Liberian author Vamba Sherif recently spoke to Warscapes’ Nathalie Carré about how his background and education have influenced his writing. Sherif, author of Bound to Secrecy, grew up a polyglot, having learned Arabic and English at an early age, on top of his home language of Mande, and others in the region such as Gbandi, Kissi, Lomah and Mende. His family later moved to Kuwait, but soon after the first Gulf War began, Sherif found himself in the Netherlands. Despite not having grown up speaking Dutch, he has published a number of works in this language.
In a powerful retelling, Sherif addresses how his third book came to be, and how a chance encounter with former Liberian president Charles Taylor, now convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), played a part in its birth.
Nathalie Carré: Bound to Secrecy (Borderland in its french translation) is your third book and the first be published in French. You have two previous books: The Land of the Fathers and The Kingdom of Sebah. Could you just briefly introduce yourself to our readers who may discover you?
Vamba Sherif: I was born in northern Liberia, from a family which included members from different parts of West Africa – from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Mali. As a result, I grew up speaking languages such as Gbandi, Kissi, some Lomah, and Mende, which is spoken in Sierra Leone. My mother tongue was Mande or Mandingo, variations of which are spoken in Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Senegal. I grew up surrounded by books and in a tradition of scholarship that went back centuries. I learned Arabic and English at an early age. Moving to Kuwait with my father, who taught at the university, sharpened my awareness of the diversity in the world. I lived in a neighborhood with dozens of nationalities, and attended secondary school with students from The Maldives, India, Malawi, America, Palestine, Jordan, Ghana… It was in Kuwait that I discovered world literature: I read dozens of novels from The Heineman African Writers Series, and fed voraciously on the stories of Chekov, while marveling at the world of Stendhal. I could not believe that a writer could evoke an ancient world as persuasively as Flaubert did in Salambo. I wrote long letters home in Arabic about life in a desert city-state, describing my fascination with life as a migrant in a wealthy country, touching on Arab hospitality and poetry. The first Gulf War forced me out of Kuwait and into The Netherlands where I read law and developed my talent as a writer. More than anywhere else, it was in Europe that I became keenly aware of myself as an outsider, as an exile from a country at war. My search for answers regarding my identity, regarding the civil war in my country, led me to writing my first novel, The land of the fathers, a novel about the founding of Liberia by the freed blacks from America in the nineteenth century.
- Bound to Secrecy by Vamba Sherif
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