Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2019

She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore

Hard on the heels of Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo (see my review), comes another example of historical fiction being used to rewrite the history that has been written by colonisers.  She Would Be King by Liberian-American author Wayétu Moore, blends historical fact with magic realism to trace the emergence of modern Liberia on the West African coast. This is the blurb:

In the west African village of Lai, red-haired Gbessa is cursed at birth and exiled on suspicion of being a witch. Bitten by a viper and left for dead, she survives to discover a new life with a group of African American settlers in the colony of Monrovia.

Then Gbessa meets two extraordinary others; June Dey – a man of unusual strength, born into slavery on a plantation in Virginia – and Norman Aragon, the child of a white British coloniser and a Maroon slave from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, who can fade from sight at will.

Soon all three realise that they are cursed – or perhaps, uniquely gifted. Together they protect the weak and vulnerable, but only Gbessa can salvage the tense relationship between the settlers and the indigenous tribes.

In her transcendent debut, Wayétu Moore illuminates the tumultuous roots of Liberia, blending history and magical realism in a profound tale of resistance and humanity.

Wikipedia tells me that Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States.  Moore suggests that the motivations were more complex than that.  The story is narrated by the Wind, who is the spirit of an American plantation slave called Charlotte, and she tells us that US President Polk had matters ‘more important’ on his mind than the wellbeing of slaves.  (In fact, he was a slaveowner himself, see here, and slavery was legal in the US until 1865, 32 years after Britain abolished it).  Polk acquiesced in the ACS plans, but refused any funding for the settlement, provoking an angry response on all sides:

…objections from the black free Negro population that refused to leave the United States, a disgruntled South that argued Polk had indirectly criticised the ownership of slaves, a suspicious North that believed that Polk was acting in the best interest of the South and Southerners.  (p.202)

Moore depicts Polk as hostile to the ACS, which Wikipedia says was bitterly opposed by Black Americans who thought that the society respected slavery instead of opposing it.  Polk (in Moore’s novel)

… wanted little to do with the American Colonization Society and what he considered the self-righteous, vitriolic Quakers behind it.  In fact, Polk believed that they most certainly hated Negroes the most.  To spend the money and time required to send them back would be as maniacally racist as the man who brands his slaves as cattle, as the patrol who hunts for the thrill of seeing black flesh burn, the bigot… (p.202)

These factors come into play when Gbessa, the Vai woman cursed since birth as a witch, survives a brutal attack by French slavers* and comes into the orbit of the ACS.  Moore herself had a traumatic childhood during the Liberian Civil War, hiding for weeks in the forest with her father and siblings, and Gbessa’s flight through the forest at different times in her tragic life have the ring of authenticity.   When in Book Two she is taken in and groomed to be a servant, she is like a traumatised child, unable to speak, and terrified of causing offence and being cast out again.  She is very compliant: she submits to having her wild hair tamed, to wearing button-up shirts and long impractical skirts, and also to the attentions of Gerald Tubman (a famous surname BTW in the Abolitionist movement).  After being patronised and humiliated by her ‘saviours’ Gbessa turns out to be the one person who can resolve the conflict between the inland inhabitants dismissed as ‘country’ and the Christianised freed slaves-turned-settlers who consider themselves morally and intellectually superior.

Book One is more engaging than Book Two. The three main characters symbolise the peoples of Liberia: the indigenous, the repatriated slaves and the mixed-race offspring of the colonisers.   Gbessa’s story is heart-rending because of the way she is rejected by her own people and their superstitions, while Charlotte’s story about the slave plantation where June Dey is born is very confronting, and so is the story of Norman Aragon’s birth and childhood at the hands of a ‘researcher’ who treats People of Colour as specimens.  But all three characters are rendered with great skill, prompting the reader to hope for a better future for them all.

Book Two is a bit confusing in places and too much of it was (for my taste) the two male leads using their superhero gifts to smash their way through all kinds of conflicts.  But Gbessa is such a strong female lead that her scenes in the Monrovia settlement kept the narrative going.

Wayétu Moore is also the founder of One Moore Book which aims to publishes children’s books offering under-represented cultures. We need an initiative like this in Australia, to focus on publishing children’s books from our under-represented cultures too.

*Slavery was first abolished by the French Republic in 1794, but Napoleon revoked that decree in 1802. In 1815, the Republic abolished the slave trade but the decree did not come into effect until 1826. France re-abolished slavery in her colonies in 1848 with a general and unconditional emancipation. (Wikipedia)

Author: Wayétu Moore
Title: She Would Be King
Publisher: One, (an imprint of Pushkin Press) 2019, first published by Graywolf Press 2018, 360 pages
ISBN: 9781911590118 RRP $32.99AUD
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia for Faber Factory Plus

Available from Fishpond: She Would Be King



  1. I’m sorry you didn’t get comments. Writing against white (or for that matter, mens) histories is definitely a valid use of Hist Fic. (by valid I mean one which I support). eg. That Deadman Dance. I think Toni Morrison in Beloved mentions (and is opposed to) sending slaves ‘home’.


    • Indeed, not my most popular post ever!
      But it’s only just made its way into the shops (and in Australia, only into a certain type of shop) so maybe it will kick along a bit as time goes by.
      (Mind you, the cover doesn’t help it at all. It doesn’t even hint at what the book’s about).
      I think it was Lawrence Hill who wrote Someone Knows My Name which was on that theme…


  2. […] She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore is a story of Liberia, and features a strong female lead in Gbessa, and—prompted by the search results in the image library in my WordPress account—that takes me to the short story The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling.  Yes, that’s ironic indeed.  Kipling was The Great Imperialist, widely admired as a writer in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then despised in the era of decolonisation.  He was the first English language winner of the Nobel Prize in 1907, “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.” […]


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