Writer Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti injects her Cameroonian heritage into stories about people who share her same multicultural background.
Although she was born in the United States, Nkweti was never far from her African roots: because of her name.
“Every day people would ask me where’s your name from," she says. "I would have to explain to them my heritage. It was a moment of education for me and I got to be an ambassador for the continent in many different ways.”
Nkweti is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and teaches fiction writing at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. She’s polishing a collection of short stories called “Like Walking on Cowry Shells.” On a December morning in a meeting room at the Iowa City Public Library, she shares memories of her family’s homeland: Cameroon in West Africa.
“They call it Africa in miniature," she says. "It’s a place where you can find grasslands, but there’s also the desert in the north. We even have a rain forest. There are savannahs. "It’s a beautiful country.”
Nkweti moved to Cameroon with her family when she was 14, an awkward age for a major resettlement. But she says it was a profound period for her, a time when she discovered who she was.
“I spent four years there, but it was like dog years," she says. "It was those years I really came into my own in terms of understanding my family and my culture.”
Nkweti’s road to Iowa City was filled with twists. She trained and practiced as a nurse. She entered law school. She also held on to a dream that formed when she was nine-years-old: to be a writer.
“It’s something that is scary saying I want to make my living by making up people," she says. "It’s like saying I want to be a fairy princess, you know. I finally had the courage to say, this is what I want, just do it.”
Now, after finishing the two-year program at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Nkweti is deep into completing her collection of short stories. Some are set in Cameroon. Some take place in Cameroonian neighborhoods in the U.S. She spins love stories, murder tales and even introduces zombies into the mix. Many of her characters speak in the musical rhythms of her home country.
“We come from people who are accented," she says. "I’ve just lived in places where there’s Creole, there’s Pidgin English, Cam Franglais, which is this broken French-English and any other hodgepodge of the 250 indigenous languages that exist in Cameroon.”
Nkweti says through her fiction she’s trying to correct misperceptions most Americans have about the African continent.
“Every time you see something written about Africa it’s typically war-torn or famine-stricken or some troubled infighting is going on," she says. "I lived in Africa for four years. I was in a capital city, mind you. I never met a warlord. I don’t even know what that’s about.”
In her writing, Nkweti says, she wants to depict the lives of everyday people who share her own multicultural background. She says she brings a special understanding to this task: as someone with an insider’s view of life on the streets of Cameroon and as an outsider looking at that nation’s cultural heritage from far away.