In ‘Dream Country,’ Minnesota Book Award-winner Shannon Gibney confronts ‘history that hasn’t been confronted’ – Twin Cities

“The African-American story cannot be told fully without also telling the Liberian one,” Shannon Gibney says of her new young-adult novel “Dream Country.” It’s a smart, many-layered and sometimes challenging book for smart people who want to learn as they read.

In this story, which took Gibney 20 years to research, think about and write, she exposes a little-known secret embedded in the early days of that West African country — freed American slaves who were early settlers (known as Americo-Liberians or the Congo people) colonized the undeveloped land, pushing indigenous Africans out of the way.

“It’s fascinating to me, as an African American, that we were the oppressors,” says Gibney, who lives in Minneapolis with her two American-Liberian children. “In ‘Dream Country,’ I, as an American, am confronting history that has not been confronted.”

“Dream Country” moves between the United States and Liberia from 1827 to 2018, following five generations of young people in one African-American family. The novel received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal.

“Africa’s history is underrepresented in American literature,” Gibney points out, and she knows what she’s talking about. She earned a master’s degree in 20th century African-American literature and an MFA from Indiana University’s graduate creative-writing program. Now a member of the English faculty at Minneapolis College (formerly Minneapolis Community and Technical College), Gibney teaches African diaspora studies as well as composition, which incorporates arts, literature and creative activity.

A STORY OF SECRETS

Her novel begins in Minneapolis in 2008, when 17-year-old Liberian refugee Kollie is about to explode under the pressure of  being both too African but not black enough for his peers. There are fights in his high school between African and African-American boys, who refer to the Liberian boys as “stupid jungle bitches.” When Kollie becomes involved in selling drugs, his parents decide to send him back to Liberia.

“This is (another) story not being told,” Gibney says. “In  some immigrant families, parents don’t know what to do about their sons who are getting into trouble.” As one father in the novel says, “He can be angry at us but he will be alive” if he’s sent back to Liberia.

One of Gibney’s strengths as a writer, along with vividly setting scenes, is her spot-on depiction of  young people such as Kollie. At Minneapolis College, which is 60 percent students of color, young Somali women tell her, “we know Kollie.”

Next, we meet Yasmine, who endures hardships after she and her children run away from a Virginia plantation in 1827, bound for a new colony in the so-called homeland they’ve never seen. Many, like her, were persuaded to make the journey by the American Colonization Society, made up of white elites who wanted the freed slaves out of this country.

The story returns to Liberia in 1926 when Togar, an 18-year-old indigenous husband and father, flees into the bush to escape a militia determined to force him to work the plantations of the descendants of the African-American slaves who colonized Liberia a century earlier. When Togar is caught, he witnesses soldiers’ horrifying brutality that recalls cruel slave days in the United States.

Then the narrative jumps to 1980, when young lovers Ujay and Evelyn are caught in Liberia’s fast-approaching revolution. Sparked by the assassination of the president, the country is destabilized, and in 1989, the first of two civil wars begins, leading to 15 years of warfare. (Gibney includes a helpful two-page selected timeline of major events in Liberian history.)

‘DREAM COUNTRY’ WOULDN’T LET HER GO

Gibney’s writing career began with a bang, when she won a 2016 Minnesota Book Award for her debut novel, “See No Color,” drawn from her life as a transracial adoptee.

Born in 1975 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Shannon was adopted by Jim and Sue Gibney, along with her biological brothers, one older and one younger.

“My parents were fantastic, supportive of me in every aspect,” she recalls. “I didn’t experience any overt racism growing up in the era of colorblindness. But ‘I don’t see color’ was not helpful to a black girl in a majority white community. It was more that I knew I was different.”

When Gibney was 15, her father gave her James Baldwin’s “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” a book that changed her life, making her “see possibilities of the written word.” So it was natural for her to major in creative writing and Spanish at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, graduating with highest honors.

Thanks to the school’s Alumni Study/Travel Award, Gibney was able to travel to Ghana, where many Liberians were in refugee camps after fleeing their country during the civil war.

“When I stepped into the Gomoa Buduburam Refugee Camp just outside of Accra, Ghana, in 1998, I had no idea that it would change the trajectory of both my life and my writing,” she writes in an Author’s Note. “I was twenty-three years old, on a year-long research fellowship in West Africa, searching out connections between African Americans and continental Africans. The knowledge and history I stumbled onto talking to the Liberian refugees at Gomoa Buduburam would haunt me for years to come, and later compel me to struggle through the many drafts, voices, and narrative threads that finally became ‘Dream Country.’ ”

Shannon was befuddled when she saw what she thought was the American flag strung up on a pole in the middle of the make-shift camp. Her hosts told her that was the flag of Liberia and  wanted to know why she didn’t know that Liberia had been colonized “by your own people,” freed American slaves.

Returning to the United States, Gibney learned everything she could about Liberia, struggling for years with understanding the relationship of the black American settlers to the indigenous Africans they oppressed.

“How might I explore it in fiction?” she asked herself. “Did I even have the writing chops to do so? More important, did I have the right to represent this subject matter in a novel, given my black Americanness.”

Because the idea of “Dream Country” wouldn’t let Gibney go, in 2008 she returned to West Africa and to Liberia, where she talked to everyone about the run-up to the 1980 coup that plunged the country into its long civil war.

While Shannon was in Monrovia (the capital), she met Ballah Corvah, a Liberian college student who helped her navigate the culture as her research assistant. They fell in love and were married in Ghana a year and a half later.

“He says I was wandering around looking confused and he thought he should help,” Gibney recalls with amusement. The couple is divorced, but Corvah lives two streets away so their children, 8-year-old Boisey, a third-grader at Bancroft Elementary School, and daughter Marwein, who will be 4 in October, see their dad often in what Gibney calls “the distinctly Liberian home” Corvah shares with his sister. His parents are here now, having arrived in spring. Because it’s so difficult to get a visa, Liberians who come to visit stay awhile.

Gibney moved to Minneapolis in 2002 and learned the history of issues in the Twin Cities black community by working for three years as managing editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder newspaper.

“I enjoyed reporting. Writing is all about telling stories,” Gibney says. “I have always been a multi-genre writer and always will be. Every story has a different flavor depending on the way you put it.”

SHE WON’T BACK DOWN

Gibney is an outgoing woman who’s straightforward about the things she cares about — racism, classicism, historical treatment of those who are “queer, nonconforming, differently abled.”

In 2009, several white students charged her with discrimination because she suggested that hanging a noose (hung by a white male as a joke to prompt his reporters to get their copy in on time) in the newsroom of the campus newspaper might alienate students of color. In 2013, she led a discussion on structural racism in a mass communications class and three white students filed a discrimination complaint because they felt uncomfortable. She was reprimanded by the school under their anti-discrimination policy.

Gibney, who loves teaching, fought back. She ignored advice of friends that she should keep quiet and got out in front of the story by going to the media and framing it her way.

“In my estimation there were many political and racial crosscurrents that precipitated this,” Gibney says, including the fact that some students had never seen a black woman in a position of authority and that there are widespread institutional practices against professionals of color.

Gibney was exonerated and there is new leadership at the school. So she can get on with what she feels so strongly about, “working with our students, some older, first generation, exploring how they can tell stories of their own lives.”

Returning to “Dream Country,”  the final section takes place in Minneapolis in 2018, bringing the novel full circle. A young lesbian in love (her identity is a surprise) finishes a manuscript that tells her family’s story. She shops for a wedding dress with her mother and is a happy dreamer who offers hope for the future.

A question Gibney could answer in another book is whether the descendants of the freed slaves and the indigenous Africans in Liberia have made their peace in the 21st century.

“A lot depends on who you talk to,” she says. “I am not a historian. I write fiction. At the end of the day, I am most interested not in historical truth but emotional truth.”

IF YOU GO

What: Shannon Gibney gives launch readings for “Dream Country.”

When/where: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, St. Catherine University Recital Hall, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; 6:30 Monday, Sept. 17, Red Balloon Bookshop, 891 Grand Ave., St. Paul, with Bryan Bliss (“We’ll Fly Away”); 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, Shoreview Library, 4560 N. Victoria St., Shoreview, in conversation with Taiyon Coleman, professor of English at St. Catherine University.

Publisher/price: Dutton ($17.95)

Admission: Free

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