War and Peace: On Liberia’s Tolstoy

A friend emailed me an article recently from the Economist’s Prospero blog titled: “War and Peace” in Monrovia: Where is Liberia’s Tolstoy?” Considering this formula included a few of my favorite things: The Economist, Liberia, Tolstoy: I rushed to the article hoping to find sound, reasonable analysis and information about contemporary Liberian writers. Instead, I read a one-sided, research & objectivity deprived rant that had the audacity to compare post-war literature from 19th century Russian & Western writers to an indigenous population barely a century and a half introduced to a written language, the majority of which are youth in a struggling education system. Additionally, the journalist left out ALL mention of Liberian literature–from Bai T. Moore, Helene Cooper, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Elma Shaw, Stephanie Horton, Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna, James Emmanuel Roberts, and the dozens of Liberian writers featured on the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian writings.

“But this surface similarity still marks a key difference between Western and African wars; literary post-mortems only seem to follow the former.” The “journalist” writes. “Reading “War and Peace” in Monrovia I was struck by the fact that the Liberian war, like many African conflicts, lacks a literary afterlife.” Shame on you, S.A. (yes, this was his pen name)

There is so much I have to say about this article, but I’ll share only a few thoughts.

Analysis by Western Standards
Liberian and other African storytelling star griots as tellers. Griots have, for centuries, before colonization and the shifting of standards, passed along the history, fables, myths and geneology of their people orally. This tradition is evident at family reunions, weddings and the majority of all functions that include at least a handful of Liberians. We sit and listen to hours long of experiences during the war, struggles, deaths, triumphs. These experiences are passed along, much like novels or other literary works would be, and preserved for future generations orally. Tolstoy storytells in Russian. Storytellers indigenous to Liberia likely storytell orally. Contemplating post-war storytelling from the western standard of storytelling through the written word, by mostly elite artists who were privy to an exclusive education in English, law, philosophy and the myriad of other disciplines writers are formally trained in, is both biased and unfair. Still, the evidence of the emergence of formal English literature amongst Liberians is both impressive and inspiring. Read work from any of the previously listed authors for evidence.

In a post-war economy, the principal concern among survivors is financial recovery. Survivors are urged to finish school and pursue practical careers that will afford them comfortable lives that may help to ease the intense psychological and emotional burdens of war. Art, then, as we know it in the west, is rarely a consideration. There are a number of groups in Liberia who foster rehabilitation through art and literature. I wonder if S.A. reached out to the Liberian Association of Writers, a brilliant thinktank of artists based in Liberia whose works leave you stunned at the audacity of men, the poetry of war and the true possibility of God. Practically, literary industries exist where there are patrons of books. Unfortunately, with current needs (post 2003) ranging from healthcare, to transportation, to educating children who lacked access to formal classrooms for 14 years; there is little disposable income to spend on fiction, and little time with 3-4 jobs to read.

To Be Fair
I too wish that I read more from writers who experienced the war. I too wish more Liberians had time, mental energy or resources to make a career out of art and share with the world just how magical that country really is. I think my father would be a great novelist, would do Liberia justice. He kept a journal during the war that I frequently look to for inspiration. Some of the entries document his escape. Some of his entries are short stories about people he met. Some of his entries are prayers. Some of his entries are poems. That journal will likely never be published, neither will the hundreds of stories I’ve been an audience to for the past two decades around dinner and coffee tables, over drinks in dim Brooklyn bars and Barbecue grills. Yet our stories live. They will always live with or without invitation to the national stage, with or without Western approval or interest.

And as far as our Tolstoy, give us time. Give us space to find our voices, to learn your language and storytell as you please.
Let de peopo crawl small yet fore walking.