In this interview with recent Barnard College graduate Juliana Clark, Wayétu Moore discusses her transformative debut novel She Would Be King, a retelling of Liberia’s formation story steeped in magical realism. Through this conversation, Moore reveals the intentions behind a number of her narrative and character-based choices and parses out the themes central to this work. Aside from her vocation as a writer, Moore is an educator at the City University of New York’s John Jay College and the founder of One Moore Book, a publisher of educational stories for children whose cultures have been underrepresented in the publishing industry or are from countries with low literacy rates.
When I first started reading the book, part of me anticipated the whole narrative to be centered on Gbessa. Did you start writing She Would be King thinking that she would be your main focus and then discover June Dey and Norman Aragon’s characters later? Or did you always know there would be three interwoven narratives in which the protagonists of those storylines would eventually interact with each other?
I knew that the narrative would spend time in America and in the Caribbean, but I didn’t anticipate how significant those storylines would be. At first, the story was primarily Gbessa’s, but I understood that telling Gbessa’s story, which is truly the story of Liberia, included context and layers outside of Liberia that required time and exploration. June Dey and Norman Aragon were a result of that exploration.
Now, at some point, the novel transports the reader to Monrovia, a settlement in West Africa for free Africans and African-Americans. Throughout the time Gbessa was a part of that community, she faced a lot of scrutiny from society ladies, like Miss Ernestine and her allies, who really feared the nearby indigenous populations. What were you trying to convey through the characters of those women?
I used Miss Ernestine and the society women and their interactions with Gbessa to examine the nuances of indigene and settler relations. The common perception is that settlers went back and brutalized native groups, but research shows that there were intermarriages, the groups co-existed, and the relationships were not as binary as what is popularly represented, mostly by historians and writers who are not Liberian.
This novel is incredibly complex in the way it tells the story of both the birth of a nation and of a group of characters giving birth to themselves. Did you begin writing this story with the intention of making such a statement piece or did your initial plan have a smaller, more humble origin?
I began knowing I wanted to tell the story of Liberia, so I knew it would be vast. The story of Liberia is the story of the identities that comprise the republic, so the complexity of the characters was a natural function of the nation’s complexity.
The actions largely moving this novel forward can be traced by the various impacts made by a handful of matriarchs, from Darlene to Maisy and even the wind itself. To a large degree, Africa, as both a place and an imaginative landscape, fulfills a mother role. How and when did you come to know that motherhood (in whatever form it manifests) would be key in telling this story?
I wanted my characters’ gifts to be in conversation with black motherhood; it’s something I chose as a vehicle to explore the larger theme of black female identity in the novel. That theme has been present from the beginning. “She” is not exclusively Gbessa; it also represents the women who are telling the story. All of them. And this story is told through their relationships with each other, both good and bad. I knew that male characters would play a role, but I wanted even their gifts to be in conversation with black womanhood as a source.
Have you always been inspired by magical realism in your writing, and why was the element of magic necessary in creating a story rooted in celebrating and healing black lives?
I don’t think the element of magic was necessary per se, but magical realism is the genre that feels most organic to me, so it’s the one I chose to indulge. My introduction to storytelling was through magical realism and fantasy. It was rare in the West African storytelling tradition and, in my case, the Vai tradition to hear a story that didn’t include someone casting a spell, or someone flying or displaying some other supernatural ability as they went about their lives. So my culture is what most inspires my choice of genre.