“Among the Dragons, There Will Always Be Heroes”
Alumna Wayétu Moore’s world split apart one afternoon when she was five years old, as her family sat around their television in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. Over the twinkling soundtrack of The Sound of Music, she heard the crack of gunshots and the shattering of glass. Neighbors ran past the house and one shouted out to her father, “Mr. Moore, you need to leave, the war is coming!”
The little girl’s family hastily grabbed a few essentials and ran from their back door into the forest. The sound of gunfire followed closely behind them as they made their escape.
“The popping grew louder, and so close it sounded like the roses in Mam’s bush were exploding at the other end of the house,” writes Moore in her memoir.
It was April 1989, and up until that moment, Moore had enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the West African country. Her father, Augustus, was an engineer, and her mother, Mam, short for Mamawa, was an English professor at the University of Liberia. That year, Mam was away at Columbia University in New York City on a Fulbright scholarship but, like many Liberians abroad at the time, planned to return home after her studies.
“Liberia for decades was very peaceful and close-knit,” says Moore. It was the birthplace of the Pan-African movement, which aimed to unify and uplift Africans both on the continent and those displaced by diaspora and the slave trade. Liberia’s profound optimism is expressed in its national motto: “The love of liberty brought us here.”
The country was then an ascendant nation on a continent still grappling with the legacy of colonialism. It was the first African republic to declare independence from colonizers in 1847 and was a founding member of the United Nations. In the late 1970s, however, political tensions between various political and ethnic groups began to emerge.
In 1980, Samuel Doe, a member of the marginalized Kahn ethnic group, seized power in a military coup and executed the president, William Tolbert Jr. Nine years later, Charles Taylor, a former member of Doe’s administration, led a rebel army in an attempted power grab. The country erupted into civil war. Eight years of violence and unrest followed, resulting in more than 250,000 deaths. Millions fled to refugee camps or, like Moore’s family, to other countries.
Moore’s memoir, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women (Graywolf Press, 2020), documents her family’s escape from their fracturing country to America. However, Moore was keen to write a book that transcends the traditional immigrant memoir — a genre that often ends with the triumphant arrival in a new land — and her book also explores the challenges of her immigrant experience in America.
Escape from liberty
On the day war came to Monrovia, Moore’s family made their way on foot to Lai, the village of Moore’s maternal grandmother — a journey that took several weeks. To survive, they foraged for mangoes and sugarcane in the lush countryside, sleeping in houses hastily abandoned by other fleeing families.
Once the group reached the relative safety of Lai, they anxiously awaited word from Moore’s mother in America. Rebel armies had cut telephone and electricity lines and contact with the outside world was now nearly impossible.
Fortunately, a lucky encounter on the road facilitated their reunion. The family had come across a man held at gunpoint by rebel soldiers. Moore’s father recognized him and persuaded the soldiers to free the man. The former captive returned to Monrovia, where he got word to Moore’s mother about her family’s predicament.
Mam flew from New York to Liberia’s northern neighbor Sierra Leone where she hired a rebel woman soldier, Satta, to smuggle the family over the border to safety. Satta ferried the Moores across Lake Piso from Lai via canoe, the whole village gathering at the shore to see them off. At the border, Satta managed to successfully blend them into a rebel caravan in order to cross undetected into Sierra Leone and reunite with Mam. From there, the family headed to the United States.
“Among the dragons,” Moore writes of Satta, “there will always be heroes.”“I realized that I wanted writing to be more than a hobby or something I did on the periphery. I needed to make it a career. This was the gift of being at USC Dornsife.”
A cherished heritage
The Moores spent their first months in America crammed into Mam’s dorm room at Columbia, then bounced between cities before landing in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston. There, Moore encountered a new form of adversity.
Liberia was a majority Black nation. Her new home was 63 percent white. Only a few decades earlier, Texas’ Jim Crow laws had banned Blacks from such basic activities as sharing the local public pool with whites. Moore found her identity as a Liberian immigrant quickly subsumed by her identity as a Black woman, like a nesting doll disappearing into its larger companion.
“I did not talk about the war or Liberia beyond my classmates’ general knowledge that I was ‘African.’ I did not have the time to give while I was trying to understand that in this new place that Mam and Papa had told us was home, skin color was king,” writes Moore in her memoir.
Her family retained pride in their heritage, however. The home resounded with the joyous sounds of recordings by African musicians Nimba Burr and Fela and Femi Kuta. “We ate Liberian food, listened to Liberian music,” says Moore. “[My family] spoke about the really beautiful things in Liberia and [the country] was thought of as a place to return to, a place of love and forgiveness.”
Moore enrolled at New York University after high school to study theatre but dropped out after her second year when a play she had produced closed early due to low attendance. Demoralized, she took a break from school and returned to Texas, where she started volunteering to fill her time. There, she became energized to give back to her community. She switched to Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., eager to find a way to uplift her homeland of Liberia.
It was at Howard that she acquired a fuller appreciation for Black identity, both as an African and as an American. “Howard showed me the beauty and vastness of what it means to be Black,” says Moore. She switched to a journalism degree and decided to pursue creative writing.
Finding the writer’s way
After Howard, Moore enrolled in the Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program at USC Dornsife, drawn to a multidisciplinary program that would allow her to study art, poetry and film while pursuing her growing interest in writing and publishing.
She and three other MPW students won scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute program at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where attendees have an opportunity to study under such celebrated writers as Jamaica Kincaid and Joyce Carol Oates.
While at USC Dornsife, Moore began to work on her first book, She Would Be King, writing most of it at the USC Norris Medical Library. By the time she graduated in 2009, she knew that this was her future.
“I realized that I wanted writing to be more than a hobby or something I did on the periphery. I needed to make it a career. This was the gift of being at USC Dornsife, to understand I needed to take it seriously,” says Moore.
She Would Be King (Graywolf Press, 2018) a surrealist reimagining of Liberia’s formation, was named a best book of 2018 by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Entertainment Weekly and BuzzFeed and received positive reviews from Time, The New York Times and The New Yorker. Moore has also written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Guernica and The Atlantic.
Moore realized her long-standing desire to help her homeland through her nonprofit publishing house, One Moore Book, founded with her sisters, Wiande and Kula, in 2011. The trio write and publish books specifically for Liberian children, providing them with the kind of representation that foreign children’s books generally lack. In 2015, One Moore Book opened a bookstore in Monrovia. The sisters have since expanded their publishing scope to include books written for Haitian and Ghanaian children.
Clockwise from left: Wayétu Moore (far left) celebrates her fifth birthday in Monrovia, Liberia; The educational initiative One Moore Book, founded by Moore and her sisters, brings books to Johnson Elementary School in Monrovia; a before and after shot of One Moore Book’s first bookstore in Monrovia in 2014 and 2015. (Photos courtesy of Wayétu Moore.)
In 2014, a quarter of a century after fleeing Liberia, Moore returned to the country of her birth to make better sense of the memories that had blurred over time, interviewing “the oldest Liberians I knew.
“For me, I knew that at some point I’d find myself back in Liberia. As someone who is cross-cultural, it’s part of my identity,” says Moore. “In order to feel whole, I have to make peace with my first home.”
After returning from Liberia, Moore kept the first several drafts of her memoir private from family, wanting to preserve the qualities of magical realism inherent in her childhood memory — qualities that transformed the rebel army into the titular “dragons.” Later, she wove her mother’s memories of the events into the writing, as a sort of call-and-response to her childhood self.
Moore’s next book continues her work on immigrant identity woven with mythology, telling the story of a Liberian-American woman who discovers she has the ability to breathe underwater. Melanctha — the title is a nod to Gertrude Stein’s experimental novella about a Black woman’s search for purpose — is due to be published by Viking Press in 2021.
When Moore isn’t writing, she tries to get away from the computer screen by reading (one of her favorite authors is Octavia Butler) and continuing her multidisciplinary practice. “I watch great films like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which I saw recently and can’t get out of my head. I go to museums and seek the inspiration to write,” she says. “I do everything I can to make my experience in the world thoughtful. That thoughtfulness inspires me. I want my being in the world to contextualize my writing.”