Wayétu Moore’s vivid memoir of her family’s escape from civil war is a story of violence, but also one of strength and faith.
‘The Hawa Undu dragon was once a prince with good intentions, who entered the forest to avenge the death of his family…but the prince became a dragon himself…he humbugged the animals, killed for food, forgot his promises. And now, Hawa Undu was president of Liberia…’
Civil war in Liberia broke out in 1989, lasting for fourteen years and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives with millions more displaced. Wayétu Moore was five years old. At the start of this, her vividly immersive memoir of her family’s escape from their home country, she is celebrating her fifth birthday. She wants to wash collard greens. All little girls are allowed to wash collard greens on their fifth birthdays; they are allowed to be grown-up and help in the kitchen, but Tutu is wearing a new dress and isn’t allowed to wash many in case she gets her dress dirty. Disappointed, she runs to her father, sitting preoccupied on the porch with friends. Tutu already understands that the Samuel Doe her father and his friends are talking about is the Hawa Undu of the story told by her Ol’ Ma, and that another prince called Charles Freeman is coming to kill Hawa Undu and restore the forest. She already wonders whether that’s possible, or whether everyone who goes into the forest will end up the same.
These rebels and rulers are the dragons of the book’s title and, soon after Tutu’s birthday party, the dragons’ war arrives on the doorstep. Forced to flee, their father becomes the giant, guiding his family for three weeks on foot through sugarcane fields and along roads full of bodies both living and dead, to the safety of the village of Lai. The women are her grandmother, strong and determined; her mother, who returns from studying in America in order to find the family and take them to safety; and Satta, the teenage rebel paid by Tutu’s mother to guide them across the border into Sierra Leone. The child’s eye view of this first part of the book – of the fear, the tension, the despair, the disbelief and the senselessness – gives it a haunting quality, framed by the stories told by Tutu’s father and grandmother to keep them moving through atrocity. Hawa Undu weaves through the narrative, and when Tutu asks why there are people lying down in the road, her father tells her they are sleeping. They mustn’t sleep themselves, he tells them. They must stay awake and walk because they are going to see their mother. This is memoir told in the style of fiction, and it works wonderfully.
In the next section of the book, Tutu and her family have made a new life for themselves in America where they face different kinds of struggles. Tutu is a writer in New York, but is finding it hard to get anything onto the page. She has relationship issues. A therapist attempts to link these problems back to her experiences as a child but Tutu firmly resists, saying, ‘I believe I had a happy childhood…I don’t think of trauma in that way.’ We can almost see the raised eyebrow of the therapist: of course, it seems to be saying, these experiences of civil war were traumatic, and of course trauma will always out. But Tutu is insistent. ‘Honestly,’ she says, ‘I had an experience in Texas that was more traumatic than the war.’
The ‘experience’ in Texas was, of course, a racist one. In America the family faced a new kind of dragon: the kind of endemic bigotry and discrimination that even Tutu’s father couldn’t protect them from. In the place where ‘skin color was king’, Tutu sat on the ‘Blackgirl’s table’ in the school canteen. She and her friends mimicked the few exaggerated role models they saw on television and in magazines, because they were expected to ‘maintain this blackness, this shiny, special thing that was bigger than any other part of our identity…’, and, in one memorable incident, they were hounded from a grocery store because they took too long in choosing their candy and the store owner assumed they were stealing. This honesty is refreshing after the conventional migrant narratives (many of which have been written by those who are not migrants themselves) that often portray the new life as unquestionably better than the old; that do not recognise how one struggle for survival and identity has often been replaced with another.
Haunted by the teenage rebel Satta, the adult Tutu returns to Liberia herself to try and find her. The shock of seeing the country anew is palpable through the pages, but it purposefully resists the kind of narrow-minded African stereotypes that were so pervasive throughout Tutu’s upbringing in America. Instead we see the underside of a shattered country, still attempting to process the war and put itself back together physically, economically, socially and spiritually. Tutu finds those who were involved in the war reluctant to talk, still fearful for themselves and their families. Her hunt for Satta is fruitless, but the final part of the story, told from her mother’s point of view, fills in the gaps. The change in narrative perspective is a little jarring at first, but it is also one of the more taut, tense parts of the book as we learn of her mother’s very different return to a Liberia in the middle of war. There is danger and fear and determination, but there is also humanity: Satta is a teenage soldier who has already risked her life several times to guide desperate refugees over the border to safety. Her story is the only unknown, the only thread that is left dangling. We don’t know if she survived the war.
The Dragons. The Giant, The Women is a powerful tale, crossing continents and timeframes and perspectives, with a women-focused narrative that gives a fresh take on those stories traditionally told by men. It’s a story of violence, but it’s also a story of hope, of love, and of the strength of family. As Tutu writes, ‘My Ol’ Ma says the best stories do not always end happily, but happiness will find its way in there somehow.’
Feature image: Wayétu Moore by Yoni Levy, courtesy of Pushkin Press.