She Would Be King, Wayétu Moore’s debut novel published by Graywolf Press, tells the stories of three main characters: Gbessa, a wild and passionate suspected witch; Norman Aragon, a loner descended from the English and Maroons; and June Dey, a fierce runaway slave. The lives of these three characters knit together narratives of the Caribbean, North America, and Africa. In this ambitious novel, Moore artfully and lovingly uses her protagonists to explore exile, belonging, resilience, relationships, loss, and freedom amidst the larger context of the African Diaspora and culminating in the reimagined founding of Liberia.
We first meet Gbessa, newly exiled from her village, Lai, in West Africa. While on her lonesome walk away from her home, she encounters a poisonous snake and is bit. But as we read on, we quickly learn that, “there were no other Vail girls like Gbessa,” for when she was born, she was cursed with eternal life. This supernatural element connects the three main characters of this novel as each character holds a particular gift. Norman can fade from sight and June Dey has an incomprehensible strength and impenetrable skin.
Although we first meet Gbessa as a young woman, Moore quickly rewinds and tells us the story of Gbessa’s birth, the reason why her people believe her to be cursed, and ultimately why Gbessa’s life is a lonely and misunderstood one. Throughout the novel we watch Gbessa grow from a young girl with little company into a grown woman.
We meet both June Dey and Norman at their conception. The reader is transported to Virginia, where a ghost of a former slave woman, Charlotte, and Dey, a mute and recently purchased slave, conceive June Dey. Unable to comprehend June Dey’s supernatural conception, Dey is killed by overseers and June Dey is given to the care of the master’s slave mistress, Darlene. Through a series of events, June Dey is separated from Darlene. Once on his own, June Dey is left to grow into a man. It is on this journey that June Dey accidentally finds himself on a boat to Africa.
In the blue mountains of Jamaica, Norman is conceived after his father, a British scholar who had come to study the Maroons, sleeps with his mother, a Maroon slave. His mother makes a deal with her father—that he will take them to Africa. Long past his mother’s death, Norman holds on to this promise until he finds a means of reaching Africa.
Permeating the pages of the novel is a sense of God. She is in the wind, she is the course of nature, and she is the spirit of ancestors. Throughout the novel, she guides Gbessa, Norman, and June Dey and she cares for them. The refrain: “Fengbe, keh kamba beh. Fengbe, kemu beh” (We have nothing but we have God / We have nothing but we have each other) is sung by Gbessa throughout the novel as a comfort and reminder. This spirit leads Gbessa, Norman, and June Dey through their own stories and from their respective birthplaces to convene on the Western coast of Africa, where they meet for a greater purpose: freedom.
After Gbessa’s encounter with the snake, she meets June Dey and Norman, and together they save villages from lingering and illegal slave traders. Not long after they meet, Gbessa is separated from her new companions, “dies,” and begins yet another life. In her next life, Gbessa is taken in by black Americans settled in Monrovia (what would become Liberia). In Gbessa’s new life, we see her navigate womanhood, desire, and friendship. We see her fight against prejudice and learn to stand up for herself. We see her explore Christianity and another culture. Through it, Gbessa outgrows the vision of herself as just a curse and becomes more than that to the people around her.
While Gbessa is learning to navigate her new life, Norman and June Dey continue the fight against illegal slave traders wreaking havoc on villages along the Western coast of Africa. There, they fight side by side until they, too, have to separate.
Eventually Gbessa’s two worlds collide when the warriors from her old village find their lives in the hands of the Monrovian settlers. The warriors from her old village and the settlers of Monrovia are initially at odds; it is only through Gbessa’s ability to mediate that they learn of the reality that threatened both of their lives and ultimately brought the warriors to Monrovia. This is one of the first instances in which Gbessa’s unique qualities and positionality is highlighted. Gbessa becomes the bridge between her two homes because of her two lives. Eventually each character must use their gifts in tandem to defend their freedom.
In She Would Be King, Moore uses the protagonists’ stories to explore the enslavement of Africans, the objectification and spectacle made of black bodies, the migration of former slaves to Liberia, liberty and autonomy as individuals and as a nation, and more. She does so through magical realism and a historical storytelling, reminiscent of Toni Morrison.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful things Moore does is to give voice to those who would not or did not have a voice. For example, without her gift, Gbessa would have been killed and silenced by members of her society before she could have grown up. Moore poses countless questions, including: What does it mean to be accepted and good? How do you protect one’s freedom? Can you stop history from repeating itself? And how do we navigate that which we do not understand? The questions ask that we reflect on the then and the now, all at once. The ways in which the characters view one another and other cultures also necessitates our own introspection. This dynamic novel leaves you both satisfied and full of anticipation for what’s to come, in fiction and in reality.