In April 2015, the Liberian author Vamba Sherif released his latest novel, Bound to Secrecy. The Bush Chicken had the opportunity to speak with Sherif from Holland about the new release and some of his upcoming projects. Sherifâ€™s work has previously been featured on The Bush Chicken.
Tell us a little about your background and how you became a writer.
Writing is my passion and my job. When I wake up, itâ€™s the first thing I do in the morning and Iâ€™ve been doing this for the past 15 years now. While in college, I began to study the literatureÂ of the world and became fascinated with different cultures and my eyes were opened in a different way to writing. When I was in my third year at the university studying law, I wrote my first novel and it changed my life because it became a best seller. I was on television, radio and in newspapers. After a while, I thought to myself, “This is something I should take seriously.”
To this day, Lofa’s forest community town of Kolahun still fascinates me, which is why I often write about that setting in my novels. I grew up in a huge family speaking many dialects with family members from many different tribes and places, so I grew up with a sense of belonging not to a particular place but to different people. In Liberia, we have a fascination with who you are and where you come from so it wasnâ€™t until I left that I began to understand the diversity of my background and I began to embrace the world as something that belongs to me.
Iâ€™ve read all of the classics by African authors and the best classic works of literature of the world. The fact that you can read a story and be transported to that time and culture and empathizeÂ with the characters is the power of literature.
The setting in which the story takes place is Wologizi. Are all of your stories set in Liberia? How closely does your hometown of Kolahun mirror the town of WologiziÂ in the novel.
All of my novels to date have been set in Liberia and that says a lot about my occupation because Liberia is first and foremost my occupation. It has to do with exile, growing up in a different culture, growing up in a place that is no longer the way it was when you left and in some ways to atone for the things that took place there.
I feel some sense of guilt for not being there during the war and not experiencing it, for losing family members in the war. Itâ€™s my way to try to deal with my sense of loss. I dealt with Liberia in my very first novel which was also my best seller and it was an attempt, in part, to figure out why we took up arms to fight against each other. Liberia is central to my work. There may be a day that comes when I explore other possibilities in literature, but Iâ€™m not there yet. Wologizi is part fictional and part Kolahun. I wanted to set the novel in a place that I felt was isolated and thatâ€™s why I chose Wologizi, but in the novel I described things that I saw in Kolahun. Fiction allows you the opportunity to exaggerate and embellish, but the novel setting is based on a place that reminded me of my birth village.
A few issues included in the novel were homosexuality, plural marriage, corruption, power display, and witchcraft. Why did you feel compelled to explore those subjects?
It wasnâ€™t deliberate, but sometimes the beauty of writing a novel is that sometimes when you start, things are revealed to you and other possibilities are opened. And so I decided to explore these topics. These things are happening and I tried to write about it as a part of our culture. There are writers who write on those subjects in a vacuum but in the novel itâ€™s just part of the reality of Wologizi and I tried to explore it. I know some people wouldnâ€™t like it or appreciate it, but thatâ€™s the case with any work. In other novels, I deal with different subjects altogether so Iâ€™m not confined to any particular topic of interest. Bound to Secrecy and the subjects I dealt with just happen to be the reality of Liberia, Iâ€™m not discussing anything really that strange. When you really read the book and youâ€™ll see many of the topics just mirror reality.
There is a Lebanese merchant that plays a significant role in the novel. He remains nameless. What was the motivation behind this and what was your thought process for including him?
I wanted to introduce a stranger who is also an insider but really an outsider. Heâ€™s a tragic figure because he thinks he belongs, but people donâ€™t regard him that way. Most of what motivates him is driven by self-preservation. I can identify with him from my personal experiences living in so many countries as an outsider so I thought it was important to have a character who reflected that in the story. The Lebanese are a part of our landscape and our experience. Once I completed the novel I didnâ€™t feel the need to go back and add anything to his character. People tend to mock Lebanese in Liberia sometimes and I felt that he would be an interesting person to tell the Lebanese story in Liberia.
The main character in the story is William Mowolo, tell us a little about your thought process behind his character.
Like most detectives, who is an outsider but also a Liberian who is familiar with the landscape and likable character. Williamâ€™s love of women and sympathy is his vision of the world, but power corrupts people and he is no exception. Heâ€™s very caring towards women and he tries to do his best to protect them. He had a choice to stay or leave Wologizi and he chose to stay until the very end. Heâ€™s a very likable character but also very power-obsessed. At the beginning of the story, heâ€™s reflecting on his aunt and other women that influenced his upbringing.
You dedicated the book to the women of Liberia.Â What was your inspiration for developing the relationship between William and the women of Wologizi?
I dedicated the book to my mother to pay homage to her and her strength and what she achieved in Liberia. William was raised by a single mother and has a high regard for females in general. In the story, William had to get in touch with the female characters because he cared for each of them in different ways. The story takes place over the span of a week and as a result I had to write the story showing these seemingly fast developing relationships which show the affection William has for women. By the end of the story, the women play a pivotal role in the outcome of the story and play a profound role in the unfolding of the mystery.
Could you explain the relationship between Mr. Mowolo & the Militia trying to solve the mystery with two different motives.
This is a typical display of power. People were respected when they visited towns and villages in Liberia solely on the basis of who they may have been related to or a position they held. This really fascinated me about Liberia how people can have their say and power influence based on connections alone. Those who are acquiescing to those in the power structure are often operating under the assumption that there may be personal gain by aligning and endearing themselves to the â€œperson of influenceâ€. Itâ€™s something that is still very present in Liberia today and thatâ€™s why I felt the need to include in the story. The power display William exercised in Wologizi was enough to convince the militia that he could offer them recognition or advancement.
The way in which the book ended left a window of opportunity for a sequel, what are your plans for this in the future?
There may be a chance in the future that I revisit a sequel to the book but it wonâ€™t be until I complete the project that Iâ€™m currently working on. I may have an opportunity to expound on some of the characters in a sequel that I didnâ€™t go into as much detail as I wanted to regarding some of the characters.
Are there any upcoming projects? How can our readers support you and any projects youâ€™re working on?
I want to go to Liberia to launch the book and see the response. Unfortunately, we donâ€™t have many readers in Liberia, people are more interested in figuring out how to get their daily bread. The Black Napoleon will be released this year in Dutch and later translated in English. I also recently finished a short story called Homecoming that we published as a part of a global anthology of short stories. Itâ€™s a short story that covers my homecoming when I returned to Liberia.
Find out more about Vamba Sherif at his website.Â Featured image courtesy ofÂ Vamba Sherif