At the age of 23, author Shannon Gibney was awarded a prestigious Carnegie Mellon fellowship and traveled to Ghana to research the connections between African Americans and continental Africans. While there, she stumbled upon the history of Liberia—colonized in the 19th century by freed African American slaves only to recreate the conditions of oppression they had fled from in America. It was a story that held her captive for twenty years, wrestling with whether or not she had the right to tell the story and wondering whether she had the writing chops to honor it.
Dream Country is the result of many drafts and narrative threads that finally coalesced into a novel that spans four generations of an African American family with ties to Liberia.
Kollie is a young Liberian refugee attending high school at Brooklyn Park High School. There, he becomes the target of discrimination by African American students who harass him for being too African. There is a distinction made between the two groups and Kollie tires of the constant fights and slurs thrown his way. He fights back and is expelled and his once promising life in America is gutted when his father sends him back to Liberia. Though he will return many years later, he and his family will never be the same.
Yasmine is a young widow, mother of four, who through the efforts of the American Colonization Society is convinced that she can provide a better life for her children in Liberia. Once there, the family must learn to farm through droughts and drenching rains and flooding. They are not welcomed by the indigenous tribes and life is not only difficult but dangerous. Through the years of loss and toil, she becomes head of the most prosperous farms in Monrovia and soon has indigenous servants that she mistreats as she had been mistreated.
Each story as compelling as the last, Gibney writes back and forth through time and continents. Togar flees into the bush in 1926 to escape the militia determined to force him to work the plantations of the African American slaves who colonized Liberia decades earlier. Ujay an Evelyn fall in love on the cusp of the 1980 revolution. Angel, Kollie’s sister, tries to tell the story of her broken family while creating a new kind of family of her own.
Gibney is a master story-teller. Her research is thorough and she expertly weaves together the stories of her characters. More importantly, Gibney is a writer who is careful not to misrepresent the truth or inflate it for the sake of propelling the story forward. Dream Country introduced me to a history that I’d not been taught, shocking in its profundity and compelling in its implications over the generations. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back of the book – it tells the story behind the story. Dream Country, Shannon writes, “is for all those on the continent and in the diaspora who feel they have no home due to the relentless violence of colonialism and enduring systems of white supremacy . . . It is for anyone anywhere who has tried to make themselves whole through small pieces of a larger story they could cobble together. It is for everything we have forgotten, and what we dream.”
I recommend Dream Country for fans of Homegoing and Behold the Dreamers.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, MN and on the web at www.wtip.org and my blog http://www.superiorreads.blog.