Born Nov.7, 1961 Ophelia S. Lewis is a Liberian writer and publisher. Her first book, “My Dear Liberia”  was published in memory of pre- civil war Liberia. She is referred to in some quarters as a feminist-nationalist, and is the founder of Village Tale Publishing. She is also the author of novels, and children’s books, poetry, short stories and essays. Ophelia is active in helping other authors getting their writing published using a self-publishing platform. When she is not writing she can be found fundraising for worthy causes such as “The Better Day Academy Project, P.J’s and Blanket Project and Books for Kids Campaign.” She encourages readers to connect with her on www.ophelialewis.com, www.facebook.com/ophelia.lewis or on twitter @ophie2020.
1. Your new book about your native county, Liberia Unscrabbled recently came out to much anticipation recently, what was the inspiration that led you to write this book of puzzles and trivia on Liberia?
First of all, I’d like to say Thank You for allowing me an opportunity to share my work. The main inspiration for writing Liberia Unscrabbled was conceived because I had the next generation of Liberians in mind whose average age is twenty-something, hence fulfilling a lifetime zeal and opportunity to knowing more about Liberia, their country. In my family, children want the stories retold, again and again, of our childhood years and the folklore of our culture and tradition. The kids loved it. And what better way to teach them and to amuse them while at it? I wanted to make learning fun, so I thought of doing a game book for information.
2. As a Diaspora author, who are some of your favorite Liberian authors to read?
W. Sankawulo and Bai T. Moore are my all-time favorite Liberian authors. I have read some of Lekpele Nyamalon’s work, and esp some of his unpublished works, and he is becoming my new favorite Liberian author. He’s an aspiring writer, and I know he will be one of those upcoming, who will take Liberian literature to a higher level. Look out for him.
3. Where does Liberian literature stands amongst African literature generally speaking, any favorite quote and book of all times? 3a. You are also engaged in humanitarian work, this must be a rewarding experience.
Liberian literature has always been as outstanding, as any other African literature; we just have to bring out more awareness. We need to promote our literary works as Liberians, starting within the homes. Read to your children or encourage reading. Book(s) of all times for me? and Murder In The Cassava Patch Things Fall Apart come to mind, when I am asked about African literature. 3a. The world would die if there was only about taking and not giving… we all have to give. This is what my parents taught us, or I should say, showed us. They were always doing things for people who were never in the position to pay back. They did things because they were able to, and moved on.
4. Do you have a childhood memory that inspired a particular piece of your writing, especially your children books? 4a. What was it like growing up in Liberia?
My childhood memory which actually inspired my writings has nothing to do with any of my children’s book. It’s my novels, Heart Men and Dead Gods, which is about ritualistic killings for human organs. There are black-market for human parts and organ trafficking all over the world, not just in Liberia. I don’t believe that it was just for human sacrifice. And we will never know. My books are fiction, of course. 4a. I was blessed to be born into a family with a lot of love and support from both parents. I’ve never taken that for granted. Our parents encouraged us to dream while providing opportunities for the best fundamentals for personal growth of course. We were always in some type of after-school class and had little time to be idle. My mother especially, was a book lover, and made sure we read continuously as a tradition, if you may. We always in our house, had an updated encyclopedia of children’s book collection, because she herself was fond of reading. And, I hated that. I’d rather play with the neighbors’ children. Of course, we had time to play. But as I grew older, it was the one thing I always thanked my mother for, because she instill me the culture of reading—I love learning new things. I enjoy reading. Even today, I try read a book a week, even with my crazy busy schedule.
5. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an author? 5a. The endowments in Liberia has not seen much support, what must be done to change this trend?
I’m still growing as an author, so I have no great accomplishment to share. However, the fulfillment I get when I meet a reader and they tell me they’ve fallen in love with a character in my book is uplifting. That tells me that I did my job. When that story ends, the reader continues a connection to my book. Hopefully, they anticipate another good read from me. That’s how you build readership. 5a. Somehow, we have to make reading a larger part of our society and culture. We can start by reading to our children and teaching them the importance of reading. We must make books affordable and accessible in our communities, not just in the schools. People spend their money on what they like and that’s expected, but We have to make people fall in love with books, and it is my sincere hope that the endowments finds a place permanently within our society, the arts need to be patronized and our artists encouraged, Liberia will be better for it!
6. What would you like your legacy to be for future generations, any particular message to aspiring Liberian writers, and what must be done holistically to get Liberian books in Liberian schools, as we know most instructional materials in time past have always come from the outside.
How do we get Liberian books in Liberian schools? It has to start at the home. The parents’ voice has to count for something. Our society has given the politicians all the ‘say-do’. The Chinese proverb comes to mind, “The palest ink is better than the best memory,” or something like it. We owe it to our future generations; Liberia must keep up with the rest of the world. No exception, literarily. Write, write, write and write; can’t say that enough. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Ninety-five percent of my work is about Liberia, as it has always been my desire to make a positive difference in our literacy. One of the challenges in doing that is getting books into communities. What has also made a difference in these challenges also, from experience, is digital media. And with that in mind, I have partnered with the MaryMartha Educational Foundation and we are building an online digital library with information, or/and host digital copies, of every book written by a Liberian or book written about Liberia by many different authors. The website is up, www.liberialitererysociety.org; but we are getting no support from people, especially Liberians. We also have a facebook page I hope people would ‘like’ and ‘share’. Liberia Literary Society website is just the beginning. What I’m hoping for is that each of the 15 counties hosts a local digital library. For now, anyone with access to the internet with their computer or smart phone, would be able to read some of these out-of-print books that were written about Liberia many years ago. Books written by Liberian authors would be discovered by people all over the world, and hopefully, authors can sell their books using that platform also. That’s the impression I would like to make, to turn that into a legacy. But I need the help of many more book lovers. It’s not about me. It would never be about me. The thing is, if I don’t do this, someone else would.
7. You published your first book in 2004, “My Dear Liberia;” how long have you been writing before that first publication, Ms. Lewis? 7a. Observers have said quality education generally has plummeted in Liberia, post war. Do you share this view, also?
I’ve been writing since high school, and was also a regular contributor for the school paper at college, but I was never able to get my work published. The next thing was to learn the other side of writing, which is publishing. With hard work and long hours dedicated to learning the business, I started Village Tales Publishing in 2000, and along with two other non-writer partners, our first book was published four years later. Today, 2016, Village Tales publishing is a full service publishing firm, and I am proud that we have several Liberian writers (among others) whose books we’ve published and to be published this year. 7a. I do not live, nor work, in the educational system in Liberia, so I cannot agree or disagree with an opinion as regards the current educational situation in the country. However, we can all agree to the facts of the war and how it affected our country in all areas and spheres. The important thing is, we must all help to rebuild educationally or otherwise.
8. With being an above average gamer, as illustrated by your recent book, what is your favorite game to play? 8a. What do you do for leisure?
I love brainteasers like word search, crossword, etc, but I love video games more than anything. Most people should know by now that I don’t shy away from admitting that I’m a true gamer. That’s how I exhale from the writing, editing, re-write, and the many other publishing duties I’m involved with at Village Tales Publishing 24/7. I’ve always own the latest playstation game console. 8a. I play video games, listen to music, or watch movies. It’s like being in someone else’s creative world for a change.
9. What is your next book going to be about or will there be one? 9a. In your 2015 poem “The Market Woman,” you paid tribute to the African Woman, excerpted here.
The next book to come out might be the third installment of the “Heart Man” series, or the Amazing Grace-HM3, or one of the many projects I’m working on. At the moment, I’m working on a collection of novellas, Down-Side Up (the second in the Liberia-County series, Montserrado Stories being the first, which was published in 2012), two children’s books (I’m About To & Where In The World Is Liberia?) and an inspirational book (untitled at the moment). They all have a special place in my heart, so no telling which will be published first. But by God’s grace, one will be out early 2016. 9a. The poem Market Woman paints the picture of a heroine. The African market woman, is my hero, or heroine; the hardest working people I know, who willingly sacrifice for her family and expect nothing in return. The only day off for the market woman, if I might go out on a limp here and forgive me, was during Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s first election, in 2005. The market stalls were empty. On that day and rightly so, Liberia went down in history and elected Africa’s first female Commander-in-Chief. And that’s how much influence the African market woman has on our society. If they close the stalls for more than a day, no one eats…
10. What do you hope to see, as far as the future of Liberian literature is concerned
It would be good to see bookstores and local libraries located in every county; in fact, in all the major cities. We must encourage reading from birth.
11. You have commented that the majority of your readers are not from Liberia, how and why do you attract such a diverse group of readers, and what are you doing to attract Liberian readers; your books are about Liberia
Although most of the settings or themes, or characters in my writings are Liberia-related, when I write, it’s always about the human spirit. As a writer, you build your readership audience by audience. The challenge is reaching that audience and keeping them. That’s why it’s very important to keep your work credible. Readers are smart. There are far more music lovers in our communities than book lovers. So unlike musicians, Liberian writers have to work twice as hard because it’s very difficult to entertain with words. But it’s not impossible. For the first time in my career, more Liberians have given me rave reviews for my new book, Liberia Unscrabbled, than ever before. Thank God! I’ve finally touched the home base.
The Market Woman
Vivid colors of tropical fruits,
limes, oranges, mangos and pawpaws,
pineapples, plantains, bananas, guavas,
plums, eddoes, yams and cassavas,
sugar canes, palm nuts and red hot peppers. 5
Gleaming white heaps of new country rice,
tan baskets and brown mats,
blue-purple eggplants, red-violet kola nuts,
indigo head ties, lappas and Vai shirts.
Distinct arts of carvings and paintings,
jewelries of flashing gold, brass and copper.
The stage is set;
the buyers and the sellers have met
with plenty of haggling on the price
until an agreement is reached.
In Africa’s colorful marketplace, 20
women reign supreme.
Swift and graceful,
she takes her familiar place in the stall.
Then on a table or a bamboo mat,
she spreads her wares of
fuzzy green okras; ten to a pile.
Her hard 16-hour workday continues;
settling her price for little profit,
dashing to satisfy her buyers and
hoping they remember and come back. 30
Cleverly, she fills a crying baby’s mouth,
smiles at a waiting buyer whose order she’s tending,
exchanges three okra piles for some money,
then embraces her baby who stays hung sucking.
No leisure time, no relaxation;
attentive, diligent and tireless action.
Amidst the hurly-burly marketplace,
she, too, haggles with customers
over price and quantity.
Money earned feeds the family, 40
dresses the children, pays for schooling;
Grateful for her hard work on their behalf,
she is the heart of her family survival.
The market woman returns home,
kindles the fire and prepares the evening meal.
She serves food to her husband and children—she eats last,
washes herself, puts her house in order
then goes to bed at last. 48
The Market Woman [October 2015] is being republished with permission by Ophelia S. Lewis