Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King is a vibrant historical novel about the tumultuous founding of Liberia, shot through with fantastical elements rooted in African fable. The heroine referenced in the title is wild, red-haired Gbessa [pronounced ‘Bessah’], who is cast from her Vai village because she was cursed at birth and deemed to be an immortal witch. Abandoned in the forest, she is bitten by a viper and left for dead, but survives and ventures into the emerging colony of Monrovia. She crosses paths with two young men with similarly superhuman powers: June Dey, born into slavery in Virginia, whose body is impervious to wounds or pain; and Norman Aragon, the son of a Jamaican Maroon slave and a white British coloniser, who has inherited his mother’s capacity for invisibility. In Monrovia, Gbessa finds that the lofty ideals of the settlers are undermined by cruelty and inequality, while Norman and June Dey encounter the wiles of European interlopers who are looking to foment violence between indigenous groups in a bid to grab more land. It’s a gripping tale of humanity, resistance and self-determination, and a remarkable debut, strikingly narrated by a collective chorus of ancestors whose voices are delivered on the wind.

Moore left Monrovia aged five with her father and two sisters as the first Liberian Civil War erupted. They initially found refuge in her grandmother’s village before making their way to the US, where her mother was studying at Columbia University.

“We left our home in June of 1990, and we needed to find a place to hide,” she recalls. “My maternal grandmother is Vai, and the Vai people have villages in Cape Mount County in northern Liberia, so she knew that’s where we could end up going. My father, on his way to the village, saw a friend being held by a rebel, who was able to escape to Ghana to a refugee camp and found a way to call my mother in the US and told her exactly where we were. That’s how my mother knew where we were hiding. So she raised money and went to the Sierra Leone border and started looking around, asking people, ‘Do you know anyone who’s going in and out? How does this work?’ During that time there was a network of women rebel soldiers who were trafficking people’s families out of the country, and she found a man who knew one of these women and was able to pay her to go into Liberia – this was all very risky because the woman could of course have been corrupt and our lives could’ve been in danger, as well as the lives of everyone else in the village, but it ended up working out. She came and got us out and trafficked us across the border into Sierra Leone, so we were at my Mom’s friend’s house for about a month and a half. We got to New York in the first week of February in 1991, and we lived in her dorm room until she was finished with school, which was a few months after that, and then we moved round quite a bit.

It was a vibrant country, we had many friends, it was peaceful, there was family all around. But then other memories stuck with me too, and when we moved to the United States I began to have nightmares.”

“My early memories of Liberia are actually very happy. It was a vibrant country, we had many friends, it was peaceful, there was family all around. But then other memories stuck with me too, and when we moved to the United States I began to have nightmares. But in addition to having very grim images of things that I saw during the war, my father would say when we heard a gunshot, ‘Oh, those people are still drumming. Now why are they drumming at this time of night?’ And when we saw people lying down on sheets, dead, he’d say, ‘Everyone’s sleeping, still sleeping, so tired, tired like us. But we’re not sleeping just yet.’ And so in my mind I imagined that people were drumming, and I associated drumming with the Gio devils and festivals. I thought it was dragons fighting, I imagined this other world that was going on, and so I think there was some beauty in that experience, because the grim memories exist alongside this fantasy world of Gio devils and dragons fighting, and it’s my father who cemented that in my mind.”

The family eventually settled in a largely white suburb of Houston, Texas, but her parents took care to keep thoughts of Liberia alive within the family.

“We were raised in a very white, conservative, homogeneous town, and there were maybe a dozen or so black families – all African-American families, no African black immigrant families, ours was the only one – and at home my parents would play Liberian music and we would eat Liberian food. My Mom would come home from work and make a Liberian dish and an American dish because my siblings want spaghetti or a burger while my Dad wants rice and cassava, he wants his Jollof rice, he wants his fufu and soup, so we had both. My Mom made sure the music was always playing, and she loved telling us stories she had heard when she was younger. But I would say I was always balancing the line between being an African immigrant and also African-American, and I found myself wondering which space I would and should inhabit. It wasn’t until I moved to the northeast, to New York, that people would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’d say, ‘Texas,’ and they’d say, ‘No, where are you from from?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh yes, Liberia!’ and start talking about that, and taking ownership of my cultural identity.”

Like Gbessa and June Dey, Moore’s mother and father are descended respectively from the Vai people and African-American freed slaves who first colonised Liberia. Together with mixed-race Norman Aragon from Jamaica, her three main characters present a multifaceted snapshot of those who settled and shaped Liberia. Yet Gbessa only joins the newcomers in Monrovia because she has been exiled from her tribal village, the big scramble for Africa is playing out in the background between the French and the British, and the slave trade is still going on outside the colony, so it’s all a bit more complicated than it first appears.

The essence of Liberia was that it was Pan-Africanist in nature… But even with that dream, which was very lofty, it was made more complex with everything that was going on outside of the colony. How do you go and claim a space as your own, when there are people already there?”

“Liberian history is dynamic,” she says, “because it was a place that was designated as a safe haven for not only those in America who had been enslaved, but also people in the Caribbean, and anyone of native origin who wanted to become a part of the colony. My grandmother and mother are Vai, and I spoke Vai when I was younger, but of course when I moved to the United States I forgot the language, but I’m trying to learn it again slowly. My father’s ancestors were from South Carolina, they moved to Liberia in 1871, after being terrorised by the KKK. The brutality was so harsh that President Grant had to send federal troops down to a place called Rock Hill to temper the violence, and the US Congress took testimonies of those who had taken part. I had the opportunity during my research to read through those testimonies, and also last summer I had an opportunity to go to South Carolina and meet the descendants of those of my family who had stayed rather than going to Liberia, and that was a wonderful experience as well. I think the essence of Liberia was that it was Pan-Africanist in nature, and by the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, you find that African-American leaders were going over there and spending time there. Nina Simone, Edward B. Du Bois and other leaders were looking at it as very much a Pan-Africanist destination, and that was the essence of the country. But even with that dream, which was very lofty, it was made more complex with everything that was going on outside of the colony. How do you go and claim a space as your own, when there are people already there? From what I read historically, the land for the original Monrovia colony was purchased from native groups, but then you also have people wanting more and more land, and in some instances fighting it out with the native groups. But you do find, at least in the research that I’ve done, that there was some cohesion. I think a national favouritism was endemic, and there was social stratification. In one of the interviews I read from my third great-grandfather June Moore, he mentioned that when they initially moved to Monrovia they were working on farms. The Monrovian government would give land to those who were settling, but while they were waiting for a land grant they had to work on farms where they would get paid 50 cents a day while the native workers would get 25 cents a day, so that’s just an example of the stratification. If you read some other texts, they would have you believe that the African-American settlers went back and enslaved the native people, and that’s actually ahistorical. First of all, slavery existed in Liberia before the African-American settlers went over, among native groups, but then one Americo-Liberian president Charles King, in the 20s, was accused of using forced labour in construction projects, and it stuck in the popular imagination, which is unfortunate and unfair. As I said, a social stratification was created, but even with that you find that these groups ended up banding together when it came to external threats like the French and the British. At the end of the day they banded together to fight those who were a threat to liberty and black solidarity. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be some utopia where all black people from all over the world get along. It just means they would have the freedom to disagree without someone coming and playing peacemaker, or telling them how things should be done. And that’s still being figured out right now.”

Author portrait © Yoni Levy

But there were always flaws and shortcomings in the American Colonization Society’s plan to establish a community of freed slaves in Monrovia, as an alternative to emancipation in the US.

“The ACS was led by Quakers, Abolitionists as well, but it had a reputation at the time of being racist, for wanting to rid the free cities and rid the north of black people. A lot of black leaders of the time were saying, ‘Do not go back. They want to send us away, but we don’t know anything about Africa.’ So just as many people were for it, there were many who were against it – my family included, as I said. June Moore’s wife was called Adeline, and her brothers, her sisters, all stayed, and many families were separated in that way. You’d have people who’d say, ‘I’m done with this country, I’m leaving’ and then those that say, ‘No, let’s rebuild this country, I want to stay.’ Then when the ACS got to Monrovia they didn’t consider the black leaders competent, so the first governors were white. If you’re saying, ‘Go to this place and establish a colony for yourself,’ then why do you have to govern? And finally when they lost funding they just withdrew. The US Navy was sailing the coast after independence, so there was no threat by ocean, but otherwise the government of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president, didn’t have any defence other than the weapons that were left behind; they didn’t have any support after that, it was not sustainable.”

Gbessa finds work among and marries into the society of settlers that would found Liberia as Africa’s first independent nation. There’s a Mr Roberts, two sets of Johnsons, a Tubman – all names of future presidents. Her husband shares a surname with, and is therefore a putative forebear of ‘the father of modern Liberia’, William Tubman.

“I wanted to find a way to merge the native population with the settling class,” she explains, “and what better and more intimate way to do that than through a marriage? Also it was important in telling this story to explore the social dynamics between the groups that in some ways still exist today. Obviously to a much lesser degree, because Liberia is very mixed. Even during the coup, the men who were assassinated along with William Tolbert in 1980, the narrative is that they were all descendants of settlers, they were all Americo-Liberian and Doe came and killed them all, but many of them were mixed, and a couple of them were actually native, and so the narrative is not as binary as what is presented. Not every Americo-Liberian that went over became rich. Below the elite there was an Americo-Liberian middle class and an Americo-Liberian army class as well, so I wanted to somehow show that, and I thought the best way to do that was through marriage. I am someone who is a romantic, and so I also wanted to tell a love story that seemed real to me.”

A strong heroine and the title She Would Be King are easily read as a nod to Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“Liberian women as a whole are just the strongest women I know,” says Moore. “‘Iron Woman’, which is what they refer to Ellen as, is how they refer to many Liberian women – just being headstrong, stubborn, that’s what I was raised with. So while the society is patriarchal, we do have a reputation of having very strong-willed women.”

The three main characters each have supernatural powers that link back to African oral tradition and tales of invisibility, shape-shifting and living among one’s ancestors. I ask whether ‘magical realism’ an accurate or appropriate description for these fantastical elements.

“I don’t mind the term,” she replies, “because when it was first coined it referred to a story that was written by a South American writer, but about the Haitian Revolution, so it was a story about black people. But I look at it as just storytelling. From my mother or my grandmother, I didn’t hear stories that didn’t have someone flying, shape-shifting or casting a spell. That was just what I understood as the architecture of story, that it has these elements. I went to Liberia in November and I showed the book to my grandmother, and told her the starting point was a fable she’d told my Mom and my Mom told me about an old woman who beat her cat to death, and was then punished by the cat’s spirit. And she said, ‘You mean Saratu? The woman’s name was Saratu.’ And it exposed me, because my grandmother said, ‘No, this happened. This old woman beat her cat to death and the cat jumped onto her roof and killed her. So don’t harm a cat!’ That’s her reality. She wouldn’t call it magical realism, she wouldn’t call it fantasy, to her it’s just a story, to her it’s something that’s very possible and it’s something that happened. So I think speculative fiction, magical realism, Afrofuturism, African fantasy, whatever you want to call it, it’s just story.”

Moore has recently completed a memoir focusing on the family’s escape from the Civil War and mapping her journey into adulthood, which will be out in the US in Spring 2020 and most likely follow in the UK later in the year.

“The first section is told in a childhood voice, and tells of those dragons fighting in the distance,” she says, “then it goes into adulthood and it’s my mother’s first-person voice, what was going on in her mind as she was getting us out, and then it goes back to a childhood voice. It’s very experimental, but it explores some of the things we were speaking of before around identity, of being cross-cultural in America, as being both a black immigrant and someone without any American sensibilities, and what that means and how that manifests.”

Obviously writers like Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler have written black villains before, but it’s been interesting to give myself that licence to really delve into and dissect this other part of power, and also the human psyche.”

She is also working n her next novel, which she describes as being “about a woman ­who’s the anti-Gbessa – she’s an African immigrant to America who when she’s younger gets bullied, and when she’s pushed into a lake she realises she can breathe underwater. Then it becomes an exploration of what happens if you don’t want to use your special power for noble means, but for revenge. She doesn’t drown people arbitrarily; it’s only people she designates as bad. Obviously writers like Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler have written black villains before, but it’s been interesting to give myself that licence to really delve into and dissect this other part of power, and also the human psyche. Because we all have individual powers, unique powers, and we do occasionally abuse them.”

Moore’s parents moved back to Liberia in 2012, and she’s been a regular visitor ever since. “I go back maybe four times a year,” she says, “I was just there about a month ago, I have a bookstore in downtown Monrovia, so I go and tend to my bookstore and my non-profit, and also just hang out with my Mom and my Old Ma and my Dad, just my family.”

The non-profit, One Moore Book, was set up to publish culturally relevant books that feature children of countries with low literacy rates and underrepresented cultures. The organisation also builds bookstores, libraries and reading corners. I ask her about its proudest achievements.

“I’ll tell you a story of my recent trip to Liberia,” she replies. “We partnered with a group called Teach for Liberia, who place local teachers in schools in the interior, but unfortunately a lot of the schools can’t manage to pay them so we hired one of the teachers to be at the store and give tutoring. So Monday to Thursday she comes to the store, and she’s there for about three hours, and students will come in and get lessons. And there’s this little girl, her name is Faith, she’s ten and she’s never been to school because her parents just can’t afford it, and she is just so eager to learn. She’s learned her ABCs, she knows how to write her name, and she takes it so seriously. One day, someone from the neighbourhood came to the store to pick her up and she turned and scowled and said, “I’m doing my work.” And I had to tell her, “Faith, you should go to your Mom.” At moments like that it feels like the organisation is really impacting these groups that are very much a representation of me. Because, God forbid, if my Dad had been killed during the war, if something had happened to my Mom on the Sierra Leone border and my sisters and I found ourselves orphans, what would our life be like? I recognise that, and I know that it’s my duty. So I don’t look at it as philanthropy or charity, I’m not even sure I believe in those things. It’s just giving back as I would expect Faith’s mother, if we were in opposite roles, to perhaps do for me.”


Wayétu Moore is a graduate of Howard University, Columbia University and the
University of Southern California. She teaches at the City University of New York’s
John Jay College and lives in Brooklyn. She Would Be King is published in hardback
by ONE, an imprint of Pushkin Press.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer and a founding editor of Bookanista.