The proud Republic of Liberia was founded in the 19th century with the triumphant return of freed slaves from America to Africa but the Americo-Liberians struggled to integrate with the resident tribes. Against a background of French and British colonialists carving up Mother Africa, while local tribes were still unashamedly trading in slaves, Vamba Sherif transports readers into the world of those vulnerable newcomers in Land of my Fathers (Hope Road, £14.99).
What should readers expect of your novel?
Readers should expect to enter the world of a unique country, the first African republic, founded by freed slaves from America. This is their story, but it is also the story of those they met on the west coast of Africa. The merging and colliding of these worlds are brought vividly to life on these pages. Land of my Fathers explores the themes of love, new beginnings, exile and deep, lasting friendship. I also tried to explore the idea of sacrifice, of the uniqueness of the individual in a collective society and how the actions of such an individual would have far-reaching and profound consequences. It’s my first novel, published in The Netherlands in my early twenties, and the one that’s most dear to my heart. Now the novel is about to lead a new life, a new beginning with this English edition and I hope it meets many readers along its journey.
The freed slaves who left America to settle in Liberia in the 1820s had high hopes of their new home. Were those hopes fulfilled?
They did indeed have high hopes – Africa was that dream continent where great men and women thrived. It was the sum of their hopes, where kings lived who surpass the slave masters in the Americas in every aspect. Africa was equated with paradise; it was said to be where you went when you died. So many thought that they would be happy and prosperous in the land of their fathers. They would achieve the dream of self-determination, that dream that had eluded them for centuries. They would prove everyone who believed that blacks were incapable of governing themselves wrong. Their hopes were partly fulfilled – they succeeded at founding Liberia, but in many cases, especially in the beginning, they failed in persuading their African brothers and sisters to join them. This failure had to do with their way of life – they were much more American than African, they were staunch Christians and they thought that the best way forward was for their African brothers and sisters to embrace this way of life. Some even chose to alienate themselves from their African brothers and sisters.
What are your recollections of growing up in Liberia?
I grew up in a compound with more than a hundred people. Because we were close to neighbouring countries Guinea and Sierra Leone, I grew up speaking the languages of these countries. I grew up reading novels, mostly African, but some Arabic, American and English. I remember swimming in one of the two rivers that flank my city of birth, Kolahun. I remember the touch of the sun on my face after a bout of swimming. The faces of friends remained with me, although over the years, because of the war in Liberia, I forgot their names. I’ve fed on memories, honing them, sharpening them, all in my effort not to forget. This is the result of war – it makes the past so relevant that one lives and breathes those early memories. It’s a way of escaping the unbearable memories of war.
Are you confident about the future of democracy in what is Africa’s oldest republic?
Yes, I am confident about the future. Liberia has learned its lesson. The war made victims and perpetrators of us all. It showed us that we have no other option but to look toward the future. There are signs that things are changing – people are active and want their voices heard when it comes to deciding the future. That was not the case before the war. Social media is also contributing to deep awareness amongst the Liberians about their rights. Liberians are vocal, conscious of their rights, and many are striving to achieve those rights.
Land of my Fathers was written more than 15 years ago. How have you changed as a writer since?
I’ve become a better writer, but my view of the world has not changed. I am still very optimistic – the same optimism you see in this novel is still present in my four novels, despite the sometimes difficult themes that I explore, such as violence, war, colonialism, power, love, exile and many others.
You left Liberia for Kuwait in your teens and then moved to Syria when Saddam invaded. How has being a refugee shaped your writing?
Being a refugee has enabled me to look at the world from different perspectives. It’s made a cosmopolitan of me. When I look at the Arabic or Islamic world, I see a civilisation that had made a huge contribution to humanity, just as my African culture and the European cultures have done. I look at things from historical and cultural perspectives. I’ve embraced and made the positive aspects of all these cultures my own. They belong to me.
What plans do you have for your next book?
I am working on my new novel, my most ambitious to date. It’s set in Liberia, in the present. I am aiming to infuse it with humour. It’s a satirical novel as much as it is about the trials and tribulations of a unique person. I am still in the beginning phase, but I will get there.