Date Read: September 10th 2018
Published: September 2018
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond. Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.
Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.” In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
Prior to reading She Would Be King, I was a newbie when it came Liberian literature – I still am! I only knew about Nobel Peace Prize winner and writer – Leymah Gbowee, and her feature in the amazing documentary film – Pray the Devil Back to Hell (which I watched and deeply enjoyed for a Women’s Studies class in college). This debut had me wanting to know more about Liberia and the work of Liberian writers, such as – Helene Cooper, Hawa Jande Golakai, Vamba Sherif, Leymah Gbowee, Bilphena Yahwon (Gold Womyn) and others. While reading, I actually found a YouTube video where Liberian writer- Vamba Sherif, talks about Liberian literature in an interview. Enjoy!
She Would Be King is a beautiful mélange of historical fiction, magical realism and coming-of-age. Moore skillfully develops the three main characters of this novel: Gbessa – a Vai girl who is cursed and exiled to the forest; June Dey – the child of the strongest rebel on the Emerson plantation in Virginia; Norman Aragon – the child of Nani who was a gifted Jamaican Maroon and a British anthropologist/colonizer (such a terrible man!) . These three characters are guided by the wind and use their gifts – which are considered curses to ordinary people, to save present-day Liberia from its many hidden troubles. I always knew Liberia was the land where some freed slaves and freeborn African Americans made a living, but I had no idea freed slaves from the Caribbean also settled in present-day Liberia, making the nation a flavorful melting pot of indigenous and Diaspora folk.
The first three chapters of this debut explore these three main characters. I loved delving into the characters’ storylines and witnessing their evolution through the years. While African-American June Dey and Jamaican Norman play key roles in the establishment of Liberia through their gifts, Gbessa is the shero of this novel (this is not a spoiler, relax!) . Gbessa, who is described as a dark-skinned woman with wild red long hair, grows immensely in this story, to the point where her layered identities begin to haunt her. I’m itching to discuss Gbessa’s evolution, but unfortunately it would require divulging spoilers – and that wouldn’t be right!
[Images via Wayétu Moore’s Instagram for her US book tour dates; illustrations by Art Therapy Houston, PLLC]
Wayétu Moore’s writing felt light and magical in this debut. While reading, my heart raced as I could feel Gbessa’s loneliness and isolation, June Dey’s anger and power, Norman’s intelligence and bravery. The many issues in this story come together beautifully as Moore explores the legacies of slavery and colonialism as well as love, friendship, womanhood and independence. The sisterhood between Gbessa and Maisy – the wonderful woman who plays an immense role in Gbessa’s ‘civilization’ was so heartfelt!
I enjoyed the brotherhood between June Dey and Norman, but I wished their relationship was explored more. These men spent most of their time fighting invaders so there wasn’t enough dialogue between them. Also, it took me a while to finish this book thanks to school work, but also because I got bored of June Dey and Norman’s chapters, which were heavy with magical realism and lots of action. It wasn’t easy keeping up with the wordiness of their fighting scenes which required me to imagine all of their complex, superhero stunts. I really just desired some more depth to June Dey and Norman’s relationship and their connection to the settlement of Monrovia.
What I loved most about this novel was reading about the tensions between members of the indigenous tribes and former enslaved African Americans/ free-borns from the United States. I always knew these two groups had difficulty in seeing eye-to-eye, even in present day Liberia, but I didn’t realize how deep that tension was.
“But… some of them don’t think all of us the same. Some of them think… some of then think they smarter and better fit to lead than those who were already here” pg. 173.
The phrase ‘All My Skinfolk ain’t Kinfolk’ gnawed at me as I read how the African American settlers blatantly disregarded indigenous Liberians. It was eye-opening (and disappointing) to witness how settlers from the US treated indigenous folk similar to the ways slave masters treated them back in the US. Imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy emigrated with the African American settlers to Monrovia, where they imposed their power and discriminated against the natives. Indigenous folk had little say in the governing of their land, as the mayors and key thinkers of Monrovia were predominently the African American settlers. I had to do quite a bit of outside reading on Liberian history and the role of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in Monrovia’s complete independence. It was so intriguing to read on the motives of this society and I think I now understand why the election of Liberia’s current president- George Weah, was such a big deal.
There’s so much to say about this book! While I’d like some clarity on the use of language (pidgin) in the novel and Gbessa’s (unrealistic) infatuation with her childhood friend – Safua, this debut is pretty solid. I’d love to know what Liberians and Liberian-Americans think of this novel, as they would probably better understand the nuances of the story. I can confidently say I will read anything by Wayétu Moore, and that this debut is a lovely ode to the country of Liberia and Liberian womanhood, through Gbessa’s complex characterization.
[Today is pub day! Special thanks to Graywolf Press and Wayétu Moore for an Advanced Review Copy of this debut]
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase She Would Be King on Amazon