Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention. In the first part of this interview, “Wayétu Moore, Author of ‘She Would Be King,’” by Rhianna Walton (Powell’s Book Blog) the author talks about the connection between the Caribbean, the American South, and Liberia. Wayétu Moore’s She Would be King: A Novel was published by Graywolf Press earlier this year (September 2018). Here are excerpts of Walton’s interview with Moore:
Wayétu Moore’s remarkable debut novel, She Would Be King, is a fantastical and nuanced history of the founding of Liberia. Strikingly, She Would Be King is less concerned with the politics of the 19th century — though those are thoughtfully explored — than with the origin stories of the many peoples who ended up within the Liberian territory. The novel’s three main characters, Gbessa, a beautiful but cursed girl exiled from her village, June Dey, the son of a ghost and an American slave, and Norman Aragon, the child of a Jamaican colonialist and a Maroon woman, possess extraordinary gifts that enable them to fight the agents of colonialism and slavery. They are heroic people, but deeply damaged by the violence in their lives — violence that comes both from the expected cruelties of slavery and greed and the more surprising antagonisms within villages, among native tribes, and between the African American colonists in Liberia. While not polyphonic in its narrative approach, She Would Be King beautifully highlights the plurality of voices present at Liberia’s founding, eschewing a patriotic or cynical retelling in favor of a story that through magical realism, historical detail, and a deep compassion for its characters recognizes the complex dynamics and audacious spirit of early Liberia. [. . .]
[. . .] Rhianna Walton: The three main characters in She Would Be King, Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman Aragon, allow you to explore three regions central to the slave trade: the American South, the Maroon community of 19th-century Jamaica, and the local tribes along the western coast of Africa. These communities were also central to the formation of Liberia and modern-day Sierra Leone. You write that the genesis of the novel was your mother’s story about the old Lai woman who beat her cat to death, which grew into the story of Gbessa. When did the novel expand to encompass other characters and places?
Wayétu Moore: I knew that I wanted to tell the history of Liberia when I started to write. The goal was to explore Liberia’s history, with its color and complexity, through the written word. In order to do that, I had to, of course, talk about the groups that existed before Liberia was Liberia. I think contemporary knowledge, or certainly Western knowledge, is that Liberia became a country when the settlers from America and the Caribbean moved to the region, but the indigenous groups were there hundreds and hundreds of years before and really did have systems of government that existed.
I always knew that I was at least attempting to tell the whole story of Liberia, and in order to do that, I would have to go to different places. I knew I was beginning with the indigenous perspective, but I would have to visit America and visit the Caribbean if I wanted those stories to be told — of the free blacks and former slaves from America and the Caribbean, mainly Barbados, who went over during the 19th century, and actually in some parts of the early 20th century, when the Back-to-Africa movement was revived by Marcus Garvey. That movement, the immigration from the Americas to Liberia, lasted for about a century.
Rhianna: What made you want to explore Jamaica as opposed to Barbados?
Moore: I was very much inspired by the Maroon story of rebellion up the mountains. A lot of the countries in the Caribbean, as well as America, have stories of slaves rebelling. I think that the story of the Maroons, and then I guess of the Haitian Revolution, are the most popular and prevalent. I was very attracted to the Maroon story of rebellion, because I think in many historical narratives you find that saviors always come from the outside in some way and are not within the diaspora. It was very important to me to explore figures within this community. Even though slavery existed, there were always people who were fighting back. [. . .]
For more information on the novel, see https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/she-would-be-king