Liberian novelist combines fact and magic to tell her homeland's creation story

Despite the deep connections between the U.S. and Liberia, few people here know that the West African nation was founded by freed slaves from the Americas.

Wayetu Moore
Wayetu Moore's novel "She Would Be King" draws upon U.S. and Liberian history, as well as West African storytelling traditions to create a tale of the founding of Liberia. Moore, who was born in Liberia, but then came to the US with her parents when she was five, will read from her book on Thursday Sept. 6th at the Graywolf Literary Salon in Minneapolis.
Courtesy photo by Yoni Levy

A Liberian novelist is telling that story by blending historical fact with West African magical realism. It's one reason her novel begins with a dire warning about being good to cats.

Wayétu Moore was born in Liberia, but fled in 1989 with her parents when civil war broke out in her homeland. She was 5. They moved to Texas. Growing up she heard a lot about Liberia from her parents and other older relatives. One story in particular stuck with her.

"They would say 'Be sure you are kind to cats. Remember there was that old woman. She beat her cat to death, and the cat came back and stood on her roof and her house fell down.'"

In Moore's debut novel "She Would Be King" it's that story that comes back at the beginning of the tale. The old woman dies when the house collapses, and the elders in the African village where she lived declare the day cursed.

Unfortunately, it's the day the book's central character Gbessa is born. So the elders declare her cursed too. Moore says that curse gives her a supernatural power: she cannot die.

"It was rare that I heard stories growing up that didn't include someone flying or disappearing or shape-shifting," she said. "It was just very much part of the West African storytelling tradition that you would find characters displaying some sort of supernatural ability while going about their everyday lives."

Another character in Moore's novel develops the ability to become invisible. A third is so strong bullets bounce off him. However, Moore says she wasn't just creating these characters for fun. They represent the people thrown together in the creation of Liberia.

"It was definitely a way for me to reconnect and rediscover a part of me that had been lost because of the war," she said.

Wayetu Moore's novel "She Would Be King"
Cover image of Wayetu Moore's novel "She Would Be King" published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press.
Courtesy Graywold Press

Liberia's history as a nation began in the 1840s.

"Going back to Africa, it was something that was fought for by some," Moore said. "It was opposed by others. And it's a chapter in American history that I believed deserved consideration."

On the face of it the idea was simple: create a nation in Africa for freed slaves from the U.S. and the Caribbean. The reality was of course very different, not least because there were already Africans living in the area selected for the new settlement.

And Moore says there were very different views on the colony among the people coming from America. Some saw it as a way to get back to the Africa from where they had been stolen as slaves. But not everyone.

"During my research I actually found that there were many African-Americans that were against emigration," Moore said. "They found that it was racist. They thought that it was America's way of getting rid of the free black population and wanted no part in it."

And while Liberia was the first African republic to proclaim its independence, it came at a time when many European countries were grabbing land for their own colonies.

Moore places her characters against this complicated backdrop. In addition to the cursed Gbessa who sees the outsiders arrive, there is June Dey, the slave of enormous strength raised on a Virginia plantation on the run after a confrontation with an overseer. And there is Norman Aragon, born of a relationship between a Maroon slave in Jamaica and a white British colonizer. He's the one who can disappear.

In Moore's novel fate throws them together in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

"The book is pan-Africanist in nature because it does link these three groups across the Atlantic," she said. "And it does show the commonalities of their experiences."

The civil war in the late 1980s spread many Liberians across the world, including to the Twin Cities. As a girl, Moore visited relatives in Minnesota and she is excited to return to read "She Would Be King" at the Graywolf Literary Salon at Aria in the Minneapolis Warehouse district. Graywolf will also publish her upcoming memoir "Dragons, Giant, Women."

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