Welcome to my world

Vamba Sherif
photo: Chris van Houts

I am a novelist foremost, but I’ve written stories and journalistic work for The New York Times, The French magazine Long Cours, a subsidiary of L’Express, the German magazine Kultur Aaustauch, and for various Dutch newspapers and magazines like Trouw, De Volkskrant, One World, and many others. Occasionally I dabble in acting and I have a passion for films some of which I review on a monthly basis.

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 at an early age 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, the novels of Tolstoy, 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.