Wayétu Moore and her family fled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, during the civil war in 1989 when Moore was five, a harrowing rupture that her father sought to ameliorate by telling stories full of magic. In her spellbinding debut novel, She Would Be King, Moore continues that evocative filtering of life through the prism of a keen imagination while also drawing on Liberian folktales to tell the story of this nation founded by former American slaves. Three characters pilot the drama. Gbessa, a girl shunned as a witch by her own Vai people, must come to terms with her immortality. June Dey, with nearly supernatural origins and strength, embodies the journey of former slaves from the American South to the newly created settlement of Monrovia. And Norman Aragon, a man of mixed race with the power to disappear, fulfills his mother’s dream of leaving Jamaica for Liberia.
The subjects (slavery, mixed-race heritage, the status of women) and settings (the Deep South, the Caribbean, and African nations) Moore explores, as well as her use of magic realism, are paralleled, albeit from different perspectives, in the books listed below. These read-alikes also reflect Moore’s acknowledged literary influences—Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, and Ben Okri.
The Autobiography of My Mother
by Jamaica Kincaid
Kincaid’s stark yet erotic, unnerving yet bewitching novel of loss, fury, danger, courage, and defiance portrays a mixed-race Caribbean woman, Xuela Claudette Richardson, whose mother died giving birth to her. Xuela’s quest for identity and home on an island devastated by conquest and slavery, along with her search for love and autonomy in fraught relationships, casts a harsh light on the history of the New World.
by Toni Morrison
Sethe, an enslaved mother driven to kill her own baby daughter, is haunted by the loss of her Beloved; 18 years later, a young woman appears, seemingly an embodiment of Beloved’s spirit. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for this landmark work and soon after received the Nobel Prize. Three decades on, this towering and timeless novel continues to sharpen our perception of the deep, indelible, and traumatic legacy of enslavement.
Crossing the River
by Caryl Phillips
Phillips’ trenchant novel about the African diaspora begins with the sorrow of an African man who has sold his children to a white slave trader, followed by a searing account of the settlement of Liberia by freed American slaves; the elegiac story of an enslaved woman cruelly separated from her family; a slave-ship captain’s log; and the consequences of love between an Englishwoman and an African American soldier during WWII.
by Russell Banks
An American woman’s radical past and pursuit of asylum deliver her to 1980s Liberia, where she cares for debilitated chimpanzees in a shabby medical lab and marries the minister of public health while the country erupts into political mayhem and psychotic violence.
The Famished Road
by Ben Okri
Nigerian poet and novelist Okri won the Booker Prize for this first in a trilogy (Songs of Enchantment, 1993; Infinite Riches, 1998) about Azaro, a spirit-child living in poverty. Here other spirits are trying to draw Azaro into their realm, but he clings to earthly life out of love for his parents, who struggle to keep him alive amid many clashes between ideals and harsh realities and all the pressures and churn of life at the edge of death as experienced by the family, their landlord, a bar owner, and an artist. An unforgettable work of world literature.
The Girl with the Golden Shoes
by Colin Channer
Jamaican writer Channer addresses the cultural complexity and imperialist tragedies of the Caribbean in this fairy tale about 14-year-old Estrella, who acquires mysterious and highly suspect powers by teaching herself to read. Ostracized from her just-getting-by fishing village, she embarks on an archetypal odyssey, outwitting human variations on demons and ogres.
Island Beneath the Sea
by Isabel Allende
Born enslaved in the colony of Saint-Domingue, Tété becomes the very meaning of life to the deeply conflicted plantation owner, Toulouse Valmorain, with whom she has a daughter. The three flee during the slave uprising in Haiti, first to Cuba, then to New Orleans, journeys recounted in celebrated Chilean American writer Allende’s many-faceted tale in which she explicitly captures the racial, sexual, and entrepreneurial dynamics of each society while dramatizing the psychic wounds of slavery.
by Octavia E. Butler
Butler, a groundbreaking, highly honored African American science-fiction writer, astutely and provocatively combines slave narratives and time travel as her narrator, Dana, an African American woman writer living in Los Angeles in 1976, is flung back to the antebellum South. There she meets her ancestors, including a free black woman forced into sex and slavery by a white planter, on a Maryland plantation. As Dana is drawn into their harsh world, Butler creates a compelling dual view of race, gender, and power.
The Long Song
by Andrea Levy
Award-winning Anglo-Jamaican writer Levy portrays, with charm, wit, and unflinching authenticity, Miss July, who is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation, the daughter of an enslaved woman and the white overseer. She is eventually brought from the fields into the manor house and renamed Marguerite as violence escalates and slavery is abolished, yet life remains cruel.
by Syl Cheney-Coker
A writer, poet, and journalist long exiled from his home country, Sierra Leone, Cheney-Coker addresses the dreams and struggles of postcolonial Africa in a blend of mythology and magic, presenting a multicultural caste of politicians, academics, soldiers, speculators, and necromancers and dramatizing the corruption undermining a small, fictional West African nation by contrasting the colossal palace built by the dictatorial president with the modest home along the river built by a woman seeking refuge with her lover.
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
In this magnetizing and wrenching saga, Whitehead tells the story of smart and resilient Cora, a young third-generation slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. Certain that the horror will only get worse, she flees with a man who knows how to reach the Underground Railroad. Each stop Cora makes along this fantastically imagined, actual Underground Railroad reveals another shocking and malignant symptom of a country riven by catastrophic conflicts, a poisonous moral crisis, and diabolical violence. Hard-driving, laser-sharp, artistically daring in its magic realism, and deeply compassionate, Whitehead’s odyssey enriches the literature of racial tyranny and liberation.
Woman of the Ashes
by Mia Couto. Tr. by David Brookshaw
Acclaimed Mozambican writer Couto brings readers to a village in 1894 Mozambique and tells the story of the conflict between Portuguese colonizers and the last remaining local leader, Ngungunyane, and his soldiers, altering points of view among a Portuguese sergeant, Germano de Melo; Imani, a 15-year-old girl who belongs to the VaChopi tribe; and her brothers, fighting on opposite sides. Couto’s intriguing combination of folklore, history, and magic realism is a timeless and universal drama of the human endeavor.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.