She Would Be King is a retelling of Liberia’s founding story told from the perspective of three people with supernatural ability.
Gbessa is an immortal Vai witch, June Dey is an escaped slave with superhuman strength, Norman Aragon is a mixed-race Jamaican recluse who can make himself invisible. At the beginning of this story, they are strangers, and by the end, they are all Liberians.
In the early 19th century, a group of white abolitionists founded the American Colonization Society to resettle freed black people in the United States to west Africa. The success of this repatriation made Liberia the second black republic in the world, after Haiti. The capital city, Monrovia, was named after US president James Monroe, and presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison publicly supported the society and its goals. Many African-Americans were eager to rid their country of bondage, while others decided to stay in the United States, believing the movement to be a racist ploy to rid New England cities of freed blacks.
Liberian history is a part of American history, but in my public school history books that history was either reduced to one sentence or altogether absent.
When I started writing my novel, I hadn’t been back to Liberia since I was five, so it was a way for me to reconnect with a part of me that had been lost because of my family’s immigration to the US in 1990.
Liberian history is a part of American history, but in my public school history books that history was either reduced to one sentence or altogether absent. Liberia continues to be a part of America—the Firestone Plantation where the rubber from the ever-popular Firestone tires are sourced is located in Liberia and has been present there for over 100 years. During World War Two the US also had a military base in Liberia where American soldiers stopped to rest.
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Growing up hearing my father tell stories about the country’s history and attempts to bring together black people from all over the world in what they hoped would be a sanctuary, whilst making peace with those who had never left, was something I knew I always wanted to unpackage through literature. I wanted to explore the marriage of the indigenous African, the African-American and the Caribbean points of view.
With my father and two sisters, I moved to America when I was five because of the country’s civil war. We lived uptown in my mother’s dorm at Columbia University until she graduated, at which point they tried to figure out what we were going to do next, as our country had been devastated and we could not return. We lived in Connecticut and Memphis then settled in Texas when I was eight, and that’s where I spent my formative years. But Liberia was obviously always a part of me. Unfortunately, with around 4.5 million people, I barely ever heard about it outside of my home. That absence was profound. So when I realised I wanted to be an artist, and began to write, Liberia was one of the first places I went to.
This emigration is a significant, essential part of world history that is largely missing from historical explorations of black responses and resistance to slavery and disenfranchisement. How profound a movement, that formerly enslaved and free black people from America and the Caribbean could say: “We’re going home.” And then of course going to that place and having to navigate the massive challenges, as well as the subtleties of creating a republic, especially in a time when imperialist powers were land-grabbing.
I grew up hearing some folk tales, but I don’t think of the story in relation to folk tales and legends. The characters were fictionalised, and their abilities are otherworldly, but the context in which the story is placed was very real. The coupled beauty and tension of Liberia’s history is very real.
I also wanted to tell this story through the primary through-line of a woman. The title came from a conversation that occurs at the end of the book between the narrator and one of the gifted characters. In the Vai tradition, the king is the most powerful. Gbessa is such a powerful female character, she is the most powerful of the gifted ones, but the path her life takes is in many ways a reaction to the men around her. For me, that conversation and the title serve as commentary on the strange relationship between a woman’s power and how it functions in male-dominated, male-centric contexts.
I wanted to tell a story of Liberia that strayed from the standard binary of settler versus natives. I made an attempt at writing truthful characters. People are complex. No one is absolutely good, and I don’t believe anyone is absolutely bad. Humans have many faces, all of them vulnerable to exposure, eventually. Most of us are also governed (sometimes subconsciously) by self-interest. So I began by identifying what each of my characters wanted for themselves. From there I just tried to write those characters and their cultures honestly, and I hope those themes of good and evil were organic results.
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore is out now (Pushkin, £14.99)