The PEN Pod: Writing as Witness with Wayétu Moore
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Liberian American author Wayétu Moore, whose debut novel, She Would Be King (Graywolf Press, 2019), explored Liberia’s founding through a group of three supernaturally gifted characters. Her next book, a memoir called The Dragons, the Giant, the Women comes out next month, on June 2. Wayétu spoke with us about her process in writing the book, how magical realism and storytelling can help us process trauma, and what it means to write as a witness. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Wayétu is up until the 14:20 mark).
Your upcoming book really dives into your experience growing up in wartime Liberia. Tell me what brought you to write this book.
It’s definitely been a long road. In many ways, I’ve been writing some version of this book since I was old enough to write—mostly through incoherent poetry—but it didn’t take form until I returned to Liberia. It was only after I returned to Liberia, after being away for about 25 years, that it made sense to put my experience on paper. And honestly, once I did, I actually hesitated sharing it because I had this moment in the beginning of my career, around the time that my novel came out when I was still determining my literary identity, when I was afraid of being pigeonholed, and for my work to be seen through the lens of my personal life, or former tragedies and traumas.
But I realized that that’s unproductive thinking—people were going to associate me with my culture and my past anyway. I think that for certain writers, especially immigrant writers and POC writers, there’s an inherent interest in backstories, and sometimes that’s used to market the book. Sometimes, it does have more of a dubious nature. I think, additionally, the interest in one’s personal life does have to do with the readers’ need to contextualize the story and understand thematic arcs or other ambiguities that may be present in the work. So, I had to get out of that train of thinking, and I figured if it was going to be done anyway, that I wanted to make sure that the story is the most true story that can be told.
“I was raised reading things about Liberia that were almost always written by non-Liberians, and I didn’t read Liberian writers until I was in college. So representation is important—not just what’s on the page, but who’s holding the pen.”
I left Liberia when I was five and spent my childhood and adolescent years in the southern United States in Texas, and that results in a consciousness that I needed to explore, right? I was raised reading things about Liberia that were almost always written by non-Liberians, and I didn’t read Liberian writers until I was in college. So representation is important—not just what’s on the page, but who’s holding the pen. And I do want to contribute to literature about Liberia and be intentional about our truths and complexities in my work. So this is just another way to do that.
You were kind enough to take part in an interview series that we do on our website called The PEN Ten, and we asked you about the relationship between your work and truth, and you said you “intentionally disengage with my understanding of history when I write.” How did that ethos inform your process of writing something that was more in the memoir genre?
My memoir is actually the opposite of that. For my first novel, I didn’t speak to anyone in my family about what I was writing, because I didn’t want it to affect my understanding and recollection of what had happened and how it happened. So, of course, some of that history relied on what I’d been previously told, or things I’d heard family members say over the years. But that first draft was sacred to me, so I looked at old pictures, listened to music, and really meditated quite a bit to really reawaken my understanding of my childhood. So I would say, it’s the inverse experience for me. I wanted to fully engage with that understanding of history—my personal history, my country’s history, in that first draft. And then, of course, as I edited, I was seeking the stories and the perspectives—especially my mother’s—of things that were happening outside of me, external to me, and external to my understanding.
Was there a point in your process where you showed drafts to family members? Did you bring them into the process with you, or did you need to keep them a little bit separate from it?
I think at maybe the second or third draft, when there were historical references that I knew it would be important to my family to get right, I was absolutely talking to them, but not showing them drafts. I didn’t show them a draft until toward the end, until I actually was accepted, but having conversations like, “Hey, Mom, I wrote this scene,” or “I wrote about an instance where this happened, and this is how I remember it. Is that how you remembered it? What do you think about this?” And so, that’s how I got their input on the work—through conversations and listening to those oral histories. But no, they didn’t read it until much later on.
“I believe that there’s really no greater empowerment that you could give a child than literacy. It’s always been so powerful and beautiful for that relationship with the written words to include their individual cultural truths. But it’s also important to give fierce attention to different elements of that literary road or journey, and different elements of what literacy means.”
In She Would Be King, you use the device of magical realism—this idea of things that are a little bit outside of reality—and I understand that you were also able to play with that in the memoir a bit.
Yeah. My dad—I just love him so much—he was working overtime to make sure that we were physically safe, but he in many ways was trying to preserve our childhood and keep us mentally and psychologically safe during a really traumatic time. What could have really disrupted our childhoods and faith in humanity and affected us long-term didn’t, because he continued to, throughout that experience, play these games with us that always gave us something to look forward to. He inserted and incorporated a sense of hopefulness in our every day. So he would say, “We’re going to go see Mom now, but we have to fly over that river.” So, you know, pretending that we were flying when we were on canoes, and making peace with some of the more traumatic things. Like, when we saw people dead on the road, my understanding was that they were just sleeping. Every time we walked down a road, there were cadavers, and he would say, “Oh, well gosh, people are sleeping again.” So it wasn’t until much later on that I fully grasped the extent of how profound what was going on really was, and that’s because of my father.
I would say now, that I think I could look back at it and say that there was a bit of a fantastical element to that experience. But when I was in it, it was just real life. I fully believed that people were on the road sleeping; I fully believed that we were going to fly through a river, and that’s because of my father. There was also definitely a cognitive dissonance, because as I was living in that belief, the doubt, danger, and some of the fear was inching its way in. And so, by the time we did reach America, when the nightmares began, and I did have a period of adjustment—what I had understood as being a game and being fantastical was almost suddenly eclipsed. I don’t know whether or not it was because of the drama of being in a new space and really trying to understand my surroundings and the implications of our move, but I think my innocence was sustained much longer than it would have been, and that’s because of my dad.
In addition to your work as a writer, you’ve also founded One Moore Book, a publishing house to bring books, especially about underrepresented people, to kids. What has that experience been like for you?
I’m publishing specifically for children who aren’t always used to seeing their names and languages in books. It’s just been my reason for the past decade. I’m most proud of what the organization has done, with such a small team and limited resources. But unfortunately, after 10 years this year, I’m taking a step back from the publishing arm of the nonprofit to focus on our Liberia-based projects, like the bookstore and literary events, because I believe that there’s really no greater empowerment that you could give a child than literacy. It’s always been so powerful and beautiful for that relationship with the written words to include their individual cultural truths. But it’s also important to give fierce attention to different elements of that literary road or journey, and different elements of what literacy means. I think for me, balancing publishing and the bookstore—and so many other things under the One Moore Book arm—it’s become more and more important to me to do the organization and do our mission justice. We have published 26 books so far, from four different countries. And now, I think 2.0 in this next decade will be more singularly focused on the Liberia projects, because I think that’s truly where we can be the most useful. And I don’t want to be broad for the sake of being broad, but I do want to be precise in our intentions, because I think that’s the way that we can be the most valuable and most efficient.
“How profound to be a witness, and to be a witness with my hands tied behind my back, where I’m not like going, going, going, but I can really just sit still. I usually hesitate speaking for all writers, but for me, I believe my responsibility is just to watch this and to feel this first—allow myself to really feel what’s happening, let it move through me.”
What do you think the role of writers is right now?
I really loved this question. I think, for me, it’s to be still, actually, to observe. I started writing something before COVID, and I’ve totally taken a break from it to be a part of what is happening—to see it, hear it, and feel it fully. And of course that can’t last for too long because of deadlines, but I—especially at the beginning of this—appreciated being forced to sit still, because I’m one of those hyper-productive people, and unfortunately, it’s the only way I could get anything done. How profound to be a witness, and to be a witness with my hands tied behind my back, where I’m not like going, going, going, but I can really just sit still. I usually hesitate speaking for all writers, but for me, I believe my responsibility is just to watch this and to feel this first—allow myself to really feel what’s happening, let it move through me. Then, I can act through my work, then I can negotiate the relationship it has with my writing and my craft.
But right now, I’m just trying to—before the deadlines start to loom—practice being still.
Anything that you’re reading right now that you think would be interesting for folks listening in?
I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction during this time. Currently, I’m reading bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. It’s really just about how our emotional health is impacted by different sociopolitical structures. And then also Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, and he was obviously one of the leaders during the apartheid movement, and it’s so quotable. My favorite quote from the book is, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
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