Interview: Liberian novelist Vamba Sherif talks about influences, his love of film, and what’s on the horizon
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Interview: Liberian novelist Vamba Sherif talks about influences, his love of film, and what’s on the horizon

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In March, we named Vamba Sherif’s book, Bound to Secrecy, on our list of African novels you need on your bookshelf, as we knew it was a twisting mystery about power and transparency. What we didn’t know was that Vamba is currently trying to have the book made into a feature film, or that the novel was inspired by things he saw around him in his childhood. Check out our interview with Vamba to hear more about his influences, his favorite authors, and his love of film:

Vamba Sherif Book cover

What inspired Bound to Secrecy and how is it different from your previous novels?

Bound to Secrecy was inspired by what I saw around me while growing up: the use and abuse of power. I wanted to write a novel that explored this theme, which is often rooted in corruption. The Panama Papers come to mind. Corruption hampers progress. It leads to extreme poverty on the part of the masses and makes the fight against it very difficult and sometimes almost impossible in some societies. Good leadership is what is required in fighting corruption.

In setting out to write the novel, I decided to employ a style that was different from those of my previous novels. I resorted to the detective medium. But I did not follow the rule of the medium by the book. In fact, sometimes I diverted from it altogether. Writing Bound to Secrecy was the most thrilling experience of all my novels. I finished it in a year. I wanted to play with the storytelling medium of old but infused with echoes of Kafka and the tautness of Alejor Capentier, especially in his work The Kingdom of this World. The novel also explores love and sexuality, and how the two themes are perceived in some societies and that particular setting.

Who are some of your favorite authors, and why?

Certain writers have had an indelible influence on me and on how I perceive the world; so much that every time I read them I wanted to pick up the pen and write. The writers of my childhood were Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Achebe, Laye Camara, Aye Kwaye Armah, and the Liberian writer Wilton Sankawulo, whose stories were the literary variations of the stories my grandmother told me.

I came upon Thomas Mann the way a thieve approaches a home he’s about to rob: with great care and deliberation. He’s certain to find something and goes about searching for it until he found it. Death in Venice explores the nature of the artist like no other book. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of art.

I read Coetzee’s Waiting for The Barbarians, and I fetched a notebook, sat down and began to write in the first person, setting my story in a suburb of a city, in which the narrator meets a mysterious young woman and becomes enamored with her.

I discovered Marquez by chance. No one recommend him to me. This is how I would go on to discover dozens, if not hundreds of writers—purely by chance. I read his Chronicle of Death Foretold, and I thought it was a perfect novel.

Every time I read the lines of Szymborska, Walcott, or Seamus Heaney, I am grateful to be alive and my senses are as sharp as a trap and I think I can take on the world. These are the writers who formed me—these and many others. I read Pamuk and I feel I belong to his tradition, and it’s the same with Isaac Bashevis Singer, the writer I identify with the most. In fact, I dedicated my novel, The Black Napoleon, to him and to Sembene Ousmane, the great African film maker.

You were born in northern Liberia, had family from all over West Africa, moved to Kuwait at a young age, and now live in the Netherlands—how has your heritage and varied environments influenced your work?

I was privileged to have been born in Liberia and within a family with members from neighboring countries. It was a vibrant family, in which the constant drama that played out has and will continue to feed my fantasy for the rest of my life. Living with such a large family made an optimist of me and shaped my positive outlook on life.

In Kuwait, I learned to appreciate the diversity in the world. I had schoolmates from places like the Maldives, and I had friends from America, China, the Philippines, and India . In Syria, where I stayed for a few years, I learned about the crusades and visited the castles built by the Muslims and the crusaders. This diversity, this complex outlook on life, is reflected in my work. My first novel, Land of my fathers, published in Dutch in my early twenties, is about Edward Richards, who was born into slavery and left America in the 19th century to travel to Liberia to preach the world of God. The novel, written more than 15 years ago, will be published in September in the UK and the US.

My stories reflect the diverse life I’ve led, but the Middle East is yet to feature in my work. I am still grappling with the means to transform my experience in that world into a work of art. Perhaps my hesitation to write about it has to do with the fact that my life in Kuwait came to an abrupt end with Saddam Hussain’s invasion of the country. Maybe I am still struggling to give form to that terrible experience. Bound to Secrecy is my only novel available in English, but I am sure after Land of my fathers is published, the other novels will follow. Then English readers can compare the novels.

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You dabble in acting and have a passion for film—what do like about the medium of film, and how is it different from your passion for literature?

I review films and not a week goes by that I do not see a movie. It has to do with my early years in Liberia where I, like many other children, was hooked on Chinese and Indian films. Later, American films would take over. I used to recite lines by heroes and villains alike, and I could tell by a soundtrack what was happening at the moment. I could even recount a film, scene by scene, word by word.

I dabble in acting, which I see as an extension of my passion for images, imagined or recalled. The impact of the film is immediate; it can shock and bring you to tears. Literature does that also, but slowly and sometimes only after chapters into a novel. Sembene Ousmane, one of the greatest artists who ever lived, a writer who could have won the Nobel Prize had he written in English, said that he resorted to film because watching films doesn’t require literacy. He had his people, the Africans, his first audience in mind.

A young Liberian director, Yor-El Francis, and I are now doing everything to bring Bound to Secrecy to the big screen. The script is ready, and in his unique way, Yor-El has managed to capture the essence of the novel. We are now looking for producers or anyone interested in investing in a good story that deserves a wider audience.

What are you currently writing or working on?

I am working on a new novel set in Liberia, in which I will try to bring to bear all the genres of literature. It will take some time, but I will get there. Meanwhile, I am preparing my other novels for publication in English and other languages, and of course, Yor-El Francis and I are trying to bring Bound to Secrecy to the screen.

Read the list of African novels you need on your bookshelf, as well as 5 female African authors you should know!

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