She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Date Read: September 10th 2018

Published: September 2018

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Pages: 312

The Blurb

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

Advertisements

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa GyasiDate Read: July 16th 2016

Published: 2016

Publisher: A.A Knopf

Pages: 305

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Yaa Gyasi’s debut – Homegoing, is historical fiction at its best. I honestly thought Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah hit home for me back in 2013 when I read it. But Homegoing IS home. Homegoing is about my home. I never thought I’d read a book that perfectly articulates the dynamics of being Ghanaian-American. The only book I’ve read that somewhat touches on the identity complexities of being Ghanaian by blood and American (or British) by birth, was Powder Necklace by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (another awesome Ghanaian-American writer). I might have to re-read Powder Necklace and review it on this platform soon!

Homegoing was an emotional read – throughout! I started reading during the wake of the horrific Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings of early July, so you can imagine how haunting these real life events paralleled with this particular historical fiction, which focuses on the legacy of slavery in America and Ghana. Homegoing follows two half sisters – Effia and Esi who live in 18th century Ghana and the generations after them, making Effia and Esi the matriarchs of dual lineages. Effia becomes the wench (not wife) of the British governor of Cape Coast Castle (a slave castle here in Ghana) and is the matriarch of the Ghanaian line of the family; while Esi, who is kept as a slave in the dungeons of this same Cape Coast Castle where Effia resides with the governor, is the matriarch of the American line of the family. Homegoing alternates between the descendants of the two sisters, chronologically from 18th century Ghana to present day (after the millennium), in both Ghana and the US. As with most books of the historical fiction genre, a family tree is provided on the first page of the novel which makes following the two lineages and the different family members pretty easy.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to read Homegoing without harboring some resentment for the insanity white folks forced people of African descent to endure. From the events of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the injustice and discrimination black folks faced in the American south as slaves, to the Anglo-Ashanti wars in Ghana, to present day racial tensions and disregard for black bodies, are all legacies of slavery. I truly admire how Gyasi manages to personalize slavery and its effects through the use of character development in each chapter. In every chapter, readers witness how each generation got some inheritance of slavery – be it through mass incarceration, the need to pass as white, lynching, colorism, the fragmenting of families and so much more.

As much as the terrors white folks caused black people are highlighted in Homegoing, I appreciate Gyasi for not letting Africans off the hook for being complicit in the slave trade. Unfortunately, the role African nations played in enabling slavery are  rarely addressed. All the ethnic wars, kidnapping of innocent people and trading of human beings in exchange for goods from the British, Dutch and Portuguese were all selfish, contributing factors to the slave trade and the inhumane effects they still manifest. While reading Homegoing, I kept thinking about Maya Angelou’s autobiography – All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and her valid feelings of anger and disappointment she expressed after visiting the Elmina Castle (a Portuguese slave castle here in Ghana) in Cape Coast, Ghana back in the 1970’s. I understood her anger, as she was a descendent of our people who were captured and sold to the Europeans. As upsetting as the slave trade was, I applaud Gyasi for using Homegoing as a way for opening up conversations on the obscure relationship between Africans and African-Americans today, thanks to our disturbed past.

Gyasi’s ability to seamlessly weave Ghanaian and African-American histories into this story was very ambitious and exciting to read! I was impressed with the plethora of themes, actual historical events and icons that made realistic cameos in this novel. Don’t get me wrong – Homegoing is not rigid with historical facts. It’s very much a holistic novel with issues like interracial relationships, sharecropping, racial passing, lynching, homosexuality, mental illness, abelism, colorism and so much more, embedded into the storyline with respect to the times in which the characters live. Real historic icons and happenings like Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu, The Asantehene, the civil rights movement & non-violent resistance headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Harlem heroin epidemic of the late 1960’s and others are all impressively packed into this novel of 305 pages!

I enjoyed most of the chapters and characters in Homegoing. But my favorite character was Marjorie. I like to believe Marjorie’s chapter is Yaa Gyasi – fictionalized. Marjorie was born in Ghana and raised in the US, just like Yaa Gyasi. In Marjorie’s chapter, I loved how the character articulates how she doesn’t identify fully as Ghanaian or ‘Black American’ which is sometimes used synonymously with the ambiguous term – ‘akata’ by some Africans. I especially loved that Marjorie found joy in reading books by writers of African descent,

Her work was in African and African American literature, and when Marcus asked her why she choose those subjects, she said that those were the books that she could feel inside her. (pg. 295)

Is Marjorie me? That quote is basically the essence of why I created African Book Addict! It was refreshing to read Majorie’s chapter, as I completely understood her identity struggles. While my life story is a little different from Majorie’s/Yaa Gyasi’s, reading a character with a similar background as yours is deeply gratifying. You begin to realize that there are others like you in the world; that you’re not alone in your confusion as to where you call home; that your convictions on your ever evolving identities are valid.

While discussing Homegoing with other book lovers here in Accra, I realized there were some minor inaccuracies in the novel. But I didn’t mind the minor inaccuracies others felt the need to point out. I did however find the ending of this phenomenal book a bit corny. Marcus’s chapter should have ended with a bang – as all the other chapters did! Regardless, Homegoing was emotional and heartbreaking, yet exhilarating to read. I hope Yaa Gyasi makes a trip to Ghana soon or adds Accra to her book tour. I’d love a good ole’ chat with a fellow Ghanaian-American and of course, for my copy of the book to be graced with her signature!

I’d like to extend a special thank you to my new friend – Trish Tchume and publishers A. A Knopf  for my copy of the book.  Homegoing is definitely one of my top 5 favorite books of this year. Don’t be surprised when it is required reading in schools soon.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

My copy of Homegoing before and after reading.

P.S: I’ve typed all of the quotes I highlighted while reading and I’m open to sending anyone who’s interested, the PDF file of the compiled quotes via email. Some of the quotes, notes and suggested readings I highlighted would make for amazing book club discussions 🙂

Purchase Homegoing on Amazon