Shannon, what was your inspiration for writing DREAM COUNTRY?
Some books you choose, others choose you. DREAM COUNTRY was the latter. I'm not Liberian or Liberian American, and I knew that so many of the characters in this novel would have experiences and cultural backgrounds far different than my own, so it was scary. Being a transracial adoptee, I know how painful it is to see yourself constantly misrepresented in literature. So, I never want to do that to another historically marginalized group. Plus, I knew that the book, as I saw it, would push the limits of my technical skills as a writer. In short, I didn't know if I could do it.
But, as I say, the book would not let me go. The questions about the relationship between continental Africans and African Americans dogged me for years, especially after I visited a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana in my twenties, and then on into my thirties, living in one of the biggest and most vibrant Liberian diasporic communities on the globe (the Twin Cities, Minnesota). I wanted to get more perspective on the emotional and psychological factors that caused these two groups to collide through history --- what the chasms and connections were, and where they had brought us now. For me, fiction is the most honest way to explore these issues, because all of those layers of history and culture can be present in one character, one family, even one scene.
How long did you work on DREAM COUNTRY?
The concept for the book grabbed me in my twenties...but as I say, I resisted it. I was scared at the enormity of the project, and honestly didn't know if I could pull it off. But I kept on reading up on Liberia and Liberian colonization, and going back to my experiences with Liberian refugees at Gomoa Buduburam Refugee Camp outside Accra, Ghana, in 1998. And, I kept encountering Liberian refugees here in Minnesota, many of whom were kind enough to share parts of their stories with me. Finally, ten years later, in my thirties, I decided to commit to really writing the book. Some of my contacts in the Liberian community in Minnesota gave me contacts and resources in-country, and I bought a ticket to travel there and interview new leaders, politicians, and everyday people about the run-up to the 1980 coup that plunged the country into its disastrous 15 year civil war. That trip changed me and my writing life forever -- I was completely "in" after that. It would take me 10 more years to complete the manuscript, and find an editor who understood the project and could help me craft the sprawling, unwieldy story into something cohesive (thank you, Andrew Karre and Dutton Books).
So in all, it took me 20 years to conceive of and write Dream Country.
What do you hope readers will take away from DREAM COUNTRY?
Wow, so many things!
First and foremost, I hope that readers will allow themselves to have their own, individual experiences, and integrate parts of themselves and their stories, questions, and own personal histories with those in the book. That is the best part of having a novel out in the world -- especially one like this, that you have been wrestling with for so long -- watching readers have their own, particular interactions with it. So many times, they see things that you have not seen, since so much of writing and art is about the unconscious.
But one thing I do hope that readers take from Dream Country is that in many ways, you cannot tell African American history without telling Liberian history at the same time. And that, conversely, Liberian history is immutably tied to African American history. That is one thing that each group, and Americans in general, have not really admitted, seen, to come to terms with yet. And I think it's time to have this conversation.
I also hope that the book provides space for folks to talk about intergenerational trauma -- how things get passed down, particularly the silences, and what that does to people in a family and in the larger communities. The chasms speak, even when they are not saying anything.
ABOUT THE BOOKDream Country
by Shannon Gibney
Dutton Books for Young Readers
Dream Country begins in suburban Minneapolis at the moment when seventeen-year-old Kollie Flomo begins to crack under the strain of his life as a Liberian refugee. He's exhausted by being at once too black and not black enough for his African American peers and worn down by the expectations of his own Liberian family and community. When his frustration finally spills into violence and his parents send him back to Monrovia to reform school, the story shifts. Like Kollie, readers travel back to Liberia, but also back in time, to the early twentieth century and the point of view of Togar Somah, an eighteen-year-old indigenous Liberian on the run from government militias that would force him to work the plantations of the Congo people, descendants of the African American slaves who colonized Liberia almost a century earlier. When Togar's section draws to a shocking close, the novel jumps again, back to America in 1827, to the children of Yasmine Wright, who leave a Virginia plantation with their mother for Liberia, where they're promised freedom and a chance at self-determination by the American Colonization Society. The Wrights begin their section by fleeing the whip and by its close, they are then the ones who wield it. With each new section, the novel uncovers fresh hope and resonating heartbreak, all based on historical fact.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Have you had a chance to read DREAM COUNTRY yet? Have you had a book idea you were scared to write but would not let you go? Have you traveled to other countries to do research for your book? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!
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