For 10 years, Shannon Gibney has been researching a novel, letting the story sit and marinate, and then finally writing “Dream Country.”The process started even more than ten years ago. When she was in her early 20s, Gibney took a trip of self discovery to West Africa. “I was looking for stories” she says. “Stories about Africa, and ultimately the African-American Diaspora.”
After six months of traveling, Gibney found a story that changed the trajectory of her writing and life. She stumbled across a camp of refugees from the Liberian Civil War. She saw a flag. “To me it looked like the American flag,” Gibney says. “I asked my Liberian friend why there was an American flag. She looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you know your history? African-Americans colonized Liberia.’”
Gibney couldn’t believe there was so much history connected to Liberian and African-American roots that she knew nothing about. Initially, she was reluctant to take on the story. “I knew this story was big” said Gibney. “It deals with war, and racism, and resettlement, and trauma, and all this history.”
After almost ten years of rumination, Gibney traveled back to West Africa to begin the next leg of her journey with the story.
Gibney is a professor at Minnesota Community and Technical College. That environment is a “really singular place in the Twin Cities” according to Gibney. “It’s one of the only places where you can actually have conversations — real conversations — between African and African-American students.”
The stories she tells in “Dream Country” resonated deeply with students because they had lived similar experiences. The result of that provocation has been conversations about under-told stories — for example, about the American Colonization Society, which was a U.S. organization founded in 1816 of primarily white male slave owners that was active until after the Civil War. Explains Gibney: “They pooled their political resources in an effort to ‘send African-Americans back home’ in order to stem the growing free black population.”
Gibney wants to see “Dream Country” and other books, texts, and art that engages immigrants, refugees, communities of color, and other historically marginalized people about the major issues they face daily.
Such as, “erasure of their history and culture, pushing for self-determination, linking their country of origin with their new home,” says Gibney. “You can’t ‘other’ people, when you connect with the complexities of their stories.”
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of “See No Color” (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), which won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples’ Literature. Her new novel “Dream Country” has been published by Dutton.
“Dream Country” Excerpt
This excerpt is from a scene set in 1827, when Yasmine Wright, an African-American who has been working on a Quaker plantation in Virginia, decides to leave the states with her children, and become part of the new American Colonization Society colony of Liberia. This is the first moment she and her family step foot on African soil.
Yasmine took a look around the peninsula that they had abandoned Virginia, the Medgar house, and the Scott plantation for. Cape Mesurado was a towering mound of rock, clay, and sand above them, rising higher in the sky than many of the buildings she had seen in Norfolk. The Atlantic Ocean slammed onto the coast with a deafening crash — she wondered if she could ever get used to it.
There was an enveloping mist that seemed to cover everything, and standing pools of water weaved in between the rocky edges of the coast, with mosquitos buzzing above them. But it was the ubiquitous and uncontrollable green that unsettled her the most. She couldn’t even explain why, which was even more troubling.
The sheer audacity of the leaves, branches, mangrove swamps, flora and fauna of all types could not be undone. Houses would be built, roads made, brush cleared, but there was a certain wildness that the land would never yield.
Then there were the savages; the ship captain had called them “Kru.” They had come up beside them, in thin dugout canoes of some sort as they entered the harbor. They had the blackest skin she had ever seen, and faces permanently marked with blue. (“Mama, we get new faces like that, now that we here?” Big George had asked her excitedly, as they prepared to board the boat.)
These Kru wore long tan robes, bracelets, and other jewelry. There was raw power in their command of each stroke, and they looked into the eyes of the colonists fearlessly, shouting to the crewmen in a guttural and clipped language. The hawk-nosed white man saw Yasmine staring and whispered violently in her ear, “Like staring in the face of some terrifying nothingness, some yawning void, isn’t it? But then, the real stupefying thing is that you strangely are drawn to it. A fearful sensation, ain’t it?”
Yasmine recoiled and wiped the man’s spit from her cheek. Lani began to fuss.
You said you wanted freedom, James whispered in her ear. But you weren’t prepared for this much. She sucked her teeth and hushed him away. “Listen, you long-dead husband. Unless you fixing to take up a hoe or a pistol in the name of your family, you best go ’way.”
Mercifully, he was silent after that. Yasmine pulled Nolan and Little George to her and glanced behind her, to make sure that Lani was still safe on her back.
“Mama, they black, like us,” Nolan said, his eyes growing bigger by the moment.
Little George snickered. “Boy, they ain’t Negroes. What you got up in that big head of yours —peanuts?”
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