Called by Marie Claire, “an exhilarating tale of the formation of Liberia,” 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.
Moore is also the founder of One Moore Book, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that encourages reading among children of countries with low literacy rates and underrepresented cultures by publishing culturally relevant books that speak to their truths, and by creating bookstores and reading corners that serve their communities.
RM: She Would Be King follows three main characters, Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman Aragon, who meet in the settlement of Monrovia. What first drew you to them as characters?
WM: When I started writing my novel, I hadn’t been back to Liberia since I was five, so exploring Liberian history was a way for me to reconnect and rediscover a part of me that had been lost because of the war. Each of the characters represents one of three identities that comprise the Liberian social fabric—indigene, African American, and Caribbean.
RM: Did you plan to follow three intersecting characters beforehand? How did the novel evolve for you over the time you wrote it?
WM: I didn’t plan to follow the characters beforehand. 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, and I understood that telling it included layers that required time and exploration. It was initially over 500 pages and eventually there was another character who traveled with Norman Aragon. He had the gift of magnetism. I scaled the story down a bit for accessibility and clarity. I worked on the book on and off for almost ten years, and I also believe that as I became stronger as a woman, more mature and more certain about what I wanted, so did my story.
RM: The novel explores the early years of Liberia. What drew you to that setting? What sort of research did you have to do?
WM: My family moved to America when I was 5 years old. We moved around quite a bit. My family lived in Connecticut and Memphis and settled in Texas when I was 8 and that’s where I spent my formative years, but Liberia was obviously always a part of me. But with 4.5 million people, I barely ever heard about it outside of my home. That absence was resounding. So when I realized I wanted to be an artist, and began to write, Liberia was one of the first places I went to. For research, I spent a lot of time in libraries, I read novels that took place in that era, and I mostly had very extensive conversations with the oldest Liberians I know, my grandmother included, and asked for instance, if they remembered stories told to them by their grandparents of when they were young.
RM: One of the descriptions Kirkus gives She Would Be King is “genre-hopping.” What does moving between different modes of storytelling allow you to achieve as a novelist?
WM: The joy of contemporary literature is that you can also play around with the structure of the story you want to tell. We no longer have to be rigid with our art, and that makes the artist’s relationship with the page more enjoyable, more productive, and overall, a more beautiful experience.
RM: Did you always want to be a writer?
WM: Writing has always been a part of my life. I started writing when I was around 7; my mother is a teacher and when we were young she encouraged writing and other arts to fill our idle time. I eventually wanted to become an actress and performer, and that’s still something I think about from time to time, but writing was the first love and the greatest love.
RM: You are the founder of One Moore Book, a non-profit literary organization that encourages reading among children of countries with low literacy rates and underrepresented cultures. Please tell us about your work there.
WM: While I was in undergrad I worked for a company called Everybody Wins, and I would go into DC public schools and facilitate literacy workshops for 3-5th graders who could not read. What I noticed right away was that there was a disinterest in literature, so I began to take them books with characters that looked like them. That experience remained with me when I moved to New York after graduate school. I had an interest in social entrepreneurship and as a fiction writer I was navigating the literary canon myself but knew I wanted to do something on my own. I called my younger sister, who is an illustrator, and asked if she’d be interested in illustrating a book for me, and I said “but not just any book.” Books like J is for Jollof Rice. And jollof rice is a dish known in West Africa that we were raised on, so she said yes. From that, One Moore Book was born.
RM: What do you have on your bookshelf or audiobook queue now? Do you have any recommendations of recent books?
WM: I’m finally about to read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and also She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak.