Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-1-6444-5031-4, 272 pgs., $26
June 2, 2020
“Papa, where we going?”
“Away,” he said.
Civil war came to Liberia during the rainy season of 1990, when Wayétu Moore’s mother, Mam, was attending graduate school in the United States on a Fulbright award, and Wayétu was preparing for her fifth birthday party at home in Monrovia. A VHS tape of The Sound of Music is playing, the party about to begin, when popping noises sound in the near distance. As the opening bars of “Edelweiss” sound in the Alps, Moore’s father tells them to run.
Moore and her father, sisters, a couple of cousins, and grandmother flee on foot, just ahead of the rifles, joining the exodus of hundreds of thousands. After three weeks of walking roads crowded with bodies “sleeping” in red pools, hiding in abandoned homes, eating nothing but sugarcane from the fields, and running gauntlets of checkpoints, the family makes it to the safety of Mam’s ancestral village. Eventually, Mam hires a rebel soldier to smuggle the family into Sierra Leone, and then begins another dislocation and search for home, a place to belong.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir is the second book from Wayétu Moore, a memoir about her family’s experience as refugees, then as immigrants in the United States, where Moore grew up in Texas. Her first book, She Would Be King, was named a best novel of 2018 by multiple media outlets, including Publishers Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, and was a Sarah Jessica Parker Book Club selection and a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award. The Dragons, I imagine, will follow in the King’s footsteps.
Moore tells the first part of her tale from the perspective of that five-year-old, whose memories of Liberia are of “a place that made words sing” and sweet with ripe mango and milk candy. Liberian politics and tribal conflicts are beyond her, and so adult talk of President Samuel Doe reminds Moore of folk tales of the Hawa Undu dragon, who was once a prince with good intentions but became corrupt; talk of rebel leader Charles Taylor reminds her of the mythical prince who entered the forest to kill the Hawa Undu dragon and bring peace, but whose good intentions are also corrupted.
Surreal juxtapositions continue as the narrative jumps to a thirty-something Moore perched on her fire escape, living in Brooklyn, where “the new transplants hurried home, as gentrifiers do when it is almost dark and they are still fearful of corners.” Moore is no longer a new transplant, but she is still dislocated, still running, “never arriving,” having grown up in a place where she was crowned homecoming queen under the Friday night lights, but where “skin color was king—king above nationality, king above life stories, and, yes, even king above Christ.” Enneh-so?
I recommend reading the dialogue aloud to approximate the effect of the lyrical rhythms of speech. As the days and weeks of escape drag on, Moore employs an effective technique for conveying the monotony of boredom—and terror—with epic run-on sentences, stretching for pages (“. . . the lace at the bottom of my dress got left somewhere behind me with my shoes and the tank and my girlhood and the shooting that did not stop”). The sense of immediacy, even after so many years, is visceral.
In the last quarter of the book, Mam’s first-person narrative relates the other side of this story, a thrilling surprise, a tale of courage, daring, and serendipity.
Wayétu Moore is the author of the novel, She Would Be King, and the forthcoming memoir, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women. A graduate of Howard University, the University of Southern California, and Columbia University, she is the recipient of the 2019 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction. Her writing can be found in the New York Times, the Paris Review, Frieze Magazine, Guernica, the Atlantic Magazine, and other publications.
She Would Be King was named a best book of 2018 by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Entertainment Weekly, and BuzzFeed. The novel was a Sarah Jessica Parker Book Club selection, a BEA Buzz Panel Book, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award.
Moore is the founder of One Moore Book, a non-profit organization that creates and distributes culturally relevant books for underrepresented readers. Her first bookstore opened in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2015. She has been featured in the Economist Magazine, NPR, and Vogue Magazine, among others, for her work in advocacy for diverse children’s literature.