I recently talked with Wayétu Moore about her novel, the power of black bodies, and the importance of acknowledging our pasts and finding “home.”
MARIATU SANTIAGO: Why was it important to tell this story now?
WAYÉTU MOORE: The book was actually sold in 2015, so I don’t know if, three years ago, it would have been considered in the same terms, socially and politically, as it is right now. But I do think its timeliness has less to do with intentionally seeking to align the book’s distribution with the current political environment than with just wanting to explore the big, complex history of a country that’s very close to the United States.
During my public school career in Texas and afterward, I got pretty used to the erasure of African histories and the prevalence of ahistorical perspectives. This book was my way of delving into that history, which in many ways is pan-Africanist in nature. My dad always emphasized that Liberia, in its essence, was supposed to be a safe haven for black people from all over the world. Obviously, what was revealed over time was that it was not so easy to build that haven, but I do think that that was the goal.
I think that spreading information about pan-Africanism is important. Right now, black bodies are so under attack that some sort of recognition of the strength in all these diasporic groups can be a reconciliation of what’s going on to black people around the world. So, in that way I think it’s fortunate that the book has come out when it has. But I would be lying if I said that I wrote it intentionally as a response to what’s going on politically. I think it really came from a place of me not being exposed to Liberian history in the way that I thought was deserved. I’m proud of my home and wanted to find a way to engage with my craft while also engaging with and exposing this history.
How long did it take to write the novel, once you had conceived the subject matter?
The first draft took me about a year to write. I finished that in 2009, then I put the manuscript away for a couple of years. I returned and edited it from 2013 to 2015, and obviously that was at the height of various social movements, particularly Black Lives Matter. And so, at the end of the book, the settlers who raise their hands and say, “Don’t shoot” — that scene was in direct conversation with and paying homage to that social movement. So those connections emerged during the editing phase but were not part of the original conception.
I know that you left Liberia at the age of five and you moved around a lot. As a result, your knowledge of West Africa — and Liberia specifically — was limited to what you learned at home. Many in the African diaspora, whether they are first-generation American or not, have had a similar experience. How did that background lend itself to She Would Be King?
Yes, we moved here when I was very young. We moved around quite a bit and my parents did what they could to tether us to our history, but I recognize that the absence was profound. When I started to write, I knew that I wanted to explore Liberian history. My parents are academics — they work for the University of Liberia, and they were always reading and transferring that knowledge to us.
When we lived in Memphis, for instance, the man my grandmother married and the man one of my aunts married were both from Mississippi, and I think they gave us an early understanding of the black struggle in the United States. That, coupled with the African political work my father read (by Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré, among others) led me to believe that I was part of a global black community and was moored in my blackness. Telling the story of Liberia was telling the story of pan-Africanist identity.
Spreading pan-Africanist thinking became something I grew more and more curious about, specifically in my art. I wanted to show how the struggles of black bodies in Flint, Michigan, are connected with the struggles of black bodies in Rio De Janeiro and in Dubai and, yes, even in Liberia. How do I negotiate those relationships with my art? That was the seed and that was how my upbringing blends into it.
You make wonderful use of magic realist elements in the novel — such as Norman’s ability to disappear. What was the thinking behind your use of this technique?
I never heard stories growing up from my mother or aunties that didn’t include some aspect of the supernatural. When we moved here, that was all relegated to the world of Disney. Yet, in the West African storytelling context, those supernatural aspects weren’t seen as spectacle. The architecture of story is different if you are a Western author as compared with, say, a griot in a Vai village in southern Sierra Leone or northern Liberia. I can’t say that I consciously made the decision to use magic realism. I just decided, I want to tell this story. Mysticism, superstition, and the supernatural are so entwined with my identity that they set the pace and tone throughout the story.
Did your parents’ intellectual background lead you to start the nonprofit One Moore Book?
My parents, because they are very generous, loving people, always raised us to believe that it isn’t about us — we have to find ways to give back, to contribute in a substantive way. Through my professional career, I mostly worked with nonprofits, one of which was an organization called “Everybody Wins,” which is based in DC. I would go to schools in the District of Columbia and I would facilitate literacy workshops for third to fifth graders who just couldn’t read, they couldn’t read a word. And I quickly realized that they were totally uninterested in the texts that were being presented to them. After having conversations about their individual interests, I started to bring books that were relevant to those interests but also culturally relevant. And their interest piqued, their scores improved, our time together was more efficient, and that experience stayed with me.
When I moved back to New York after graduate school in 2009, I was dealing with the frustrations of a literary career — just the expectation bias of it all. I would say to editors, “You know, I have this magical realism novel that I just did for my thesis if anyone is interested.” But I found that publishers wanted the immigrant story first because obviously it’s a proven model. And out of those frustrations dealing with the industry, trying to find representation in my skin and in my body, I found that I needed the agency to create what’s being read and what’s being consumed by underrepresented readers.
I called my younger sister and asked her if she would be interested in illustrating a book with me. We collaborated on a book called J is for Jollof Rice. I remember taking that text into a Liberian classroom and seeing the shock on their faces, some of them were giggling, just seeing Jollof Rice on a page. It was telling and alienating, and that’s profound to think about — that something that is true to your life and your experience can be seen as comical because it is so rare. And so I knew that something else had to be done with this.
I’m not a children’s book writer, but I did collaborate with my sister and younger brother, who are both illustrators. They worked on a few books that I used as pilots for some groups that I wanted to feature and collaborate with. The goal of One Moore Book is to work with writers and illustrators in these countries to create culturally relevant material that can be used in classrooms. We try to sell to ministries of education and NGOs on the ground, as well as here in the United States. We sell of course on Amazon and other online bookstores and we’re also distributed through Scholastic Book Clubs. I haven’t had the time to dedicate to this in the way that it deserves, but because now what I do is write and teach, I have been able to commit more time. Over the next year, we are fundraising and hiring full-time or part-time staff to help build up a functional organization and establish some sort of organizational culture that I hope presents an opportunity to scale.
I’ve noticed that people of the diaspora, when they come to the United States, feel a deep need to give back or do more for their place of origin. Even though you didn’t live in Liberia for 30 years, there’s this strong longing to stay connected. Why is that?
White immigrants are usually accepted and embraced as American, because there’s institutional power in whiteness. There’s little incentive for them to say, “I am Italian or Polish,” even though those identities still exist for them. Being able to benefit from saying that you’re white takes precedence to the point that many assume that as their identity. Black immigrants, understanding the value of black bodies in this country, are more incentivized to connect with and remain tethered to their home cultures because those identities seem more valuable than their status as black bodies in the United States. It’s discouraging but that’s the reality for many. So, there’s a little of that, but there’s also guilt, especially for those of us whose families moved here because of social conflict. Knowing that I made it out, I live with the feeling that I have to do something to make sure I am contributing in some way to those who didn’t have an opportunity to escape.
While your book deals with the sense of connectedness the people of the diaspora feel toward Africa, it also highlights the disconnectedness felt by those generations who are more distant from the act of immigration or more removed from their ethnic group.
Absolutely, and I think that’s linked to contemporary conversations about identity across the diaspora. For my character June Dey, there’s this initial obliviousness and then there’s excitement — “Oh wow, I’m on the continent!” But once he’s there, he doesn’t feel the connectedness you would assume you probably would feel for a place that was home to your ancestors.
Sometimes you hear people ask, “Well, why did Africans sell each other?” and that’s so flawed. Because “Africa” is an external designation. If you go to the continent, people say I’m Yoruba or I’m Fante or I’m Vai or I’m Bassa or I’m Ibo. Those are their countries. In a conversation toward the end of the novel, when June Dey says to Norman, in effect, “I can’t believe that this black trader would do this to us,” Norman has to explain that there’s no us here — us is a function of oppression, us is a function of colonialism. June Dey and Norman have to negotiate the fact that their understanding of blackness is very different from what ethnic identity means on the continent.
There’s a moment where June Dey tells the baobab in the forest that he feels alone, like he isn’t African. Was it important to depict each character’s ultimate loneliness before they come together to fight for Liberia?
There is a profound sadness and realization that: “Oh, this place that I’ve come to help, that I want to be a part of, there’s something much more complex going on intraracially that we need to figure out before we conquer anything externally.” And it’s in the silence that a lot of us deal with that.
Norman, he’s a complex character because he spends a lot of his time alone. All of them did spend their formative years in isolation, but Norman less so because he had the support of the maroons even though he was being ostracized in different ways. But he was dealing with depression and things like that before he went.
I wanted them — June and Norman — to show, in their decision to go to Liberia and in their relationship with each other, two things. First, I wanted it to be clear that they were supporting characters, while Gbessa is the main protagonist. And then, second, I wanted to show that these people are incomplete without each other’s powers. They can manage for a little while, but in many ways they need each other. And that goes back to the theme of pan-Africanism we discussed before.
So, how do they rely on each other? How does the absence of June Dey or the absence of Norman affect the others? Of course, Gbessa totally rejects Norman and June Dey when she first sees them in the forest, but then she’s excited by the fact that there’s a similarity among them. And, by the time she’s domesticated, Christianized, and “civilized” in the absence of these other two, she doesn’t exercise her power at all, she’s afraid of it, she doesn’t want anything to do with it. The different times that they all cross paths are the only times they are able to fully realize their potential.
In terms of their special powers, can you say why it was important, specifically, that Norman should be able to disappear, that Gbessa should live forever, and that June Dey should be incredibly strong?
Gbessa’s immortality speaks to the indigenous identity on the continent — how she was Vai before Liberia even had a name. And when Liberia no longer has a name and it becomes something else, the Vai people will still be there, immortal. June Dey’s strength pays homage to the resilience of African Americans in this country and what their struggle has meant for black bodies around the world. I recognize, as a black immigrant, that the privileges I exercise were fought for and earned by the black bodies that were present here when my ancestors weren’t.
Norman’s power comes from the occult beliefs of the maroon. The maroon people are rumored to have practiced “witchcraft,” including making themselves disappear. They also escaped up to the mountains of Jamaica during the rebellion. So I wanted his power to be in conversation with the different forms of resistance exercised by these groups who were enslaved during that period.
Lastly, what is next for you?
My memoirs are coming out through Graywolf in May. I am also working on another novel that is more contemporary but will be seen as another example of what people categorize as magical realism. It is a speculative fiction novel.
Mariatu Santiago works at New America, a DC-based think tank. She holds a BA in international relations with a focus on international development in sub-Saharan Africa from American University.