enjoy the stories in the collection that offered, if even for a paragraph or two, another voice, or another perspective. I’m thinking about “Night Becomes Us” where we get not only Zeinab’s perspective but for that one short section and those couple of paragraphs, the perspective of the teenage suicide bomber who kills her mother. Or in “The Devil Is a Liar” you’re alternating between the perspectives of Temperance and Glory, her mother. How do you know when a story is calling for a dip into another point of view? Is that a decision that you make from the start or is it something that evolves as you’re writing?
Nana Nkweti: I think it changes from story to story. I knew that in “The Devil Is a Liar,” I was going to be telling these dual perspectives because this conversation and this relationship between the mother and daughter, Temperance and Glory, was incredibly, it was central to their narrative. Like, how would they navigate their generation gap and their levels of spirituality and come to a place of understanding?
So, I knew I would be moving between the two of them, like a dance. With that suicide bomber telling Hanifa’s perspective in “Night Becomes Us,” I was very much aware that I didn’t want her to be vilified. I didn’t want her to become a place like, either this tragic figure or the person who was just like a soulless killer. I wanted us to understand why she was in that space at that climactic moment.
So, intuitively, I just knew I had to enter her space and you are correct sometimes in those craft classes, they tell us, “Oh, we can’t do that kind of head hopping. You can’t switch POVs mid-story like that.” That’s verboten and all these huge “Do Not Enter” signs around certain choices and you just have to go with your gut and take that narrative leap and see if your reader is going to go with you. So, I’m glad it landed for people, and that it didn’t feel dissonant. And then people in that space at that time allowed her humanity to be shown, even though she was soon gone from the page and from that world.
Deesha Philyaw: And this idea of doing what you want to and the boldness just comes through the entire collection. And even in some non-text ways. So, you have included illustrations, photos, and graphics, in some of the stories like “Rain Check at MomoCon” and “Schoolyard Cannibal,” and then even the diary font in “Dance the Fiya Dance” that breaks up the narrative there. How did these elements become part of the collection?
Nana Nkweti: I was very aware—honestly, the great thing about going through and doing this book later in life is that I had so much moxie. I’ve always known what I wanted to do, had been very singular-minded. But there are zero effs to give by the time, you know, you’re grown and you’re just like, This is how we are going to do this. You honor your own choices and you just want to have your say. I was like, if I’m going to be doing this book, I want it to be gonzo. I wanted to do all the things that I needed to do on the page.
I knew that I can’t be—especially, like, we’re talking about moments of ekphrasis and the graphic novel. I’m doing a whole story at Comic-Con, of course, there’s going to be a graphic element. Of course, there’s gotta be a comic book page. If I could have a whole anime, you know… the technology does not exist, but one day, if I could have video popping up from the book, I would have had the cartoon animation going.
I knew I was going to do that. When I was looking at fonts and they sent me initial drafts and it didn’t have that kind of humanist handwriting font, I was like, “Okay, now we have to go back and do this,” and I just researched fonts because, even in my early non-production-valued way, I was adding those elements and they were integral to the understanding of the story.
Because that’s what our world looks like, where all of our senses are stimulated. We see, we smell, we taste, we hear. So, if I can have music lyrics in there and references to music, references to food, and have those visuals, which are very much part of the graphic world and very much part of “Schoolyard Cannibal,” which is interrogating the use of images to make certain people feel small, I’m going to do that.
Dawnie Walton: You actually used a word that I have seen a lot, but I don’t know what it means. What is, “ekphrasis,” you said?
Nana Nkweti: Yes. That’s basically just having the use of… I mean more formerly when let’s say you’re going to a museum and you’re writing a poem in response to a piece that you see. And then maybe that moment you’re literally doing a one-to-one ratio representation of that particular art form, but now in narrative form. But for this, you know, I’m just referencing, any moment where the image often came first. Any moment where my text is in conversation with the visual elements.
Dawnie Walton: I love that. And I also find that I’m doing that as well when I’m writing, you know, when I was researching Opal and Nev looking at photography that really inspired things that happen. And there is this symbiosis between a song and an image and all of that. And this segues very well into my next question which is, there is a lot of playfulness in your work with form, with humor, and with pop culture references, which you know I love.
And so, I always love when I feel like the writer is having fun on the page. And I wondered which story did you have the most fun writing? When you were sitting typing and you were making yourself laugh or anything like that?
Nana Nkweti: It’s so interesting. So many people have referred to the humor in all of the pieces, even in the most dark… Like somebody was saying, it goes from the comedic to profound. I don’t realize that because that’s who I am naturally. I’ve got a kind of dry, snarky humor and I come from a family that loves to laugh.
So, once again, that idea of containing the multitudes, like, if I wanted the narratives to reflect all the facets of the human condition, humor is one of them. So, sexy times is one of them. So, there are sexy moments and there are fun moments and there are moments of horror and pain and pathos. I just wanted that full evolution or that full movement through all those type of ranges and registers of expression.
So, making me laugh out loud, I would say… I don’t want to say her name because she who shall not be named in “It Takes a Village Some Say” like, the Their Girl, the protagonist in that, she was just very…She has so much moxie, I say that she’s got a disposition of an Uzi because she comes there unapologetic. She was like… “And you best believe,” that’s her energy. She’s got that kind of raw, raw girl kind of energy and you’re just like, “Wow, are we doing that out here? Really? Really?” So, I would say she had me do a couple of shock chuckles every once in a while.
So, it’s only afterward really that I realized that sometimes that humor comes through, but because it’s so natural to who I am as a writer, am not always thinking about it when I’m doing it, but somebody will tell me, “Oh, that had me laugh out loud.” And I was like, “Okay, I see. I can see that.”
Deesha Philyaw: And actually, “It Takes a Village Some Say” was one of my favorites in the collection. I mean, I loved every single story, but if I had to choose some favorites, that was definitely one of mine. It’s satirical. I am a sucker for satire. And as I noted in my review of the Times, this particular story is set against the backdrop of social media, and celebrity culture. And we witnessed this unlikely collision of findom, which is financial domination kink for you vanilla folks out there.
Dawnie Walton: I have to say, I must be vanilla because I did not…I was like, “Oh, I’m learning something today. Okay.” [Laughter]
Deesha Philyaw: Don’t ask me how I know.
Nana Nkweti: Tell it. Tell it. So, is this that kind of podcast? [Laughter]
Deesha Philyaw: Yes, it is. We go there. So, you pull together findom and the murky business of international adoption. And one of my favorite lines is when the white adoptive mother, the mother of this Cameroonian child observes: “People think Bono and Bill Gates are supporting the continent. They have no idea it is us.”
Listen, the way I cackled. I could hear that white woman saying that line. And that’s the thing about… we were talking about this on our last episode, in these days, satire runs really close…and speculative fiction. Because the world and the state it is in, it just feels kind of real sometimes, it feels very realistic. Yeah, this is satire, but it’s really close. And I just love how, throughout the collection, there are moments where you bring irreverence and nuance to some sensitive subjects, including the tensions between Africans and Black Americans, as you do for example, in “Dance the Fiya Dance.”
You also take that up again with a lot of tenderness in, “Schoolyard Cannibal,” where we meet a Black girl of Cameroonian descent who is mistreated by her Black American peers. And as I was reading, I was like, “Ooh, this story can go a lot of different directions.” What were some of your considerations as you were crafting “Schoolyard Cannibal”?
Nana Nkweti: I would say, first of all, thank you for your comment on the satire. Because I feel like we are living in this dystopian moment. Like, you know, everything is just—truth is way stranger than fiction these days, very much so. And for “Schoolyard Cannibal” I think, and with all my stories, it was incredibly important for me that I just present stories and human beings in moments that feel as authentic as possible that feel like real human beings, real concerns written on the page.
And that story, I want to say it almost didn’t make it into the book because it was something that was very tender to me. It was a story I came and made my way to only after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and having that kind of language and understanding the idea of how to tell tales of microaggression, tell tales of feeling lack in a society.
And I almost didn’t put it in there very much so, because I did not want it to be a space of perpetuating tensions between Africans and African Americans. I didn’t want people to say “Mm-hmm” and just be like—and not see other perspectives. So, when I’m writing those perspectives, as you can see, I kind of go between trying to understand, why are those tensions there. I’m writing into them and depicting them. I did not make them. I did not invent them. They’re things that I’ve seen in my life growing up, moments where African identity was very much not popular. Nobody wanted to be African, white folks didn’t want to be African, Chinese people didn’t. Nobody wanted to be African.
But that’s the story of unfortunately Black identity kind of writ large. Nobody wants the struggle and the pain. They only want when things are on and popping and flossy. So, I did not want that to be out there. I honestly, at one point, I literally said this to my white editor, I was like “I don’t know if I want white folks to see this.” I don’t want anyone knowing our business.
Deesha Philyaw: Our dirty laundry.
Nana Nkweti: Yeah, our dirty laundry. I don’t know if I want them up in our business like this. But I did want this to be something that will spark conversations. And if somebody can have a conversation and they can kind of bridge that gap, then, let it be, let it be doing that kind of work out in the world so that the next time you say something out of pocket to somebody about somebody who has a different heritage from you, you will just be like, “Oh, why am I really saying this? Let’s interrogate that.”
Have we now been pitted against each other with these kinds of false dichotomies that don’t really exist? Like, you think, okay, oh, African Americans have it easy because they had this, and you’re feeling that Africans have it easy because they have this. I’m just like, who’s really running things? What is gained from us being in kind of opposition like that? So, that was why I ended up writing it.
Deesha Philyaw: Who benefits? It ain’t us.
Nana Nkweti: It does not. It does not benefit us. So, I literally grew up in that space. I grew up in Southeast DC and all my teachers were Black, everybody was African American then I go to Cameroon, West Africa and the rest of my high school years spent there. So, those Black spaces very much inform who I am as a person.
My identity is the people who raised me up from those two cultures. So, every time I saw that kind of dissonance and that level of pushing against each other, I was just like, “I am because you guys are,” so I’ve never wanted that to be our portion.
Deesha Philyaw: Thank you. Thank you so much for that.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, that was incredible. And it made me also think about, Deesha, you mentioned this story as well as part of that question, “Dance the Fiya Dance,” where you have the heroine who is… and correct me if I say this wrong, called Akata. Did I say it correctly?
Nana Nkweti: Yeah, you want to put a little twang in it like you did before, Akata. She’s Akata.
Dawnie Walton: Akata. Can you explain what that is to the listeners?
Nana Nkweti: Yes. So she is Halfrican, her father is from Brooklyn, New York, he is African American and then her mother is from Cameroon, West Africa. And Akata is a nickname for like African Americans, and I’ve seen that all through West Africa. So, I used to think as everybody thinks that those slangs only come from their culture. But it was initially, I believe was neutral…but then, later on, I kept on hearing it so many times in words of derision, use with a little bit of like, “those Akatas.”
So, it was one of those things where I always found myself having to do this kind of ambassadorial duties, like, really now? Is that what we’re doing? And that moment when I’m having Catherine speak like, “This is my background and you are here because Akatas did this for you to have a place in this country.” Those are conversations I have had.
Dawnie Walton: Well, I fell out at this part because you treat this subject with a lot of tenderness but also humor in the collection. And there is a moment where the protagonist of the story is at this wedding and she’s caught the eye of, Phillip, who I think is sort of an eligible bachelor and he likes her very much, he says to her, “My sister warned me about the dangers of American girls.”
“His voice is whispery against the coil of my ear. He pulls me close. ‘Did she now?’ I smile at him over my shoulder as I settle into him. I may be only half American, but I rub that half against him for all I’m worth.” I said, Okay, girl, okay.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes. That was a moment. I love that.
Nana Nkweti: So, you all like the sexy times, with your findom knowledge that came out of nowhere.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes. I’m telling on myself today. Ain’t no shame.
Dawnie Walton: We love sexiness. We love the juiciness. We love it all.
Nana Nkweti: Once again, it’s part of the human existence and condition, everything I wanted in there, I want it to feel tender. I want it to feel raw. I want it to feel sexy when it needs to be sexy. And I want it to be satirical when it needs to be satirical, just to show the fullness of these characters.
Dawnie Walton: And for the collection as a whole, looking back, what do you wish you could go back and say to pre-publication Nana about the process?
Nana Nkweti: Oh, my goodness, It’s going to be all right. Sounding like a rap song over here. It feels like a Herculean task just getting a book to an agent and then to an editor at a publishing house that really gets behind your work. And then after that, there is a whole long period of editing. And you don’t even know when you are going to actually launch this book into the world. But once it’s there, it’s just like that mother who feels like she’s been pregnant for 22 months, like, you’re just like, “Oh, thank you, it’s going to be okay.”
And once you do it, especially because I’m a debut author, once you’ve done it, it just makes you feel like nothing is insurmountable. I can do this again and again and again. And I look forward to that process.
Deesha Philyaw: That’s awesome. How does a story typically start for you?
Nana Nkweti: Oh, I’m very, very voice-driven. I call it almost being like possessed or having somebody come and whisper in your ear and tell you the juiciest tale and you kind of have to follow them because they’re walking off into the night and you’re just like, “I don’t know where they’re taking me. That dark alley looks scary, but I want to hear the rest of this story.” And that’s what happens. I’m very voice-driven. So, these characters come to me.
Even my first paragraphs are pretty much unchanged because once I get that voice in my head, it’s almost like they are just immediately sitting next to me. Met at a smokey bar and walked me down the street and we’re going to have our time together and they’re just like, okay. And the more of the story goes and then they are like, bye. And then it’s interesting. So, that’s how it happens. I’m very, very voice-driven.
Dawnie Walton: That sounds thrilling to be led down or led into some cool place. I love it. And then in terms of revision, how quickly do you write your first draft, and then how many revisions do you typically do?
Nana Nkweti: So, it’s interesting because my stories ended up going through the more formal review process because some of these stories were written for Iowa and written for a workshop environment. So, you’d end up at least getting one revision cycle done with people who were very interested in helping you grow as a writer.
So, for the stories that I wrote outside of the workshop process, I would say, I would do one or two revisions of them. But the voices very much stay the same, and the first paragraph very much stays the same. I think what happens often, when you get to an editor and what have you, they have you do this kind of… yes, sometimes you kill darlings, but often they’re just asking me to linger and stay in a moment and expand on a moment, a scene.
So, that whole findom section that you loved, Deesha, it was not there initially. I think a previous incarnation of this story was published and that version went from her talking about feeling like she was not being seen in her American high school, and the next thing you know, we hear that she has done certain things to get money. Like, she worked as Comely Cleaners, the semi-nude topless nude, semi-nude cleaning service to get money.
But I really went back, at the advice of my editor, and just sat at that moment and walked her process, watch her kind of empire building, to get to her version of the American Dream because she just like, by any means necessary, I’m going to be who I was meant to be. If America is transactional in this way, I’m going to figure out how to game the system and not get played by it. So, I just spent more time expanding upon something that I might’ve just mentioned in the first incarnation.
Dawnie Walton: And I actually have a follow-up question to something you said. This a question for any listeners out there who are readers, but maybe not writers. What is the difference between a story developed in a workshop environment versus outside of it, in your mind?
Nana Nkweti: It’s interesting, I know people— there’s a lot of discussion about MFA or NYC, people who have issues with workshop spaces, and worried that they have a flattening effect and that writers won’t get to be themselves, but I never experienced that. Once again, like I said, by that time I was really privileged in my writing. I was pretty sure that I had a voice. I knew what I wanted to say. And you learn that not everybody is necessarily going to be your ideal reader, even that ideal reader might not be that person who is saying they love everything.
That ideal reader that you want is a person who loves things and sees possibilities and helps you get where you need to go in terms of expanding as a writer and growing as a writer. So, I felt very fortunate to be in that kind of workshop experience. My stories that were done outside of the workshop experience, I think, my main problem was this idea of being, like I said, I’m a good immigrant daughter. I have way too many perfectionist tendencies. So, sometimes I have to get out of my own way and allow things and let them go and not say, “Oh, I’m just going to revise this again.” Or, “Let’s put it out into the world.”
I think that we are in those spaces, that privilege literature, it just makes you just do things faster, because other people have given you that cosign and that dap, and you’re just like, “Okay, I don’t have to be afraid. Let me just go ahead and put this out in the world.” You see your colleagues around you doing that, your peers around you doing that, they read your work and you’re just like, Okay, this is doable. It makes the whole process feel feasible, demystifies it.
Deesha Philyaw: I also have a process question for you. How do you know when a story is finished?
Nana Nkweti: Oh, this is going to sound so weird because like I said, those stories were very voice-driven, and I feel like they’re like summer love, it’s like telling somebody, how do you know that fling is over? How do you know? I feel like you have that wonderful time and you know that it was a season. So, that’s typically what happens to me. I feel like my characters tell me that, you know, they literally go “and scene,” and like they tell me all they have to tell me.
And some people don’t agree and some people are like, “Oh, this could be a whole novel.” And I was like, I know in my gut, No, it couldn’t, we’re done. You know, that character has told me what they wanted me to tell about their life, and then you just say farewell and use it. It feels bittersweet. And you love being in that world and being in that space. You loved hearing them talk. But once they’re done telling you their story, they’re done. And I think some people could benefit from that [clear’s throat] Novelists! [Laughter]
Dawnie Walton: Oh, the shade. I’m sweating over here.
Nana Nkweti: But you know how it is, I feel like there is compactness and some people are just going on longer than, you know, when the party is done and everybody else has left and gone home and you are ready to take your shoes off and you are still hanging around and trying to have… you know? I feel like that’s one of the benefits. As for me, I just intrinsically and instinctively know that when my characters are done with me, they’re done with me. I don’t feel like I have to keep things going artificially.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, I could use some of that. Like I need a little bit more of that.
Nana Nkweti: Oh, my god, Dawnie. Are you feeling…”
Dawnie Walton: No, I do.
Nana Nkweti: Do not. I was not even talking about you. I’m just making fun.
Dawnie Walton: No, no, no. See, I felt a little indicted. But… you know I’m kidding. No, but it’s true, when you’re saying that you have a gut instinct for when the party is over, I don’t really. And I love short fiction. And one of the reasons why I love short fiction, is because I find it very difficult to write short fiction because I don’t know when the end is, and I often keep stuffing the world full of things, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger instead of at a manageable scale where it can end. I just keep opening new doors and threads.
So, I greatly admire the stories in this collection. I feel very satisfied when I reached the end of each one. And I think that has to do with your gut feeling for when the party is over.
Nana Nkweti: Thank you. Honestly, I feel like that’s a wonderful thing to say. Because I appreciate that where I landed, allowed people to feel like something has expanded, they’ve gained something, even if they don’t have all the answers, I feel like that reflects life. I feel like we get to the end of a character story, it’s a short time with them and they might not have everything figured out but you can see a nod in that direction. Or there’s something that feels like there is a sense of closure for you and that’s all I want for readers to gain when they read.
Dawnie Walton: I thought maybe we could do a little bit of an inspirational moment and do a flashback to your first-ever fiction publication. I think we all write for a while before we even think about sending our work out and think about where we’re going to place it. But just tell us the year and the publication and what the story was and what it was like to find out that it was going to be published.
Nana Nkweti: Oh, this is a very, “what had happened was…” So, let me do some caveats. So, there’s the first time that my work was published and then there’s the first time I was actually paid for my work being published. That felt like, I have arrived, I’m grown now, I’m a grown writer. I’m out here in these publishing streets.
And that was with The Baffler, “It Takes a Village Some Say” where I got a check, I got some pocket money and I felt like I’m a professional. And that was just as recently as 2019. And I will say it is about me too as well. Some of these stories were done at various moments in my life. I have stories that didn’t make it to this collection but were finished earlier. But when I felt like I was actually now starting to submit work and then getting a paycheck for work and feeling, okay, this is something that I can make a life around, that was the first time.
And that story was “It Takes a Village Some Say” that was the opening story of my book and was a finalist for the 2019 Caine Prize. So, I feel like, it stood me in good stead in terms of making me feel like I’m grown now and I can honor my writing.
Deesha Philyaw: And so what is writing that story and the success of that story that sparked the idea to develop a collection?
Nana Nkweti: So, there are some other stories that came before that, but that one was the one that… it was interesting, as you know, this is what happens, you have other stories that go out in the world. I had another story that was published, but it was published in-house by our school journal. It doesn’t really feel like, you got that co-sign from the world, like the publishing world at large. You feel like you’re still kind of finding your bearings. But this one was the story that made me feel I should go ahead and honor all these other stories that have come before that I feel already should be part of a collection, that very much so set me on my way.
Deesha Philyaw: Can you talk us through the process of getting an agent, getting the deal, and that sort of thing?
Nana Nkweti: Oh, yeah. So, as Dawnie knows, Iowa is interesting for that because they actually have these agents, I don’t know whether they’re flying in on some special, kind of Avengers jet or something like that. But they fly in and come talk to us. And it’s not until I started teaching at other MFA programs that I realized that it’s such a privilege because they’ll have agent talks to us and they’ll spend time with us, do a whole day where they’re just trying to find the next big thing.
And now it’s a weird kind of bittersweet thing because the poets are there looking at you like, “Oh, where are our agents?” And it’s like, ah, crap. And then you’re also looking at if you have a bad agent, you don’t necessarily feel your power yet, so you’re just kind of like, “Oh, I hope they like me.” You don’t know that’s not where you’re supposed to be coming from yet.
Yeah, but my agent came to Iowa and one of the reasons why I went with my agent was because I was interested in having an agent that would allow me to… this agent, they’re headquartered in L.A. And I felt like, they will allow me to spread my wings and not be like, “Oh, we don’t do television writing. We poo-poo that.” Because I was just like, oh, what if I want to get into graphic novels or I want to do this? I just want it to be with people who allowed me that kind of breadth of expression.
And also, he was the only person who talked about money. While other people were clutching their pearls and just like, “Well, I never, we are all about the arts.” I was like, I’m a practical African girl. I want to know how to pay my bills, what does this whole industry look like? How do you sustain practically, a writing career? So, he talked about money. He talked about the writing industry being overwhelmingly white. So, it was a very real talk, and I was here for it. So, that was why I chose my agent.
And then I ended up choosing my publisher because he wrote me this wonderful love letter to my book and he had a vision for the book. So, now when I had other, you know, my book went to auction and there were other agents who were interested, I was like, “Where’s that love letter though? Where’s the love letter?” Honestly, I literally did this. There was another that offered me way more money. But I was just like, “but where’s that vision though? Where’s that vision statement? I need to understand.”
It was more important for me. The money is wonderful, but I feel that that can come. But if I didn’t honor the artistry, if I didn’t honor and work with somebody who had a vision, a way of thinking, a real love for the book and knew what I was trying to do and allowed me to even grow within that editorial space, then what was the point? What have I been doing all this for? Why did I leave my job in Brooklyn and move to Iowa?
What are the choices I was making so that I could honor the creation of this art form? As much as I love my agent talk about money, I was just like—sometimes you have to put that practicality aside and say, “Hey, it’s very important for me that all of this kind of sacrifice and this whole journey that that little nine-year-old me has made till now is honored. And that I’m working with somebody who does so.”
And that was what I got from Steve Woodward at Graywolf, he just got it. I was like, you never know, because how is this Midwest guy going to get little African me? But he was just like, ‘Go more gonzo.” Deesha, he gave you findom, he gave you the title for “Rain Check at MomoCon.” He was like that whole section was like, I just went even blurtier. Because sometimes my problem is… or not even a problem, but things that I’m interested in, I’m very interested in them. I’m geeky, I’m nerdy.
But I’m just like, “Oh, nobody wants to hear me rant about Black X-Men.” But he is like, “Do that girl, do it, do it, go in.” So, now all of a sudden, I’m adding to all the stuff that, you know, I thought I had gone gonzo before, but I had gone to a certain point, I was just like, “Ah, let me just let the layperson enjoy this.” But I was like, now I’m making all these Marvel references and now, I’m going Hadouken energy burst, stuff that’s very much part of my own very Black nerdiness. But I wasn’t necessarily privileging all of that, but he was like, “Go hard or go home.” And I was like, “Okay, we’re doing this.”
Dawnie Walton: I love it. That’s so important to have a team behind you who just wants you to be the most you that you can possibly be.
Deesha Philyaw: Absolutely.
Dawnie Walton: I love the way that you talk about finding your agent, because in publishing, the relationship between the writer and the publishing industry is so skewed and writers often forget that your agent works for you.
Deesha Philyaw: Oh, listen, we need to do a whole show on that. I know it’s not unique to short story writers, but that would be a public service, but anyway, don’t get me started.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, and it really was a benefit and a privilege being at Iowa and having the agents, and sometimes a couple of editors come to meet with you because it levels sets that expectation of what you need to be looking for professionally. So, yes, I’m glad y’all talked about money. I’m glad that your editor had you putting in all that stuff that you were maybe a little hesitant to do, but was truly reflective of the direction that you wanted to go.
Nana Nkweti: Very much so. I was just fortunate, and it’s something that I pass on. You were talking about doing a whole business stuff. I do all these business of writing conversations with my students every single time I can, because I feel like all that stuff is cloaked in mystery. And people are just so happy to be here. Oh, if I can do it like some wizard opening behind the curtain, you can see, okay, this is not so scary. This is how things work. This is what makes this industry tick. I’m going to do that, you know?
Dawnie Walton: What’s your favorite story collection or collections that you’ve loved recently?
Nana Nkweti: So, it’s interesting, right? I’m only now getting a chance to start reading for pleasure again. I was just like, “Oh Lord,” especially working on my own book and trying to birth that book baby, and that’s a whole thing. You know how that is, Dawnie. That whole year, it was like a lost year.
Dawnie Walton: Oh, yeah.
Nana Nkweti: It was just like all I was doing was teaching and editing and then teaching and launching and touring. So, I’m only now getting back to just reading for pleasure and everything. So, I know this is going to seem like fan service, but I’m totally reading Deesha’s book right now. I know am so behind the eight ball, but it is what it is. And when you’re in the middle of doing your own book, you’re like, “Okay, nothing else can…” you’re in that space. And then COVID hit, and you’re in the middle of a global pandemic. You’re just trying to live.
So, I’m really now just enjoying and relishing just reading again. But if you want to go back into the archives, we’re talking Octavia Butler’s Blood Child, we’re talking ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. We’re talking Junot Díaz Drown. And then I have all my people, like, when I’m thinking about somebody who made me go like, “Ooh, can we do that? Is that really what it is?” Like, my little feminist spidey senses were just tingling when I first read James Tiptree Jr. aka, Alice Sheldon, aka Raccoona Sheldon, who was in her life a spy, an artist, and just live all the lives and then all these stories, and was universally thought to be a man for many, many years and was having long correspondence relationships with several of her speculative fiction counterparts of the day. And people were just like, “Oh wow, what a robust masculine voice he has.” And it was a woman all the time.
Deesha Philyaw: Because we can do anything.
Nana Nkweti: Yes, we can, tell it, tell it. Come on. Somebody needs that word today. On today, as we take it to church. Somebody needs that word on today. Somebody needs to understand that. But she really interrogated the ideas of gender and wrote from this very interestingly, you know, and people can see, it really kind of like, skewering toxic masculinity, which is deliciously done and all the while writing beautiful sentences and writing very interesting futurescapes. So, yes, I’m here for all that.
Deesha Philyaw: So, speaking of beautiful sentences, what’s the best sentence you think you’ve ever written?
Nana Nkweti: I’m going to tell you that the best sentence that I’ve ever written is always going to be the last sentence I wrote because, I’m like a perpetual motion machine. I want to keep moving forward in writing more interesting things on the page. So, I don’t want to rest on my laurels, and just like, “Oh, ten years ago, that sentence was so wonderful.”
“I will never top that.” I don’t feel that, you know, I’ll stay in the now. So, I want to stay in the now so I’m working on a story called, “All the Comforts of Home” and the first sentence of that story goes, “I’ve got 38 aunts called Comfort and all of them are assholes.”
Deesha Philyaw: Wait, because that’s an African naming tradition. I remember the first time I met someone named Innocence. So, Comfort. So, say that sentence again, now that we know that Comfort is a name. Go ahead.
Nana Nkweti: Yep. “I’ve got 38 aunts called Comfort and all of them are assholes.”
Deesha Philyaw: Oh my gosh.
Dawnie Walton: I cannot wait to read that. So, let’s do a little bit of fill-in-the-blank. The hardest part of writing a short story is…?
Nana Nkweti: Starting.
Deesha Philyaw: Amen. Ashe.
Nana Nkweti: I want to say my favorite part is also starting.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, that makes sense.
Nana Nkweti: Because it’s all about getting your butt in the seat, right? Like, not just musing about it, not about just thinking about it, or not just writing adjacent. I’ve been writing adjacent too many times. You started that first paragraph and then you just let that go for like a month. But like, is this story really start? Is it really cooking with gas? And I feel like with “All the Comforts of Home,” she’s got me and I’m hooked and I’m writing. That’s my favorite part as well. Like, when I really hear that voice in my head, it’s like a clarion bell. It’s magical. It is that cotton candy, sweet summer love. It’s good. It’s all good. That’s where I am right now with that story. So, it’s starting and starting, it’s really starting.
Dawnie Walton: Right.
Deesha Philyaw: Do you have any writing rituals, also what’s the setup in your writing space? What does it look like?
Nana Nkweti: Yeah, it’s interesting because when I think about my writing practice, it involves living. So, the ritual of living and being interested and engaged in the world is part of the process. I feel like my whole life, I spend out there foraging for my fiction. So, I keep running lists of interesting character names and idiomatic expressions, and weird factoids that I come across in the wild. And I don’t know when it’s going to be used, but I know at some point it’ll make its way into my work. So, that’s very much part of my overall practice and writing rituals.
And as far as when I’m actually on that page with a story, with the 38 aunts named Comfort, I can’t say that I’m very fussy, it just involves me sitting down and it changes sometimes. I had one particular story which had a strong hip-hop beat to it. So, I would play hip-hop music to stay in that kind of rhythm and that musicality. But it changes from story to story. In a story like “The Devil Is a Liar,” did I listen to gospel music at one point? Yes. Did I do that every time? No. So, it would change depending on the needs of what would get me in that space that day.
And in terms of my writing setup, it’s a mixture, I’ve got a bronze sculpture of a Cameroonian woman bare-breasted with a harvest basket on her back, but I got her decked out in pearls looking flossy. It speaks to my being. I love to see women at a particular intersectional identity, of Black womanhood, so she is flossy but hardworking and native in that kind of way. And I’ve got little hip-hop inspirations, like “every day I’m hustling” and “I’m bossy.”
And then, I also have this place of honor, I got an image of my grandmother…and she was big in personality, big in stature. And she just had this huge dynastic clan. But she had to dream big very early on and put my mother in school at a time when education was not universal. It was not accessible to young girls and that kind of foresight and vision and the kind of joyousness she had in life and the kind of foresight to make sure that all her girl children were educated because she had mainly girl children and people were saying, “Oh, that’s so sad.” That actually, is why I’m here today. So, she’s there and she looks at me and she smiles.
Deesha Philyaw: Nana. Thank you so much for this generous conversation, so much fun talking with you. It’s like part two of Miami, but virtual. And thank you for your collection, which, is fun to read, but it’s also so bold and that’s just really inspiring to me as a writer and it was just such a delight to read. So, thank you so much.
Nana Nkweti: Deesha, Dawnie, thank you so much for having me on this platform. You guys are amazing conversation partners, and I really felt incredibly at home. And thankful to talk to two authors who are making this amazing space for literature in the world and also putting out great literature in the world themselves. I appreciate this.
Dawnie Walton: Aw, uh, thank you so much. And we will get together again, whether in Miami or some other place.
Nana Nkweti: Amen to that. I’ll be there for Miami 2.0.
Dawnie Walton: Well friends, we’ve reached the end of Ursa Season One! This has been a wonderful experience. We’ve learned so much about some amazing writers and stories, the craft of writing and storytelling, and about living a creative life. It’s been inspiring and thrilling, and even more so to hear from everybody who’s joined us on this journey.
Deesha Philyaw: We are so thankful for all your support for this show. We’ll be back very soon, and we’re so excited to keep going with more stories and conversations in Season Two and beyond.
Dawnie Walton: As always, if you’d like to support our work, become an Ursa Member by going to ursastory-dot-com-slash-join. You’ll help us keep producing this show, and doing it on our terms.
Until next time!