An Enchanting Tale of Magic and Harsh Realities
It’s easy to approach the debut novel "She Would be King" by writer Wayétu Moore with an odd mixture of excitement and skepticism. Excitement because there had been much buzz within literary circles that Moore was a welcome fresh voice to fiction and that her novel was unique and fanciful against the backdrop of the harsh topic of slavery. The skepticism among some, like myself, due to my unfounded bias against magical realism. As it were, the very elements one would think could work against this ambitious work of literature, is in fact it’s greatest strength. It is instead a refreshing blend of history, literary fiction and magical realism that absolutely and wonderfully works. This wholly unique retelling of Liberia’s origins is both powerful and poetic, and half way through the read, the thought comes across, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?!'
To tell her tale, Moore enlists the personalities and talents of three dynamic and unforgettable characters to shine light on the dramatic realities of the formation and liberation of Liberia. The characters come from different lands making up the slave diaspora, and end up joining forces in Africa. Gbessa, a young orphan who is a loner and unlike the other children in her West African village, is exiled and left for dead because the community believe her to be a witch. June Day a field-turned house slave of a plantation in Virginia is put in a situation where he can no longer deny or hide is epic strength. As a result, he successfully flees his people and circumstances only to end up on a ship bound for Africa. Eventually, June Day connects with Norman Aragon, a slave from Jamaica born of mixed heritage and touting the indispensable gift of being able to vanish from sight. All three meet in Monrovia where they’re shared history of being outsiders and feeling useless, find a new home, albeit still fraught with unique challenges. It is in their new found companionship that their special powers and storylines converge for the country’s greater good.
Beyond the book’s complex themes and dynamic and magical characters, is the sheer talent of Moore, the creative mind that brought this story to life. She seemingly writes with ease, clarity and confidence beyond her young age and limited experience as evidenced in the passage below.
In those days they called it Monrovia. Monrovia is where they would meet.
Norman Aragon had climbed onto the ship completely unseen, remained hidden under the quarterdeck for most of the two-month trip. He stole food from passengers and the crew to eat during the night. He vanished and toured the for anything he could find, and retreated to a hiding place in the midst of the cargo. Some weeks he went days without eating, and his strength lessened with the rolling tide. To distract himself from his hunger, he used the thin light from a crack in the ship to read and reread on of the three books he carried in his linen bag. I watched him through those openings; I spilled into his hiding places, turned the pages of his books. We did not have books on Emerson. That place where we lost our language, lost ourselves. They told us we had no history but darkness, so they kept the books away for fear we might understand the truth better, and thus find those lost selves.
Although Moore fled Liberia as a child with her family, moving to the U.S., the love of her country and interest in its history has been ingrained. With “She Would be King,” and at the age of 33 now, she is exploring ways to bring stories of her homeland to American audiences in a unique way. No surprise that people here and abroad are taking notice and anticipating what’s next from this unique, young talent