Imbolo Mbue on the Post-Colonial Greed of the
The Author of How Beautiful We Were Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Imbolo Mbue is a gifted storyteller with a keen sense of the human repercussions of social dislocation. Born and raised in Cameroon, she came to the US to study at Rutgers and Columbia. Inspired by the 2008 recession, her first novel, Behold the Dreamers, follows a family who have emigrated from Cameroon to New York and begun an upward trajectory, only to be derailed when the drastic economic downturn hits. Behold the Dreamers won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, was longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award, and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. In our bicoastal conversation (she in New York, I in Sonoma County, CA), we discussed inspirations for her new novel, the process through which she crafted it, her upbringing in Cameroon, and how her work has been affected during the cascade of events over the past year.
Jane Ciabattari: You have said you started How Beautiful We Were in 2002, before Behold the Dreamers was published. What was the inspiration? Why did you set it aside? What had changed when you returned to it? How did shifting the point of view—with the focus on a rotating cast of children of the village—change the story?
Imbolo Mbue: I did indeed begin writing the novel in 2002—it was the very first thing I started writing when I decided to experience what it was like to write. Of course, I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel but I found the process entirely enjoyable even if my writing itself was a mess. I spent the next nine years writing the story, and didn’t put it aside until I got the inspiration to write something else—what would later become Behold the Dreamers.
After BTD was published, I went right back to it—thankfully I’d grown quite a bit as a writer and so the story was able to come into clearer focus, including the fact that it would be told mostly from the point of view of the children of the village. The tragedies in Sandy Hook and Flint had also deeply affected me and I wanted to explore what it was like to be a child struggling to make sense of a world in which people in power appear to be so much at ease with sacrificing them.
JC: The opening lines of your new novel set the stage: “We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead.” So many in the village had died from the poisons that infiltrated their world the day Pexton came drilling for oil. How is Kosawa, the fictional West African village where your new novel is set, like Limbe, where you grew up in Cameroon?
IM: Well, they both have oil, which is why even at a young age I was very aware of the politics of oil. Unlike Kosawa, Limbe did not have environmental degradation caused by oil exploration but both places are located in countries ruled by dictators who do a good job of channeling the oil wealth away from the people. Limbe is also a town (quite cosmopolitan these days) while Kosawa is a village but our house in Limbe was in a neighborhood that felt like a small village, and we generally refer to those born in the same year as us as our age-mates.
JC: The poisonous effect of mining on the land and people brings to mind Nigeria’s ongoing pollution from the oil industry and the activist reactions against it, tamped down by the military. How did Nigerian and other conflicts in Africa influence your story?
IM: The destruction of the environment for the sake of profit is happening all over the world, including right here in the US. Kosawa might be in Africa but I drew inspiration from environmental crises in several continents, including the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, DuPont’s cover-up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and certainly the situation in the Niger Delta, specifically the hanging of a great Nigerian environmentalist named Ken Saro-Wiwa, an event that very much troubled me.
JC: Can you mention the dictators whose behavior influenced your depiction of the composite dictator in How Beautiful We Were?
IM: Africa has had no shortage of criminals masquerading as presidents, so I had no shortage of inspiration in that department. The dictator in the novel, His Excellency, is a composite of some of the wildest of them—Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Muamar Gadaffi, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Robert Mugabe, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and of course the one currently serving in my beloved homeland.The destruction of the environment for the sake of profit is happening all over the world, including right here in the US.
JC: In your opening chapters the cast of narrators are young children. Then they grow up: “We spoke about it daily, from the time we were seventeen, about the day we would repay Pexton in full.” Thula heads to America in 1988 “to read even more books.” Like Thula, you came to the US to study, at Rutgers and Columbia. What were your major subjects? How did your perspective change? At some point did you become aware of the destructive elements, including greed, that connected dictators and the oil industry and eroded the health of the people and the natural world?
IM: I did indeed attend college in the US—I studied business management (my original plan was to study accounting but I could barely get past Accounting 101; that was all the writing on the wall I needed). College was certainly a time of great discovery for me, like it is for many young people. Thula’s American college experience was however very different from mine—I was mostly concerned about what kind of job I’d get after graduation while she was strategizing how to fight a multinational oil company.
JC: Over time, in her letters home, Thula ponders: “Think about it, Pexton isn’t acting alone. They only have power over us because our government gave them our land… our ultimate enemy is not Pexton, it’s our government.” She outlines a revolutionary movement, builds support, teaches and plans for Liberation Day. Which of the brave women and men who fought back inspired your character Thula?
IM: The list is long—daring men and women of the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the women’s rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogboni Nine of Nigeria, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, and a host of dissidents and revolutionaries across the world.
JC: Where have you been during this time of COVID and political turmoil? In New York? How has your work been affected by the cascade of events over this past year?
IM: Yes, I am still in the great state of New York. I’ve been reading quite a bit (recently finished The Dead Are Rising by Les Payne and Tamara—excellent! masterful!) and I also picked up weight-lifting as a hobby so I spend quite a bit of time at the gym these days.
JC: Are you able to mention what you have in the works now?
IM: Right now I’m reading How Beautiful We Were in French, and I must say the French translator did a wonderful job!