By Nvasekie N. Konneh
"..."...Ethnicity is an illusion, a way of identifying us at birth, something we cannot avoid. But we have the obligation as adults to forge a new identity for ourselves, an identity in which others have a place in our lives, despite colour, creed or place of birth..." ~ Vamba Sheriff..."
It was in the first half of 2002 when I heard about a Liberian writer, Vamba Sherif, who had written a novel in Dutch in the Netherlands, and that the book was a bestseller.
I was curious to know who this Liberian writer was. I went on line to search about the best selling writer. Every information I came across was in Dutch, a language I can’t read, and don’t even understand. During my visit to Europe in December last year, during which time I visited Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Paris in France, Brussels in Belgium, and a city in Germany which I can’t remember now, I was anxious to satisfy my curiosity of knowing more about this Liberian-Dutch writer.
I met several Liberian friends who know the writer and one of them gave me his contact information. From then we started talking and scheduled a meeting in the town of Groningen, where he lives in Holland. Since then we have kept the contact and the interview below is the result of that contact.
Nvasekie N. Konneh: By way of introduction, who is Vamba Sherif?
Vamba Sheriff: I was born in Kolahun, a forest town in the far north of Liberia. My childhood was spent in that town with one foot constantly in the world of books, and the other in the harsh reality of life in the hinterland. I cannot say that my childhood was a difficult one, but cannot describe it as idyllic either. I lived my life in the protection of a large African family, but this life had its own downside, for specific attention was not paid to each child but to a bunch of children. Talents, therefore, often went unnoticed. But not in all cases, some talents, despite all the difficulties, were noticed and nurtured by the family, and today those talents have matured.
NNK: You are from Liberia, an English speaking country in Africa, but you have written novels in Dutch, a language you did not grow up speaking, how did you do that?
VS: To answer this question, I must first of all give a brief history of my presence in the Netherlands. I fled the war in Kuwait, the first Gulf War, and because my country Liberia was at war, I sought refuge in the Netherlands. Now, I could not expect to lead life in another country with a language of its own without trying at least to master that language. Learning Dutch, I thought, was necessary to realising my dream of pursuing my studies. In the end I read law. But literature remained my greatest passion. In all secrecy I worked on my first novel. At a certain point, I felt that my writing was going nowhere, that I was searching for light in a dark tunnel of insecurity and lack of confidence. I was stuck. That’s when I put the novel aside and tried my hands at writing short stories. With one of them, Faces, I realised that I had found my voice. I sent a collection of those stories to a Dutch publishing house, and a week later the publisher called me to discuss the possibility of publishing them. I told him about my novel, which he was anxious to read. He read it in two days and called me to suggest that we published the novel first. The novel was published to critical and commercial success.
NNK: At what point in your life you decided to be a writer?
VS: There was no point in my life when I decided to be a writer. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated with the world of literature, with the possibility of words leaving me enthralled. No medium in the world, except in some cases music, which has the power to subdue me and make me grateful to be alive than literature. It grasps me by the senses, and all I can do is shout with joy or shed tears. Literature leaves me speechless, heartbroken. Sometimes, a scene and not the whole novel, a sentence and not a chapter would strike me like a thunderbolt. Or, it would carry me on sensual wings toward pleasures and pains unimaginable.
NNK: The English translation of the title of your first novel is, ‘The Land of the Fathers.’ What is it about?
VS: The novel is historical. It’s set in nineteenth century Africa. It describes the founding of Liberia, and the interaction of the freed slaves, the so-called Americo-Liberians, with the tribes that were already living on that western coast of Africa. It was not an easy interaction. Frequently it was characterised by ignorance on both sides, but especially on the part of the Americo-Liberians. They were a vulnerable people: they lived in a freed state, when all around them the British and the French were carving up Africa. Moreover, the tribes were still trading in slaves. The new republic, which no one believed would ever survive, found itself trapped between fear of falling apart and the inability to understand the forces around them: the British and the French on one hand, the tribes on the other. The tribes, used to dealing with the British and the French, saw the founding of Liberia as a threat to their existing trades in slaves, ivory and other goods. The novel is a story of friendship. One of the two main characters, Edward Richard, a man born into slavery, leaves America in search of his beloved Charlotte. In Liberia, he’s confronted with a country that’s trying to stand on its feet. Edward, a preacher by profession, believes that the future of Liberia lies in working together with the tribes. He goes into the hinterland, preaching the word of God. There, in the far north, he meets a man who becomes his friend: Halay, or Halayngi, as the Gbandis pronounce it. The story of Halayngi is very popular in northern Liberia. Halay, or Halayngi, was a man who sacrificed himself, like Jesus did, to safe that part of the world from all wars. With his death, the people believed, all wars would be averted. But the irony of history is that a century later a war would ravage the land, sweeping up in its destructive path the descendants of Edward and Halay.
NNK: You have an interesting background. You attended Madrassa, went to Kuwait for further study in Arabic and Islamic studies, now you are a writer. How has the transition been for you?
VS: I can only describe it as flexible. I look at the world as my home. My happiness is not confined to a specific boundary. My only fear is the inability to pursue my dreams.
NNK: You have sold thousands copies of your first novel, ‘The Land of the Fathers,’ that puts you in the league of the best-selling writers in the world. Can you describe the feeling of success?
VS: Success is relative. However, I’m glad that readers have taken to the story.
NNK: Do you owe your success as a writer to the fact that you wrote in Dutch instead of English?
VS: I don’t owe my success to the fact that the book was published in Dutch, but to the quality of the writing and the story. In Holland there are more than a hundred new writers every year, and out of that hundred only one or two books are taken seriously.
NNK: What is the title of your second novel?
VS: The title of my second novel is The kingdom of Sebah.
NNK: Are the two novels dealing with the same issue or what is the difference and similarity between both?
VS: The kingdom of Sebah is the story of a woman, Sebah, who settles with her husband and two children in the Netherlands. Mansakeh, the son and the narrator of the story, describes the difficulties the family face in trying to integrate into the Dutch society. But there is another problem in the family much more difficult to deal it than the attempt to integrate: a secret that follows them from Africa, and which threatens to break them apart.
NNK: Every writer’s dream is for their works to impact the society they come from; in this case, do you hope to impact Liberia one way or the other? Do you plan to visit there in the future?
VS: I hope, when the books are published in English, that Liberians can read them. They are my way of looking at the world, or of giving shape to my experiences, or in the words of Toni Morrison – ‘a private thing for public consumption.’
NNK: Are your novels fictional accounts of your true life or are they based on pure imagination?
VS: A writer is always formed by the things he sees and experiences, and it’s difficult to tell where pure imagination ends and fictional accounts begin.
NNK: With the success of your work so far, can you call writing a career?’
VS: Yes, it’s my life, my passion, and the only discipline that gives my life a meaning.
NNK: When growing up in Liberia, which of the Liberia writers or African writers you
VS: Oh, there were many. I admired the simply written but gratifying novella of Bai T. Moore, Murder in the Cassava Patch, and the works of Sankawulu, especially The rain and the night, and his short stories. I read with great pleasure the works of other African writers like Achebe, Soyinka, Bediako Asare, Aye Kwei Armah, Benard Dadie, Nurrudin Farah, Camara Laye and his Radiance of the king, Yambo Ouologuem and his Bound to Violence, and dozens of others.
NNK: What has been the response of Liberians or Africans to your work since it’s written in a language that is not spoken in Africa?
VS: There are some Africans in the Netherlands who have read and admired my novels, but until they are published in English I cannot count on a wider African readership.
NNK: As a writer, what message you have for Liberia as we emerge from 15 years of brutal war?
VS: My message is that Liberians should behave the way the character, Halayngi, in my first novel did: they should do everything to avoid another war and work together towards building a better future.
NNK: In Liberia, the issue of ethnicity and religion are very important. How do you deal with them as a writer?
VS: By trying in my own way not to confine my novels to specific group of people in Liberia, but to write as such that the message becomes universal. Ethnicity is an illusion, a way of identifying us at birth, something we cannot avoid. But we have the obligation as adults to forge a new identity for ourselves, an identity in which others have a place in our lives, despite colour, creed or place of birth.
NNK: What is the best way to describe you as a writer, Dutch writer, or Liberian Dutch writer?
VS: You can best describe me as a Liberian writer.
NNK: As a contemporary Liberian writer, are you in touch with other contemporary Liberian writers, and how would you describe the contemporary Liberian writings, as compared to those older writers such as Bai T. Moore or Wilton Sankawulu?
VS: I’m not in touch with other Liberian writers, which I regret. But I’ve read the works of such writers like Mr. Nagbe, Mr. Dustin Macaulay, Mrs. Kandakai, and others. I’ve also read your work, Going to War for America. I regularly visit the Liberian literary website, www. the liberianseabreeze.com. Some of the short stories published there are well written. Contemporary Liberian writers, I’ve noticed, are preoccupied with the war, trying in their own way to describe the effect of war on all Liberians. The theme war always makes great literature, and perhaps it will be the case in the Liberian literature.