Review by Shoshana Akabas
On the heels of her acclaimed debut novel, She Would Be King, Wayétu Moore’s second book, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women (Graywolf, 6/2/2020), is a powerful memoir about her experience fleeing Liberia in 1990 during the Civil War. Moore was five years old when her family was forced to suddenly evacuate Monrovia, walking for three weeks, until they reached a village near the Sierra Leone border. Eventually, Moore safely reached the United States but resettling in Texas as an immigrant and Black woman brought on a whole new set of unexpected challenges. With the same fabled quality of She Would Be King, Moore embraces the fantastical elements of her experiences to weave a story of migration that compels readers to see migration narratives in a new way: as a multidimensional story that comes alive through more than one approach.
The first section of the memoir recounts Moore’s escape from Liberia with her father and sisters, as they attempt to reunite with Moore’s mother. The moment of flight from their home in Monrovia feels quite sudden (Moore was in the middle of watching The Sound of Music when her father grabbed her and her sisters to make a break for the forest), though presumably an adult – aware of the brewing Civil War – would have been less surprised than young Moore, who narrates these chapters.
In Moore’s five-year-old mind, the traumatic details of her escape become filtered through the imaginings of a child. The Hawa Undu Dragon is a stand-in for Liberian leader Samuel Doe; the gunshots that chase Moore’s family throughout their journey to Sierra Leone are explained to her as the sounds of beating drums; the dead bodies Moore and her family pass in their travels – left to bleed out on the side of the road – are people fast asleep.
Much political and historical context is omitted in the first section; the reader’s experience of only partially understanding the unfolding events (only having a more complete view in later chapters), is perhaps mimetic of Moore learning about and processing her experiences more thoroughly as an adult. While the lack of context in the first section might frustrate a reader who is ignorant of Liberian history, this confusion underscores the young narrator’s age – to a powerful effect – and does what the best books do: highlight gaps in a reader’s awareness and make us want to learn more.
If the first section of the book reads with a mythical quality stemming from the imagination of a child, the second is sharply contrasting, grounded in the gritty reality of relocating to a society that is often hostile to both immigrants and people of color. Moore describes the horrifying racism she experienced growing up, writing, “If my childhood dragons wanted me to believe that I had no home, no country, no place in this world, the monsters in my new home… consented, complied.”
As an adult, the trauma and racism she endured followed her as she moved – even her love life wasn’t exempt. In a memorable scene, Moore describes a white boyfriend making a joke about her hair and not understanding why he had offended her.
“My true loves in our new country,” Moore writes, “by either inheritance or indoctrination, were taught that black women were the least among them. Loving me was an act of resistance, though many did not know it. And [my mother] could not understand this feeling, the heaviness of it, to be loved as resistance, as an exception to the rule.” By describing these challenges with honesty and clarity, Moore’s story helps to dispel the notion that migrants’ troubles end once they set foot in America, a country that is less hospitable to newcomers and people of color than we would like to believe. This part of the memoir is particularly compelling, as Moore’s control over language and rhythm shine through in so many stunning passages:
“So we – transplanted from Liberia and Nigeria and Ethiopia and Ghana and Senegal and the Congo, from Kenya, from Zambia and elsewhere,pushed over the ocean by those scales and gnashing teeth, some before our parents and some after, some undocumented and some the first in their families born with blue passports – we practice what it is like to be black, to be white, to be American, to be anything other than who we are. Learn the words, the customs, the rage, the ways that are parents have not been here long enough to pass down. We took the teasing, the name calling, the misunderstanding, the ‘Didn’t you ride giraffes in Africa?’ the ‘Did y’all have houses there?’ the ‘Africans are too aggressive’ the ‘Y’all Africans think you’re better’ the ‘Well, you don’t look African’ the ‘When I said that thing, I was talking about other Africans’ …. – we took it all.”
The final major section is narrated from the perspective of Moore’s mother in 1990 – Mam lived in New York at the time, and when she stopped receiving communication from her family back in Liberia, she flew to Sierra Leone to try to rescue her family. These heart-racing narrative chapters allow Moore to fill in the parts of the story that she, herself, wasn’t present for – her mother’s grave concern, courage, resourcefulness, and fear, as well as the backstory of the teenage, female rebel soldier who risked her life to smuggle Moore out of Liberia.
The various sections of the memoir – including the final two chapters that revert back to Moore’s perspective – feel like snapshots of Moore’s life from different angles. One angle shows the reader the partial understanding of Moore’s childhood perceptions, another places the reader in Moore’s adult reality, while a third allows for the events of the first section to be told from another character’s point of view. Each perspective is necessary to approach a fuller understanding of Moore’s experiences – indeed, it seems one cannot exist without the others.
Through her innovative structuring of the book and her search for the details of the stories that touch her own, Moore teaches us that we do a disservice when we assume that stories of trauma have one layer or one angle – when we assume that people have a single story to tell and a single way to tell it. This book is especially timely, as it reminds us that collective trauma and oppression is made up of many different experiences. Moore aptly writes of Liberia’s history, “There were many different ways to tell a story.” Moore shows us that the same can be said for any story – including her own – and that there is power, understanding, and perhaps even catharsis, in the multiplicity of narratives. We must seek them out and listen.