Donna Seaman, Booklist Adult Books Editor, interviewed Wayétu Moore about her debut novel, She Would Be King, the fifth Sarah Jessica Parker Pick for Book Club Central, and a highly imaginative tale rife with supernatural elements that illuminate the history of Liberia through the lives of three unusual characters.
Seaman: In your author’s note for your debut novel, She Would Be King, you explain that your protagonist, Gbessa, was inspired by an old story set in a West African village. In an early scene in the novel, a griot tells stories to village children, and you’ve talked about the stories your father told when you were a child and your family had to flee Liberia during the civil war. What do stories do for us? Why do they matter? And when did your commitment to telling stories begin?
Wayétu Moore: In addition to the rehabilitative and escapist power of stories, they also, for me, give the world a different shape. They mattered because the shape was more vast in stories than what was presented in my everyday life. If I depended on what I saw every day, in my skin, I’d frequently get discouraged. Stories expand and contort what I see. They make the world more colorful, more wild, more bearable. My commitment to telling stories began when I was eight years old. I wrote a poem that my dad liked, and after that, he surprised me and bought me a turquoise typewriter. He said, “Keep going.”
Seaman: Gbessa is marked at birth as a witch and pariah in her village, and she eventually discovers that she does have a supernatural gift. The same happens to the two other primary characters, two men, June Dey, an enslaved African American on a Virginia plantation, and Norman Aragon of Jamaica, whose father was white and British, his mother a Maroon, one of those who escaped enslavement and formed free communities on the island. Why imbue these characters with superhuman powers?
Moore: I can’t say that my intention when I began was to create characters with superpowers. What was most important was to explore Liberia’s complex history, and I did it using the storytelling techniques I was raised with. Growing up, my mother, grandmother, or aunties didn’t tell me stories that didn’t include people displaying supernatural abilities as they went about their everyday lives. They flew; they cast spells; they disappeared; but their superhuman powers were never the meat of the story. The meat was the human story and universal themes like friendship, betrayal, love.
Seaman: American readers may know that Liberia was founded as nation for freed African American slaves and other black people in America, but few of us are aware of just how complicated and fraught this mission became. Can you talk about how Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman represent three colliding elements in the forging of Liberia?
Moore: 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.This movement, this emigration, is a significant, essential part of American history and African American history that is largely missing from historical explorations of black identity from the early nineteenth century through Reconstruction, and a movement that was actually revived in the early twentieth century with activists like Marcus Garvey. Going “back to Africa” was something that was fought for by some and vehemently opposed by others. It’s a chapter of American history that I believe deserves consideration. How profound a movement and experiment: that formerly enslaved people and free black people from America and from the Carribbean 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. These characters represent these three groups and their reasons for either leaving their home or fighting for their home during that time.
Seaman: Clearly, you conducted extensive research into the history of Liberia in order to provide the phenomenally vivid details that bring each scene to life. Why channel all that knowledge into a work of historical fiction rather than a work of history?
Moore: I’m not a historian; I’m an artist. I am in dialogue with history through my art, but my goal is to create a work of art first. Fiction is the most helpful tool in fulfilling that.
Seaman: It’s startlingly to see how rapidly Liberian society establishes hierarchies among the indigenous people (who have slaves), the white administrators, and the black settlers, as well as between men and women. How did your discoveries about these strata and conflicts shape your novel?
Moore: 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 disengaging with the notion that I knew this history or understood it. Or that I knew the people involved. Human nature is to find strategic and creative ways to survive, and that is the primary reason for social stratification. It will always be the shape of things—even in a world without color. I began by identifying what each of my characters wanted for themselves, and what each group of people represented wanted for themselves. From there I just tried to write those characters and their cultures honestly, and those themes of good and evil were organic results.
Seaman: Another conflict occurs between the settlers, who want to tame and dominate the land, and nature itself, to which Gbessa is keenly attuned. A mysterious, disembodied voice alerts us to the presence of an entity that watches over Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman. What role does this voice play in the novel?
Moore: The narrator’s ubiquity pays homage to black female identity. She is both everywhere and nowhere at all. I wanted the story to be told through the voice of an ancestor, and I knew I wanted that ancestor to be a woman whom I could relate to, and also a woman who Gbessa could relate to—someone who empathizes with the coupled asymmetry and splendor that is being a black woman in today’s world. It was important that the story was told by such a voice.
Seaman: Any thoughts about the resurgence of Afrofuturism?
Moore: African/Black diaspora fantasy and magical realism aren't new frontiers. Instead, black storytellers are just returning to their culturally authentic methods of storytelling. These methods were once suppressed as a result of colonialism and imperialism. Recognition of the supernatural, of the spiritual presence of ancestors, was seen as lacking civility and decency. These things were once considered to be unchristian and therefore, unacceptable. So I appreciate that the canon is trying to settle on a category, but I hope that although the name itself is new, it doesn’t discredit that this form of storytelling has existed among African storytellers for centuries.
Seaman: Please briefly describe One Moore Book and talk about how your work on that front dovetails with your writing.
Moore: My non-profit, One Moore Book, publishes stories for underrepresented readers, mostly from countries with low literacy rates. We also opened a bookstore/reading center in Liberia in 2015 as part of this effort to promote literacy among underserved groups. We partner with writers and illustrators from these countries for each book. The goal of the organization is to provide books to children who rarely see themselves in books. Our books also serve the dual purpose of giving children here a glimpse of countries they may never have an opportunity to visit. Toni Morrison once said that it’s important to write books that we want to see read. One Moore Book honors that, and I hope my novel honors that as well.
Seaman: And, finally, now that Sarah Jessica Parker has selected She Would Be King for Book Club Central, library book clubs all across the U.S. and beyond will be discussing your novel. How do you feel about this? And what affect do you hope your novel will have on readers?
Moore: I feel incredibly blessed by this opportunity. I hope readers get a glimpse into the history of a country that is very intertwined with the United States, but is usually forgotten. I also hope readers learn from the interconnectedness of African American, Caribbean, and indigenous African vantage points.
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.
Wayétu Moore is the founder of One Moore Book and 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.