Bryan Derballa for The New York Times.Wayétu Moore launched a children’s publishing house that offers titles spanning a range of countries.
When Wayétu Moore was 5 years old, she and her family fled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. It was 1989 and the country was caught in a violent civil war. Ms. Moore, her father and two sisters took refuge in her maternal grandmother’s home village near Liberia’s border with Sierra Leone.
“My dad worked overtime to preserve our childhood,” Ms. Moore said. Gunshots in the distance became “dragons fighting” and dead bodies on the streets were people “sleeping on the road.”
“For a long time, my understanding was that we were in this game,” Ms. Moore said. “We were going to see my Mom. And there was something wrong, there were some angry people walking around, but we were mostly okay.”
At that time, Ms. Moore’s mother was a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University in New York. With few ways to contact her family, she flew to Sierra Leone to arrange for their safe passage.
In her debut novel, “She Would Be King,” Ms. Moore, 33, explores Liberia’s history by using the same kind of magical realism her father relied on.
“She Would Be King,” published by Graywolf in September, follows three characters, Gbessa, June Dey and Norman Aragon, whose fates eventually intersect and initiate the formation of Liberia.
“She Would Be King” is an ambitious and expansive novel that explores the nuances of Liberian history beyond its identity as a settlement for emancipated African-Americans. Ms. Moore skillfully reconsiders the idealism of the early African-American settlers through their interactions with the indigenous peoples and braids together intimate story lines centered around universal themes: falling in love, defying familial expectations and the difficulties of doing the right thing.
“She is establishing a different voice,” Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, a Liberian poet and an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University Altoona, said. “She is not writing about the war, she is not writing about poverty or writing about villages in a patronizing way.”
When Ms. Moore was a child, her parents regaled her with bedtime stories about Liberia. These tales tethered her and her siblings to the small West African country even as they moved across the United States, from New York to Tennessee and eventually Texas, where they lived in a mostly white suburb of Houston. While Ms. Moore has fond memories of growing up in Texas, it was also isolating at times.
“I just wasn’t hearing anything about Africa, and certainly not Liberia, at school,” she said. “And that absence, I think, was just very profound.”
Ms. Moore’s career reflects an earnest attempt to fill this void. In 2011, after getting a master in fine arts at the University of Southern California, she launched One Moore Book, a small multicultural children’s publishing house. It began as an independently funded for-profit venture and the first book, “J Is for Jollof Rice,” was written by Ms. Moore and illustrated by her sister Kula Moore. A few years later, she also opened a general interest bookstore in Monrovia.
The publishing house now offers 23 titles spanning a range of countries from Liberia and Guinea to Haiti and Brazil and has partnered with writers such as Edwidge Danticat and Ibi Zoboi, the author of “American Street.” They have sold more than 6,000 books and donated over 7,000 with the help of organizations such as Lit World, a nonprofit dedicated to achieving global literacy.
Ms. Moore wants to “do the organization justice” and make One Moore Book sustainable in a way that does not rely on her, her siblings and a few interns and volunteers.
This fall, Ms. Moore will work on her memoir about her family’s escape from Liberia and teach at the master of fine arts program at Randolph College, in Virginia. She also plans to reflect on the future of One Moore Book, which she relaunched as a nonprofit in 2015.
“Creating a platform has been one of the most rewarding parts of this process,” she said. “I hope that I’m able to grow it into something that’s larger than me.”
Relationships tell an African country’s history.