Wayétu Moore on writing the immortal heroine of "She Would Be King": "She grew as I grew"

Salon talks to the novelist about fantasy in her storytelling and how U.S. and Liberian readers are different

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 28, 2019 5:00PM (EST)

Wayétu Moore (Matt Smith)
Wayétu Moore (Matt Smith)

Author Wayétu Moore recently exploded on the literary scene with her debut novel "She Would Be King," which boldly reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia's creation through the eyes of three characters with special powers.

The novel is an adventurous reading experience that spans continents, time and genres. Moore's characters share different strands of the transatlantic slave trade experience — one has been exiled, one was raised on a plantation in Virginia and another is the child of a white British colonizer — and she unites them all through magical realism.

"She Would Be King" has been well received, garnering praise from numerous publications, including the New York Times, which wrote, "Ms. Moore skillfully reconsiders the idealism of the early African-American settlers through their interactions with the indigenous peoples and braids together intimate story lines centered around universal themes: falling in love, defying familial expectations and the difficulties of doing the right thing." 

Early this semester, I presented Moore's writing to some of my creative writing students at the University of Baltimore. Many of the students weren't familiar with her work, but quickly became infatuated with how delicately she writes about black women and the idea that she sold a speculative realism novel as a person of color in 2018.

Turns out, the industry really only wants memoirs about surviving jail and crack addicted parents from black people. When the students get through my Moore excerpt, they buy her book, read and finish that, and then google her, looking for any and everything that she has written, as she almost instantly became their latest muse.

My students are all aspiring writers. They're big-eyed artists with a hunger for fame and in constant search for the stories and experiences of other writers in an effort to validate their own National Book Award-winning dreams. I'm here for all of that. I even get excited when they get excited about their own success, all the way up until they say something goofy like "Wayétu Moore is an overnight success story! She came out of nowhere!"

I can't remember which student said that to me, but it was suggested, almost proclaimed, and I do remember how everyone in the class agreed. I hated every second of it — as if I didn't tell them it took me five years to sell my first book, or that J.K. Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers over an extended amount of time before the first Harry Potter book dropped.

"Just because you have never heard of a writer doesn't mean that they picked up their first pen yesterday. You better believe Wayétu earned her stripes," I told the group. "Overnight success stories take a decade."

I first met Moore at a basement reading in Brooklyn back in 2015 when she was knee-deep in the edits of "She Would Be King," which she wouldn't be released until three years later.

I recently had the luxury of sitting down with Moore on "Salon Talks" where we discussed the decade she spent writing her book, the ugly rejections and denials that get left out of social media, and the real grind that a person needs to endure if they want to be a professional artist.

Read my full "Salon Talks" conversation with Wayétu Moore below, or watch the episode here.

Tell me about the title, "She Would Be King," and the story behind it.

I consider this in many ways somewhat of a feminist text. The character that the title stems from — she's the heroine — her name is Gbessa.

The book itself explores Liberia's history. Liberia's history is very vast, and it's complex, and the reason it's complex is because of the identities that make up the republic ­— that's indigenous Africans, freed blacks and former slaves from America that immigrated in the 19th century, and freed blacks and former slaves from the Caribbean that immigrated in the late 19th century, early 20th century.

They're on the continent in Liberia while colonialism and imperialism are still very present throughout the continent, and while slavery is going on in the rest of the Western world. But they had this little pocket where they could exercise their freedom and figure out what they wanted for themselves.

The three main characters, one of each they represent the corners of the transatlantic. It's Gbessa, she's immortal, she is an indigenous woman from the region that, of course, is later named Liberia.

June Day, he is a slave in Virginia, and during his first encounter with an overseer, he realizes that his skin is impervious to bullets and blades, and when he's whipped his back doesn't scar. He ends up escaping the plantation, he gets on a boat, and he goes back to Liberia.

And the Norman Aragon, he is a Jamaican Maroon, he's mother's a Maroon, his dad is a British scholar and he can make himself invisible, so he ends up back on the continent.

You're also from Liberia.

Yes, my family immigrated here when I was five, so I didn't have an upbringing that was in Liberia. My formative years were spent actually in the suburbs of Texas. And I knew that when I started writing I wanted to explore Liberian history because I knew how close it was to American history, and also how close it was to explorations of black identity from the early 19th century to Reconstruction.

It was important to me to go back to this history. And then also to use a genre, I would say, that I respect, which is speculative fiction, and not only do I respect it, but it was how I was introduced to storytelling. The stories my mother told me and my grandmother and my aunties, they always included some aspect of fantasy. But it wasn't fantasy, fantasy was not itself a character as it is in the West. If we have speculative fiction or magical realism in Western literature, you're going spend a lot of time analyzing those magical elements, whereas if you tell the same story in Liberia, they're looking at the human context.

The example I give is, if you and I are having a conversation, it gets heated and one of us rushes off and says, oh I have to go the restroom, and I fly off. In the Western literary context, we're going to dissect and examine, flight. What world do you live in that this person can fly? How did you respond to my flight? But if I told the same story in Liberia, they're going to be focused on, OK, were they lovers in a quarrel, were they brother and sister, what did they do to each other to make her that upset? You know what I mean?

In the process of creating Gbessa, what did you learn about her? Do you already have these things figured out before, or do new characteristics and mannerisms and just how she responds to certain situations, morph as you're trying to complete the writing process?

Yeah, she in many ways is a metaphor not only for Liberia, but I think just the experience of black women in the world, then and now. For this book, I spent time with these characters for about a decade. The first draft took me about a year to write, and I finished it in 2009. Then I put it aside, picked it back up in 2013, edited from 2013 to 2015.

That's the process that people don't understand.

I know, the process is so long.

They think you just woke up one day, and you were just like ah, "She Would Be King."

Exactly. Oh my gosh. Yes, I edited for two years and then it sold in 2015, it didn't come out until 2018. But of course, during that time you're working on minor editing stuff as well.

As I grew as woman, so did my character. I was constantly learning about the message that I wanted to tell, about the role of patriarchy then and now, and about how it shaped her experience in this new republic as a black woman both in her country, but then also in the world. Yes, she has changed as I changed. She grew as I grew.

Is there anything you would like to go back and do now that it's done?

Oh, of course. I've been actually traveling for the past couple months for this book, I just got back yesterday, and part of what goes into reading is this restraint in the things that we would change about our work.

It takes a tremendous amount of restraint to not cringe while you're reading sometimes, but I understand that it's a labor of love, and I understand that as an artist, I'm just never going to arrive and I'm comfortable with that.

I've never met an author who said it was perfect how it was.

Right. I have major anxiety when it comes to, oh my gosh, how can I make this better. But the story is already in the world and now I'm working on other things and just hoping to nurture my craft and mature my craft to where I can then use those lessons in my next project.

You took the book to Liberia, and what happened?

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Liberia, and I was also in Ghana and I did readings in Liberia, I did one at the U.S. Embassy, did one at the University of Liberia, and then I also had a separate launch in partnership with a group called Teach for Liberia.

And what was wonderful is that I think in the Western literary context we talk a lot about the magical realism aspect. Magical realism, that term came about in 1910s, 1920s, and it was used to refer mostly to South American writers, and what they had in common, what their books had in common, it was also like Catholicism, some indigenous belief and then resistance to colonialism.

As African writers and even black spec writers from across the world began to be published by the Western context, they would lump it in with magical realism. And now you see that people are identifying, or the cannon is identifying, that there is something else at play and so you find other terms floating around like Afrofuturism, and black spec fict, and black sci-fi, but it all sort of has that qualifier. This form of storytelling has always existed, it's just that it was suppressed before because it was seen as un-Christian or uncivilized. What do you mean, you're talking to your ancestors? What do you mean the supernatural and people are flying?

Whereas, this was very much our spirituality. And I think it was suppressed for so long that now that it's being published in the West, it's being presented as an introduction. Like, oh, look at all of these black writers who are writing spec fict now, but this is something that's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old, it's just that it was suppressed for a very long time.

With that said, when I was in Liberia reading this story, there were no questions about the magical elements. They didn't ask me about the superhero strength. I was not asked about anyone disappearing or the immortality.

Because they're already familiar with that type of storytelling.

Yes, what I was being asked about were the universal themes, the human themes, the friendships, the betrayals, the relationships between the women in the book, motherhood, the role that motherhood played. And that's not to say those questions don't come up here, I get asked those questions as well, but I think what takes precedent is this magical realism and magic in your work and fantasy in your work. I just try to remind people that this is something that is very culturally organic.

Do you feel like you're going to bridge gaps or help develop a new understanding between Africans from different countries and African Americans?

I hope so.

I always feel like a lot of African Americans don't understand the effects of colonialism, whereas a lot of Africans from different countries in Africa don't really understand the long-term effects of chattel slavery, and these two worlds, they clash.


And when I'm in classrooms and I'm teaching students that are African, a lot of them are shocked, they're surprised, or they don't believe it and I have to go into this long speech trying to explain that. 

Yeah, I mean, Liberia was definitely that. Liberia was a charge for Pan-Africanism on the continent for a very long time. And you see figures in black American history were going back to Liberia and spending time there. Nina Simone spent a lot of time there. These are people who lived there. Maya Angelou lived there and found a home there.

In many ways it was supposed to be that space on the continent. Obviously that there were issues with Pan-Africanism both internally and externally and the way that it was received around the world. But I do want to examine in my work what that would look like, if you show that a black body in Flint is going through some of the same things as a black body in Baltimore, a black body in Rio De Janeiro, a black body in Haiti, a black body in Kenya. You know what I mean?

What does that look like when we're able to cross vantage points and exchange in a significant way, in the same way that some of our predecessors like Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, Thomas Sankara wanted to do, W.E. B. Du Bois, they all wanted to do at the Pan-African conferences that were being held during the 20th century.

Liberia definitely was such an experiment and it is that place for me. It's definitely something that I wanted to explore in my work, because as you were saying, my family moved here when I was five, I was raised in a very small community in the north of Houston, and there were maybe 12 black families, and we were the only African family, so as far as I was concerned, I was like I'm black, I'm African American.

And when I moved to the Northeast, I would go to black student union meetings, because in high school I was the president of the black student union, and they'd be like oh, well, is there an African student union that you go to as well. And then of course, you go to the African student union, and they're like oh yeah, but you were raised here. And then it creates this sort of marginal identity, this cross-cultural identity.

And that's not exclusive to me, that isn't anything that's rare. I think because the immigration from African countries has increased so much in recent decades you see that there's an entire generation of these in-betweeners. And yes, I do think that it is possible to bridge the gap, because where there's intermarriages and you have bi-cultural families now. And you have people who are going back to the continent to connect with the cultures of their parents and their spouses and I think exchange is important and essential, and I think really, that's going to be the only key to any sort of mass psychological economic rehabilitation of black bodies across the world.

What would have happened if Marcus Garvey's plan would have worked? What would Liberia look like today?

Well, Marcus Garvey, of course we know that he came about in like the 1920s or so, and he wanted to revive this Back to Africa movement. And I think that if he would have successfully revived it, Liberia would probably be some of the same that it is now. Because I think there was so much resistance during that time, that the world wasn't ready for it.

And even if it would have worked then, later on in the 20th century, it would have been deconstructed or destabilized, as you see happened to other countries that were able to, like Ghana.

You go from the success of Ghana in the '40s to '60s to Ghana Must Go bags, and Ghanaian refugees going to Liberia and Nigeria. There were countries that were able to successful pull off what Garvey was trying to revive in the Back to Africa movement of the '20s, but it is not in the world's interest to have stable African countries.

Because Africa's so rich in resources, resources that are needed across the world. It is not in the world's interest, and so I think now, as times are changing and people are more cognizant of the political views and political intent, you will find that this maybe is a new era where African countries and African bodies are maintaining and demanding the agency that is so frequently robbed from these citizens and these countries. I think now it's more possible than ever, but then, no.

Could you speak a little bit about One Moore Book?

Sure, my non-profit is called One Moore Book and we create literature for children who rarely see themselves in books. And this idea came to me, when I used to work in D.C. for an organization called Everybody Wins. And we would go into public schools and facilitate reading workshops, literacy workshops for fourth to sixth graders who couldn't read, couldn't read a word, but they were in fourth, fifth, sixth grade. And there was just a general disinterest in literature.

Anything that I presented them, if I bring something to them they just, they didn't care. And then of course, when I started to ask them what their interests are and then bring them books that represented their cultures and their foods, and of course to say that represents their culture, that can be dissected because what is black culture? What is Latinx culture? Even that is flawed, but I did now that cultural relevancy — and it could be something like geography, foods, names — once they see those things in books, their interest piques, they are more engaged, and their scores are improved.

And my organization creates literature for children like that, who rarely see themselves in books, and we do it around the world. Right now, we have 23 books for Liberia, Guinea, Haiti, we have an Afro-Brazilian book. We're working on a Ghana series right now. And additionally, we open reading centers in some of these locales, so I opened, my first bookstore in Monrovia in 2015, and it serves as a community center, where people can go and take classes.

It's my favorite place on the planet and this project fills me in a lot of ways because as a person of color growing up here it was very rare that I saw my cultural in books, and I know how excited I was.

And that's a lot of the work that you do too, is making sure that children in Baltimore and just around the country and around the world are seeing their culture reflected and realizing that that has a dramatic impact on their interest in literature, their interest in their own academic futures.

Because when you see something written down it's presented as a definitive authority, but then if you never see yourself written down, and it's almost as if you don't exist in this world, just giving them a voice and affirmation that they do exist.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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