Liberian writer Vamba Sherif wears many hats. He has written stories and journalistic work for media outlets across the world, dabbles in acting and fulfills his passion for film through reviewing. Foremost, he considers himself a novelist and has published four novels with a fifth, The Black Napoleon, out later this year. His work has been translated into English, Dutch, French, Spanish and German. He was kind enough to let both Tiah and Rachel satisfy their curiosity about his work.
Tiah: Why writing?
Vamba: Writing is a way of giving meaning to my life. The ability to create a world that is convincing enough for me to believe in is equal to the sensation that I experience when listening to a great piece of music. To me writing an honest line or a scene is like taking a flight through the depths of my being. It makes my existence valid.
Tiah: In an interview posted on Paris Review, Iris Murdoch says of her novels, “I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned.”
Does your creative process tend to be as tightly constructed or does your work come about more organically?
Vamba: I don’t plan as well as Iris Murdoch did. I have a picture in my mind, a theme or an idea I want to explore, and I set about realizing it into a novel. My new novel, The Black Napoleon, which will be first published in Dutch this year, had its genesis in the family manuscripts which were kept in our home in Kolahun, northern Liberia. Some of the manuscripts were centuries old. My ancestors had handed them over from one generation to another. The manuscripts were destroyed during the Liberian civil war. In my new novel, I attempted to tell the story of these manuscripts, to recover them as it were, and to share a vanishing culture with the world, a culture in which knowledge was so important, that scholars paid gold to acquire a copy of such a manuscript, and students thrived for years to gain a fraction of the knowledge of the custodians of those manuscripts. The manuscripts were our lives. In my work, I try to rescue them from oblivion. I drew on the life of Isaac Bashevis Singer and his work as a source of inspiration. Much more important, I drew on the passion of the great film maker and writer Ousmane Sembene for African history, and for a man in particular whom he believed was the greatest emperor of Africa in the 19th century, The Black Napoleon of my novel, Samori Toure, the founder of the Wasulu Empire. But my main source of inspiration was the family stories.
Tiah: What themes do you find yourself continuously exploring in your work?
Vamba: The recurring themes in my work are those of identity and belonging, exile, love, war, power, and empathy. I’ve lived in three continents, in Africa, the Middle East and now in Europe. In all these places, the idea of belonging has always occupied me. Was speaking Arabic fluently enough to make me a Kuwaiti, was studying Law and living long in the Netherlands enough to make me Dutch? And what about Liberia? I keep returning to the theme of Liberia because I feel that I owe it something, because I feel it where I was born and where I lost many family members, including my mother, in a gruesome war. I am atoning for the fact that I was not a victim of the war, not in the direct sense.
Rachel: In a review of 'Bound To Secrecy' on Africa is a Country it states that: Sherif is a master storyteller whose multi-linguality is definitely evident in the lyricism of his writing; the translation to English doesn’t lose that quality.
Liberia's official language is English, and you're considered a Liberian writer, yet Bound to Secrecy was originally published in Dutch and then translated into English, if I am to understand correctly. I'm curious as to the language you're originally writing your novels in, and the processes around translation? For example, Andre Brink would write in Afrikaans and then rewrite all his books into English himself.
Vamba: Let me begin by saying that in our house in Liberia, we spoke three Liberian languages, Mandingoe, Mende and Gbandi, besides the Liberian English and the English and Arabic we learned at school. So early on I as very familiar with the advantages of speaking many languages. I lived for a while in Kuwait, where I polished my Arabic , and I had French as a child. Bound to Secrecy was published first in Dutch. The English version is my version. I write in both languages. So, yes, I am like Andre Brink here who happens to be one of my favorite writers!
Rachel: You have an impressive body of work, four novels and a fifth out soon. Multi translations. Journalism. You seem to genre hop, from historical fiction to a supernatural detective novel, yet publishers love to stick labels onto writers and can be a bit leery of writers that constantly break the moulds. What gives you the freedom to write what you like?
Vamba: I don't think labels fit me; I've Always tried to wrest myself off the joke of labels, for it is too confining. And literature is such a large house! It was the same Flaubert who wrote Salambo and Madam Bovary. With every story, I try to see how best I can tell it, what tools I need to tell it. I never think about my publishers. The story comes first.
Rachel: This question pertains to the previous one. Considering your genre hopping tendencies: if you were a historian 100 years from now, how would you define your body of work?
Vamba: I would define my body of work as one that explored the themes of the freedom of the individual in society and of exile and belonging, and of love and its various manifestations
Tiah: What was the last piece of African fiction you read that impressed you?
Vamba: The last piece of African work that I read that impressed me was The Radiance of the King by Laye Camara or Camara Laya. Actually I was rereading it for the umpteenth time. It’s a great peace of work, simple and allegorical, a source of inspiration for me in many ways.
Tiah: What question do you wished we asked? Please answer it, too.
Vamba: I wished you had asked me about Liberian writers and literature. The first African novel was written by a Liberian, Joseph J Walters. The novel is titled: Guanya Pau: A story of an African Princess. And we had great writers like Wilton Sankawulo and Bai T Moore. Of the new generation of writers worth mentioning are Saah Millimono, Nvasekie Konneh, Wayétu Moore, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Hawa Jande Golakai, Momoh Dudu, Wirworyon Roberts and others.
On Vamba's Bedside Table:
I thought I had read everything Isaac Bashevis Singer ever wrote. Until a lady at a second hand bookshop I visited a few weeks ago asked me: Have you read Scum? I hadn’t. I went online and bought it the same day. It’s a vintage Singer, and the novel bristles with his passion for life.