she would be king
She Would Be King, by Wayétu Moore

Yes, we’re 20 years late, but my husband and I have discovered The Sopranos. It’s taken a while (I mean, in digital-streaming, binge-watching parlance) for us to get to where we are – Season 5 – but it’s been an enjoyable ride so far. I’m still not sure that The Sopranos can top my all-time favorite show, The Americans, but that’s ok…not much can. (Sigh, I still miss it, and no, this is not the first time I’ve tied in a blog post to a television series.)

In a recent sub-sub-(sub)-plot, “Paulie Walnuts” – one of Tony Soprano’s underlings – moves his mother into a nursing home. Like many tight-knit communities, the Newark Italian-American community – particularly for those in their 80s, as Paulie’s mother is – demonstrates certain unwritten code as well as sneaky and pernicious ways of simultaneously projecting an air of inclusivity and deftly boxing out those who “lose” at the game of community hierarchy.

paulie
Paulie and his amazing winged hair catching some rays with Tony.

In a nutshell, two of Paulie’s mother’s “way back” friends viciously and pointedly exclude her from dining with them or joining them for their card games. I know it seems silly, and I’m sure part of the producers’ aim was to get people to laugh at “silly old ladies,” but frankly, it’s quite cruel. (And Paulie thinks so too. That’s all I’ll say about that.) Over an episode or two, the show takes a few minutes to use a well-worn trope – catty old ladies – and put a spotlight on what it really is: Heartbreaking and unnecessary cruelty.

I know I’m a wee bit on the sensitive side, but these women’s gossipy ways were, frankly, cruel. (Cue Paulie’s mother crying….waaaahhhhhhhh.)

Maybe I was just raw. We watched this particular episode a day or two after I started reading She Would Be King, Wayétu Moore’s outstanding debut novel. I found the first chapter difficult to wrap my mind around: The book is a bit of folklore and magic, and I knew from reading about it that characters from Jamaica, America, and Liberia would supernaturally meet intermittently, transcending geography and time. To be honest, it didn’t really seem like something that would grab me. (Not that a book “grabbing you” is the point!)

fairy tale
Just a fairytale…

Gbessa, red-haired and born under duress in a Vai village (an ethnic group living mostly in present-day Liberia), is a “witch,” according to her community and is exiled to her mother’s hut. She is not allowed to leave, and when she is blamed for a later tragedy, is cruelly sent to the woods to die. Remember: The book includes aspects of folklore. So on the one hand, it would be easy to relegate this tale to a fairytale. You know, “Oh, that’s so sad that a little girl was eaten by a wolf! Or: Wow, that little boy and girl are being lured into an oven. Now, Johnny, wasn’t that a nice story? Sneaky wolf! Now, remember not to talk to strangers even if they have candy.”

Moore’s writing tells a different story, though, for she subtly illuminates how Gbessa has internalized the situation. It’s sadly poignant: Her community tells her she’s a witch, so therefore, she must be cursed, unworthy of friendship and companionship, and somehow to blame for everything that goes wrong. That’s abuse.

Because the reader is still in the very beginning of this tale, perhaps you can’t blame him if he still dismisses the first chapter as “folklore” and “just a story.” Readers tend to personalize and/or relate to characters and situations that jibe with their own, so if you don’t have a connection to Africa, maybe you’ll simply categorize this as “other,” as if this is another Hansel and Gretel story. In fact, Moore said this in an interview with Powell’s: “I think that when Western audiences read anything that is foreign and historical, it translates as myth, but if someone from Liberia was reading this, it would just read as a story.”

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But if you are American (or maybe even just “Western”), the next section might awaken you from your fairytale-laden reading.

Moore brings us to a plantation in Virginia, where Charlotte, a slave, struggles with devastating separation from her community. (Side note: Moore blends reality with “magic” to help the reader eventually understand why.) “From that day on, I noticed a distance between me and the others. Every morning was a long walk to the kitchen house or field as every eye I searched for, even the children’s, avoided my passing. Punishment, especially the kind given by those who have nothing, can be a big and addictive thing. Cruel as it is, that small taste of power is juicy. It lasts long.”

At the risk of sounding incredibly trite: That is SO, SO SAD. (Seriously: The first time I read the last two sentences of that passage, my jaw dropped open.)

It continues. Charlotte speaks into a mirror, describing what the other slaves must think of her: “’You’re a no-good woman,’ she would say. ‘God don’t love you. Nobody love anybody as no-good as you.’ And in those moments I rushed past her, to my chores or back to the field. Otherwise, few things were said to me, or about me, at all.”

Reader, it’s ok to cry.

Interestingly, Moore subtly describes this cruelty often in the context of a character’s own community. Yes, of course the worst offenders are people in power, i.e. the plantation owners to slaves. But what do we make of the malicious ways one’s own “people” lord power of those they deem slightly “less than”? Back to The Sopranos: So much of the show revolves around how Italian-Americans have banded together and are “family.” But poor Paulie’s mom is a victim of her own community’s hierarchy. (To be fair, the nursing home director tells Paulie that his mother often doesn’t put her teeth in and that people find that off-putting. But still!)

monrovia
Monrovia, now the capital of Liberia, was founded in 1822 as a self-sufficient colony for emancipated American slaves.

She Would Be King is a clever and dazzling retelling about the formation of present-day Liberia in West Africa. (Do you know about Monrovia? Google it!) But I think it’s also about people attempting to find their worth amidst a constant barrage of so-called allies tamping them down, primarily psychologically.

So many people see themselves as entirely separate from people “not like them” but can certainly relate to being shunned by their own “people” at one point or another. (And if you can’t, perhaps think about what role you play in all of this, hmmmmmm…..)

I think Moore is helping us by taking the mythical (which, let’s be honest, is how I think many Americans categorize historical colonialism and slavery) and displaying the acute human emotion and response to being excluded to the extreme. I don’t mean “mythical,” like it didn’t happen, but “mythical” in how we think of it as a “thing far from our lives.”

So what narratives in our own current culture have we relegated to fairytale status instead of understanding the deep, human implications of them? Food for thought.

berlin wall
Literal separation and exclusion: Part of the Berlin Wall in 1989 after “the fall.”

—Related:

If you need a closer-to-home contemporary example of how exclusion – tied to deeper, problematic issues in our culture – feels, please read Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know. Born to Korean parents and adopted by a white couple, Chung describes a schoolyard incident:

“Was ‘Chinee’ supposed to be a nickname? I did not know what it meant, but I instinctively understood that he wasn’t making fun of something about me, or something I had done. He wasn’t mocking a name I could change into a nickname, or clothes my parents could replace, or glasses I could take off at recess. His target was who I was. How I’d come to be here, in this place where he believed I did not belong…But inside of me, something still and deep, something precious, had broken.”

Chung’s book is more about identity than exclusion (she has a happy life!), but if you’d like a well-written first-person account of what it might mean to not know how one fits in, this is it.

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