“She Would Be King” reframes the country’s history in magical terms.
When Wayétu Moore was 5 years old, she and her family fled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. It was 1989 and the country was caught in a violent civil war. Ms. Moore, her father and two sisters took refuge in her maternal grandmother’s home village near Liberia’s border with Sierra Leone. “My dad worked overtime to preserve our childhood,” Ms. Moore said. Gunshots in the distance became “dragons fighting” and dead bodies on the streets were people “sleeping on the road.”
“For a long time, my understanding was that we were in this game,” Ms. Moore said. “We were going to see my Mom. And there was something wrong, there were some angry people walking around, but we were mostly okay.” At that time, Ms. Moore’s mother was a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College. With few ways to contact her husband and children, she flew to Sierra Leone to arrange for their safe passage. In her debut novel, “She Would Be King,” Ms. Moore, who is now 33 years old, explores Liberia’s history by using the same kind of magical realism her father relied on to frame the war for his children.
“She Would Be King,” published by Graywolf this month, follows three characters, Gbessa, June Dey and Norman Aragon, whose fates eventually intersect and initiate the formation of Liberia. Gbessa is a young Vai, or indigenous Liberian, who, because she cannot die, has been exiled from her community on the suspicion that she is a witch. June Dey is an African-American man whose superhuman strength allows him to escape slavery and the Virginia plantation where he was raised. Norman Aragon is a son of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica who can disappear at will.
The novel is inspired by a Vai legend about an old woman who beat her cat to death, only to have the feline return as a ghost to exact fatal revenge. This minor tale, told for generations and used to caution children to “always be kind to cats,” Ms. Moore writes in her author’s note, includes prototypical elements of Vai myths. “It was very rare in the Vai storytelling tradition that I heard a story that didn’t include someone disappearing or shape-shifting,” Ms. Moore said.
“She Would Be King” is an ambitious and expansive novel that explores the nuances of Liberian history beyond its identity as a settlement for emancipated African-Americans. Ms. Moore skillfully reconsiders the idealism of the early African-American settlers through their interactions with the indigenous peoples and braids together intimate story lines centered around universal themes: falling in love, defying familial expectations and the difficulties of doing the right thing.
“She is establishing a different voice,” Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, a Liberian poet and an associate professor of English at Penn State Altoona, said. “She is not writing about the war, she is not writing about poverty or writing about villages in a patronizing way.”
Ms. Wesley likened Ms. Moore’s potential legacy to that of the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose novels about Nigeria reignited popular interest in the country’s stories. “She is cracking that space in America for Liberian writers,” Ms. Wesley said. “We are in a unique position to tell as many stories as possible because they have never been written,” said Vamba Sherif, a Netherlands-based Liberian writer. Mr. Sherif, whose debut novel, “Land of My Fathers” resembles “She Would Be King,” (both are inspired by Liberian folklore and take on the country’s complicated history), admires how Ms. Moore built the story of Gbessa, the book’s central character and hero, out of “a single, simple legend.”
When Ms. Moore was a child, her parents regaled her with bedtime stories about Liberia. These tales tethered her and her siblings to the small West African country even as they moved across the United States, from New York to Tennessee and eventually Texas, where they lived in a mostly white suburb of Houston. While Ms. Moore has fond memories of growing up in Texas, it was also isolating at times.
“I just wasn’t hearing anything about Africa, and certainly not Liberia, at school,” she said. “And that absence, I think, was just very profound.” Ms. Moore’s career reflects an earnest attempt to fill this void. In 2011, after getting a master in fine arts at the University of Southern California, she launched One Moore Book, a small multicultural children’s publishing house. It began as an independently funded for-profit venture and the first book, “J Is for Jollof Rice,” was written by Ms. Moore and illustrated by her sister Kula Moore, an art therapist who lives in Houston. A few years later, she also opened a general interest bookstore in Monrovia, where she sells Liberian literature alongside Harry Potter and “Anna Karenina.”
The publishing house now offers 23 titles spanning a range of countries from Liberia and Guinea to Haiti and Brazil and has partnered with writers such as Edwidge Danticat and Ibi Zoboi, the author of “American Street.” They have sold more than 6,000 books and donated over 7,000 with the help of organizations such as Lit World, a nonprofit dedicated to achieving global literacy.
But Ms. Moore wants to “do the organization justice” and make One Moore Book sustainable in a way that does not rely solely on her, her siblings and a few interns and volunteers. This fall, Ms. Moore will work on her memoir about her family’s escape from Liberia and teach at the M.F.A. program at Randolph College, in Virginia. She also plans to reflect on the future of One Moore Book, which she relaunched as a nonprofit in 2015. “Creating a platform has been one of the most rewarding parts of this process,” she said. “I hope that I’m able to grow it into something that’s larger than me.”
Main pic/Wayetu Moore/www.liberianobserver.com