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The City and the Writer—In Monrovia, Liberia with Wayétu Moore

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Monrovia as you feel/see it?

There is nothing quite like Monrovia traffic. After the country’s two civil wars, many ethnic groups that previously lived upcountry moved within the city’s borders—the population is now close to 1.2 million of the country’s 4.4 million inhabitants. Junctions are usually congested with pen-pen (transport motorbike) drivers and their prospective passengers, cars move at a snail’s pace almost consistently throughout the day, and market women can be found at every corner pedaling goods. Monrovia today is different than it was thirty years ago. Many Liberians left during the war, settling in Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, the United States, London, and even as far as Australia. After the war, many of these groups have returned, bringing with them a variety of adopted customs, languages and cuisine from their temporary homes. Monrovians have a hybrid culture now, yet Monrovia is always fighting to be the woman she was thirty years ago, always gazing at her reflection for hints of her younger, more dignified self.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When I was five, I was watching a film with my sisters in our living room when a round of bullets shattered our porch window. We were told by my father to lie flat on the floor while he retrieved a bag of our documents and essential items. We fled our neighborhood through woods in the back of our house and escaped Monrovia six months later for New York City. I remember how surprised I was, how different the fear and shock of that moment felt from the joy and security of previous moments.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The act of holding hands isn’t unique to romantic relationships. Friends regularly hold each other’s hands while walking. It isn’t unusual to see two heterosexual men crossing the street, walking on campus, or strolling a market with interlocked fingers while they discuss the day’s events. It is special, and quite beautiful, to witness.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Vamba Sherif and Hawa Golokai.


Is there a place here you return to often?

In 2015 I opened a bookstore in downtown Monrovia where members of the community can buy books for leisure. The few bookstores that exist in Monrovia overwhelmingly privilege textbooks over novels, plays, and poetry. When I’m in Monrovia I spend most of my time in the store conducting classes, cultivating relationships with other storeowners on the strip, and reading. It is my favorite place on the planet.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The first time I visited the WE CARE Library was inspiring. A Liberian intellectual named Michael Weah would hand out books to former child combatants after the first war in 1991 as a path to rehabilitation. He later received a grant from the WE CARE Foundation for his literacy work in Liberia, and opened a library that is a rare, brilliant place to visit. It is also located downtown and has shelves upon shelves of African and diaspora writers. The library also offers teacher training and other classes for those in the community. It is the first place anyone who’s interested in books should visit.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are a few communities, which I guess can each be considered its own city, that are idiosyncratic in their rhythm and how that rhythm moves within the larger framework of Monrovia. One such community is West Point. It’s considered to be one of the worst slums in the world and so dangerous that Peace Corps volunteers are forbidden to go there, or else they risk getting fired. West Point is intriguing because it’s a community that very few make it out of, but those who do tend to be incredible thinkers, truly brilliant despite having so little access to educational resources. The most recent person I met was a young man who used Internet cafés and old books at the University of Liberia to get himself through school. He was able to avoid the maze of poverty and received a full ride to Babson College. He returned to Liberia to open a tech hub to provide young students with access to books and the Internet and get the tools they need to complete school.


Where does passion live here?

My parents’ living room. My mother directs the honors program at the University of Liberia and her honors students regularly visit to debate, discuss local news and events, and talk about their hopes of prosperity. They’re passionate about education, truly passionate about learning, and I can’t say the same of most students I grew up with in the United States.


What is the title of one of your works about Monrovia and what inspired it exactly?

The title of my novel is She Would Be King. It is based in Liberia during the period when Monrovia was first settled by former slaves from America. I’ve always been inspired by the romance of Liberia’s cultural hybridity. Liberian people are a mixture of indigenous ethnic groups, African-Americans, and Caribbeans. I wanted to write about that.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside of Monrovia does an outside exist?”

Monrovia is a distinct place. It is an unreal place. I spent my developmental and teenage years in New York, in Connecticut, in Memphis, in Spring, Texas. But Monrovia is the only place.


Wayétu Moore is a writer/essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Moore is the founder of One Moore Book, a CBC-member boutique publisher of multicultural children’s books aimed at readers in countries with low literacy rates. Her writing can be found in the Atlantic, Guernica, The Rumpus, Gawker, Waxwing Literary Magazine, and other literary journals. She has been featured in the Economist, NPR, and BBC News, among others, for her work in advocacy for diversity in children’s literature. Her novel and memoir are forthcoming with Graywolf Press

Published Sep 4, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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