11 Questions Vamba Sherif: Writer, Novelist

Vamba Sherif was born in Kolahun, Lofa County. His upcoming Novel Bound to Secrecy will be published by HopeRoad this month. A novelist principally, Sherif has written stories for The New York Times, The French magazine Long Cours, which is a subsidiary of L’Express, the German magazine Kultur Aaustauch, and for various Dutch newspapers and magazines like Trouw, De Volkskrant, One World, and many others. Vamba Sherif has had stints in acting and likes reviewing films. He’s currently an ambassador for the Dutch Refugees Council. In this capacity, he helps guide asylum seekers by sharing his stories of life in Liberia and in Kuwait where he lived, and how he made it in Holland.

1. Your upcoming novel, Bound to secrecy is expected to be published this month by HopeRoad to much anticipation.

Yes, my novel Bound to Secrecy will be published in English this month. I’ve written four other novels, also, all of which have been published in other languages as well, including German, French, Spanish and Dutch, but none in English. So, yes, this is my first novel in English.

2. HopeRoad is publishing your first novel, are you going to be staying with HopeRoad for your next work? 2a. Is the publishing house now your home?

I’ve found a home at HopeRoad Publishing. Rosemarie Hudson, the publisher, has seen and recognized my talents, for which I am very grateful. She’s a veteran publisher. She also set up a successful publishing house which was a while ago bought by Arcadia Press—which it made into one of its imprints. This happens all the time in the publishing world. Hudson was also a publisher at Arcadia. But A few years ago, she left it and began a new publishing venture, HopeRoad Publishing, and I am glad we will be working together on my next novel as well.

3. You also worked with Stephanie Horton at the Liberian Sea Breeze Journal a few years back, a period during which important literary works on Liberia were published.

Stephanie Horton is a constant source of inspiration; a true believer in the power of words. She’s so versed in literature and so wise that I am in awe at the depth of the knowledge she brings to Liberian and world literature. That she brought us together at Liberia Sea Breeze Journal just goes to show how much she loves art.

4. You come from a long and important line of noteworthy family and moreover, a rich tribal history. You also do speak a lot of languages, a significant cultural/traditional asset indeed. 4a. Has this history influenced your writing?

My ancestors wrote books and kept manuscripts which were handed down from one generation to another. This is my inheritance. It is a heritage that inspired me to follow in their footsteps. During my childhood, I read some of these manuscripts, which were all handwritten in black, red and yellow ink, on long white or brown sheets. In the past, for lack of paper, knowledge was confined to pieces of clothes soaked in glue or on parchments of dry leaves, all for the sake of preservation. We are, all of us inheritors of this wealthy tradition. The knowledge of our past was not only confined to the writing medium, but was passed down orally from one generation to another, as I mentioned earlier. I am what I am today because of the labor of our ancestors, who handed down these rich cultural and traditional histories—principally the sum of our worth, our identity and place in the world. The very fact that I see in the Kpelle, Vai, Mano, Gio and other languages traces to my language, and the fact that Liberia has a rich cultural history and that we are inter related, makes each and every one of us a better person with such mind set! This is why I cannot understand why some people propagate divisions amongst us, for we are the sum of an entire country, the sum of its people and their histories, culture, customs and tradition, which stretches across Liberia’s borders and hence, the continent.

5. You are also well travelled, how has this enriched your experience in relations to your writings?

Some writers have put much emphasis on travelling to enrich their writings and hence become better writers. But it’s not a prerequisite. You can sit in Monrovia, in Nimba or in Kolahun and write a novel that would be considered one of the best in the world. The advantage of travelling is that it makes you appreciate the diversities in the world. If this advantage can help you become a better writer, then it is also good.

6. There were great anticipation last year, when the Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was shortlisted as a candidate for the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature, sadly he was passed over.

I grew up reading Ngugi Wa Thiong’o books. He’s one of the greatest writers in the world. He deserves The Nobel Prize for Literature. I hope he wins it one day. I met him once in South Africa, and I made a radio documentary about his passionate call for African writers to write in their own languages and to contribute to development of their own languages.

7. Where is Liberian Literature today?

Liberian Literature is gradually being recognized outside of Liberia. If you take into account that one of our greatest writers Bai T. Moore had to self-publish his own books in the beginning, and that an even greater writer Wilton Sankawulo left many novels unpublished, and you compare today writers, like Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Helene Cooper, Saah Millimono, Hawa Jandai Golakai, Stephanie Horton, Wayétu Moore, K-Moses Nagbe, Robtel Pailey, Momoh Dudu and others whose works have been published, you will realize that we’ve come a long way.

8. What must be done to improve education and specifically reading in post war Liberia?

I think improvement educationally begins with trying to cultivate the culture of reading. We need to invest in our children. Books are really needed in our schools. Most children cannot afford school fees, not to mention buying books. It would be great if these children are afforded books by the government or private institutions interested in the educational process in the country. I had the good fortune, that as a child I was surrounded by books. For me, reading is the most important factor in improving the standard of education in our country.

9. Looking back years from now what legacy do you hope to leave as a writer?

I hope that people can continue to appreciate the humble contributions I’ve made and I am making to Liberian Literature, and that I would inspire a few to be better than I ever was. ‘There’s no seniority in literature,’ John Berger wrote, and he’s right. I hope that new writers write better novels and give a bigger voice to our collective experience.

10. Vamba Sherif is so busy writing and traveling, how do you find time to relax, and what do you do to relax?

I relax when I’ve done a good day’s job. I work from morning till afternoon. When I am not writing, I watch movies or read a wonderful novel. Several times a week, I go jogging around the lake close by where I live

11. Which writers and artists do you look to for inspiration?

I look to writers like Wilton Sankawulo, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Laye Camara, J M Coetzee and many others for inspiration.

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