In “She Would Be King,” debut novelist Wayétu Moore spins a lush, poetic vision of the beginnings of the colony and country of Liberia. Moore’s vivid characters, beguiling language and powerful subject matter engage us thoroughly. The book is unforgettable.
“She Would Be King” is singular for the fantastical history it purports to tell, and also for the way that history is told. Magic, ghosts, transmogrification and all manner of hauntings are as commonplace as the casual death and dismemberment of Africans. At one point, the wind — a character in the book — says, “When ships left those shores, I followed them. I heard people inside, though there was nothing I could do. No matter how strong I became, I could not turn the sea back. I saw black bodies jump from the decks and sink like stones into the ocean below. In the bottom of the deep, there is a city of stones where those ancestors linger.”
The story has three protagonists, Gbessa, Norman and June, hailing from the three main ports of the transatlantic slave trade — Virginia, Liberia and Jamaica. The characters discover their superhuman powers of strength, longevity and invisibility on their home soil, but it is only when they converge on the African continent that they come to understand their collective and individual purpose: to liberate Africans throughout the diaspora.
The three accomplish this by fighting colonial powers, particularly the French, who raided villages throughout Liberia, stealing Africans for the long outlawed slave trade. Although they are often confused and even lost on their journeys, their guidepost is an unerring belief in the possibility of a free and sovereign black republic.
An abiding sense of the importance of home for those scattered across the African diaspora is what unifies the book, but it is also what creates an all too easy kind of nationalism. Toward the end of the novel, one of the African-American settlers, the elites in the fragile colony, appeals to his peers: “We are free. … And this freedom, this liberty is what caused you to risk your lives to journey here. This liberty is what will build this nation into the next century, and the century after, and the century after! … We will die reciting, and in the name of our new and honest freedom, in the name of our liberty, we shall call this land, our new and bold and free and honest country, Liberia!”
What is omitted in this rousing speech is the price of nation-building, particularly on the indigenous communities that existed there.
The novel examines some of these colonial tensions and contradictions, but it leaves many others unexamined in its focus on the European colonial menace. Still, even with these fissures, the story is irresistibly evocative and fierce. “She Would Be King” is a masterfully wrought alternate history of magical black resistance and should not be missed.
Shannon Gibney is a writer and educator in Minneapolis. Her new novel, “Dream Country,” chronicles the journeys of one Liberian and Liberian-American family across two continents and 200 years.
She Would Be King
By: Wayetu Moore.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 294 pages, $26.
Event: Graywolf Literary Salon, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6, with Tarfia Faizullah and Jamel Brinkley. Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls., $35-$160, <a href="https://graywolfpress.salsalabs.org/2018graywolfliterarysalon/index.html">graywolfpress.org/events</a>.</p>