To imagine that sharing a nation’s story with the world—especially one imbued with so rich and diverse a cultural heritage as Liberia, a nation founded through a tenuous, albeit noble effort to bring together the disparate sons and daughters of Africa who had been rend from their homes and subjected to the ignobility of slavery—could rest on the dexterous tip of a single writer’s pen might be considered preposterous. But, that granted, there are nonetheless those special writers whose particular telling of their nation’s stories tend to cause the stars to align in such a way that their stories become illuminated so brightly, the world takes notice.
Liberia could well have just such a writer in Vamba Sherif, whose novels have been shinning the brightest light so far on Liberian literature. And, this is not because Vamba’s novels are the only literary accounts of his nation’s story. In fact, there were other Liberian writers before him, such as Wilton Sankawulo and Bai T. Moore, whose novels garnered national acclaim. Vamba even counts these Liberian writers as inspiration, but none of their novels shone as bright an international spotlight on Liberian literature as Vamba’s novels have.
The Liberian Echo caught up with Vamba and, in an exhaustive and hearty interview, he talked about how he came up with the idea to write Land of My Fathers, his cosmopolitan childhood in Liberia, some of his influences as a writer, his passion for Liberia’s literary culture and hopes to see it flourish.
“…what I really set out to do with Land of My Fathers is try to write about the essence of Liberia. I wanted to write about what we have in common as a people and not about what actually divided us.”Vamba Sherif
Vamba Sherif: I came to the Netherlands as a refugee along with my brother and we were living in a refugee camp in the south of Holland at the time. And every day were were confronted with these terrible images of war. My mother and the bulk of my family were in Liberia then. So, seeing these terrible images of people dying and becoming refugees really compelled me to go in search of answers. In a way, I wanted to really explain the war to myself. I wanted to know why is it that a place that was once a symbol for the whole of West Africa, was now submerged in such a terrible war. Why were Liberians fighting among themselves?
So I sat down one evening and with a pencil, I just started writing a novel set in Liberia. It was a means really for me to deal with the sense of displacement and confusion because I could not really answer those questions. But I was struggling and I felt like I was not doing it right. Then, I had this idea that perhaps to really explain the war to myself, I had to go back to the beginning of Liberia, when it was founded. So I decided to read the history of Liberia and I read a lot of books about the founding of Liberia. And that really give me the courage to write the story about two main characters—one an indigenous Liberian and the other, an Americo-Liberian. But, rather than delving into a story of negativity, I decided to tell a story of friendship between two different persons from different backgrounds. So I told the story of an Americo-Liberian who was born into slavery in the United States but later gained his freedom and emigrated to Liberia to reunite with his beloved Charlotte. He was a man of God, a preacher by profession, who decided to really try to get to know the natives he met in Liberia. So he traveled into the interior of the country, which was very uncommon in those days. During his travels, he met this extraordinary native man named Halay and they became friends.
Writing this novel was a way for me to try to show an alternative that was perhaps an aspect of Liberia’s past and it could as well be the future of Liberia to highlight that we did not need to be fighting each other. By nature, I’m a very positive person so while trying to explain to myself what went wrong with the founding of Liberia, I tried to create another aspect to the story by showing that there were really people who were trying to integrate with the natives and were going out of their way to try to understand that side of Africa. It is a book that is critical, but at the same time, very positive.
LE: Historical novels can be challenging for even experienced writers. As your first novel, did you have to do a lot of research and how long did it take you to complete the novel?
VS: It took me 5-6 years to write Land of My Fathers and that was not just because of research. In fact, I think it had to do more with the insecurity I had. You know, I wondered what am I doing setting a novel in the 19th century. Do I have the confidence enough to be able to do this? So I was battling my doubts. I had read a lot of books written by Americo-Liberians and books about slavery. I was very aware of the African American literary traditions so that was really besides the point. What took me such a long time to write this novel was because I was wondering whether I had the confidence to do it.
But, as I wrote the book, I hit on something. When my brother, who knew a lot about Liberian history read the early manuscript, especially the first part, the first thing he said to me was: “Vamba, this is my story!” Can you imagine that? And as I began to reread what I had written, my conclusion was that: “Yes, that is his story, but I had set it in the 19th century.” It was a revelation to me. So, I realized that what I was actually doing was very relevant. In essence, I was writing a contemporary story that was actually set in the 19th century.
And then, some years after my book was published, I was reading the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name is Red, which I believe is one of the best novels ever written. And, I was so impressed with the story, I wanted to find out how he wrote such a story. So I found an article he wrote explaining how he wrote his novel. In it, he explained that what was happening around him in 1950s Turkey, he sort of wrote about those events but set his story in 16th century Turkey.
So, in way, I was doing a similar thing without even being aware of it until my brother told me.
VS: You know, what I really set out to do with Land of My Fathers is try to write about the essence of Liberia. I wanted to write about what we have in common as a people and not about what actually divided us. What you must remember also is that I wrote this book at the height of the Liberian civil war. So it was a labor of love for me but also for my country.
The story of Halay, the indigenous Liberian character in the book, is actually one that took place according to legend. It is one that is popular in Lofa and it tells the story about a time when there was a threat of war and the people were seeking a person who was willing to sacrifice himself to avert this threat of war.
And, actually, that’s the premise of the novel. It revolves around that theme. The theme of war, the fear of war, and what people who are threatened by war will do to try to advert this threat.
And, coming from a background with a large family, I lived in a compound in Kolahun with more than a hundred people. And there was drama every day. And I grew up around many languages. So, you grow up with such a cosmopolitan perspective of the universe and of Liberia in particular. And this is something you’ll recognize in all my work. This is how I look at life. I’m a very universal person. A person that belongs to not only one group and I try to emphasize that.
“I’m making my contributions but I’ll really like to encourage Liberians, especially the women because their stories are not being told, to come forward and share their stories with us. We need more stories, many many more.” Vamba Sherif
VS: My brother loved the Heinemann African Writers’ Series books and he collected them and kept them in boxes. So one day, as I was browsing through his collection of novels, I came across this strange name—Okonkwo—but the book had no cover and as I read the story, I became fascinated by the book. And that’s how I actually read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart without actually knowing the whole story behind it. So yeah, thanks to this brother partly, literature became my passion. And besides the Heinemann African Writers’ Series books, he actually had many other books and I used to read them after school and I can say that, during those days in Liberia, reading books really saved my life because there were a lot of things going on—some good and others not—but reading really give me the strength to carry on.
I was also fascinated with Wilton Sankawulo because he was writing about things that were very familiar to me. So when I read Marriage of Wisdom, and Other Tales and some of his other books, I was amazed because I found his stories to be so familiar. And of course Bai T. Moore’s Murder in the Cassava Patch. These were Liberian authors who were writing about things and characters with names that were very familiar to me. And, I’ll also add The African Child by Camara Laye to the list.
What these books did was open my eyes to the possibilities of literature but not necessarily with the idea of writing. What I did those days was, after reading such books, I used to share them with friends of mine. I really enjoyed storytelling back then and people from my childhood will remember that about me. So that’s how it started. And, when I used to tell those stories I would embellish them. You know, the more you embellish them, the more persuasive you become. And that’s what I’m doing now as a profession—embellishing stories. (Laughter)
So that’s what I grew up doing in that huge compound and I grew up speaking several different languages. It’s a privilege to know all these different languages but I didn’t know then it was something unique that I was going through.
LE: How does growing up in such a diverse family setting speaking different languages influence Vamba Sherif the writer?
VS: As a writer, it gives me this sense of freedom to be able to write about anything that I want to write about. All my books, more or less, have to do with Liberia but they are also very cosmopolitan. I’ve written two novels that are set in the West even though the stories are Liberian. So, in a way, it gives me the freedom not to be confined to a tradition when it comes to writing about Liberia and looking at Liberia.
VS: I think there’s something remarkable happening in the literary world. I think people are hungry for stories not only set within the four walls of Western worldviews. People are becoming more interested in global stories and I think African writers are profiting from that. There was a time when great African writers like Camara Laye, who wrote classics but didn’t get a cent for their novels, lived in poverty and died in complete obscurity. This situation is changing because people want to read other stories. And when I say other, I don’t want to put emphasis on ‘other.’ In fact, I think a better word to use would probably be ‘different’ rather than other.
And I think that in Liberia, more than any other country in Africa, we have more to tell because even though we have a tradition of scholarship, we do not have a long literary tradition like other countries in Africa in the sense that there were Americo-Liberian writers who were writing books but they were not literary fiction. Actually, there were also other people who were literate, including Muslim writers, whose works were remarkable, including poems that could stand the quality test anywhere, but they were kept within these families and not shared. But I think times have changed and Liberian writers and other Africans are realizing that they can write their stories and there’ll be people around the world who are willing to read their stories. So, it’s great for the world, it’s great for Africa and it’s great especially for Liberia.
I hope that many many Liberians will write remarkable stories because we have so many stories to tell. And I’m very sure that there are many talented Liberians out there, better than me, who will surprise and astonish us with great novels and we are looking forward to reading those novels. I’m making my contributions but I’ll really like to encourage Liberians, especially the women because their stories are not being told, to come forward and share their stories with us. We need more stories, many many more. That is why I would really like to also launch my books in Liberia and make them available, especially Land of My Fathers, to encourage our young people to read and be inspired to write more of our stories. They can look at my work and say: ‘If he did this, I can do even better.’
LE: What is Vamba Sherif working on now? Did I read somewhere that you’re working with Liberian filmmaker Yo-El Francis to turn Bound to Secrecy into a feature film?
VS: I’m actually working on a novel set in Liberia again, which I’ve already started and it’s going well. It’s going to take a while, but I’ll get there. And yeah, I’m working with Yo-El on potentially turning Bound to Secrecy into a film and we are in talks with a couple of actors to see if they can get on board with the project. And I hope we will be able to raise the funds to get it off the ground.