What We Ought to Do: THE SONG OF IMBOLO MBUE
Poets & Writers Magazine|March - April 2021
In her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue uses the chorus of voices in a small African village fighting for justice in the shadow of an American oil company to sing in celebration of community, connection, and enduring hope.
RENEE H. SHEA
IN THE FIRST pages of How Beautiful We Were, published by Random House in March, Imbolo Mbue writes about a “sickness that had arrived like a thief in the night,” an illness that brought fevers and “raspy coughs” until soon “death had grown more ruthless .” She writes: “They told us it would soon be over, that we would all be well in no time.”

Sounds eerily familiar, yet this is not a novel about the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite uncanny similarities to the present—and unlike much contemporary dystopian fiction about environmental collapse—the second novel by the Cameroonian-born author is a more realistic saga about taking a stand against all odds. Thriving in the shadow of colonialism in the fictional African village of Kosawa, the multinational corporation Pexton profits from the oil beneath the land without regard for the air and water, which has “progressed from dirty to deadly,” as the country’s dictatorial leader enjoys the wealth and privilege that accompanies this arrangement. It is such intricacies of power that Mbue, who calls herself “a student of human complexity,” explored in her first novel, Behold the Dreamers (Random House, 2016), and that she spreads onto a larger, more dramatic canvas in How Beautiful We Were.

Zooming from the Hudson Valley region of New York, where she has settled during the pandemic, Mbue says she is looking forward to the March 2021 launch of How Beautiful We Were, delayed almost a year from its original publication date of June 2020 because of COVID-19. She muses that she is perfecting her Spanish and French as she continues to shelter in place, hoping to return to her home in New York City soon while her schedule fills up with online events to promote the new book. But then, a few more months hardly seem to matter for a novel that has taken its time—nearly two decades—to come to fruition.

Mbue wrote most of the opening chapter of How Beautiful We Were after the election of 2016, a time when she “couldn’t have imagined such a thing as this pandemic, nobody could,” she says. Still, “it was a dark time for America and the world,” she points out. “Being present with that pain and frustration allowed me to go to that village and see through the eyes of children.”

But it was actually fourteen years earlier, when Mbue was in her early twenties, that she started what turned into this sweeping story of corporate greed, environmental degradation, and grassroots movements for change. Even in those early years when she hadn’t yet imagined herself as a writer, she believed she had a story to tell: “Even as a child, I was very aware of injustice, of inequality, so when I finally started writing, this was the only story I wanted to tell. It was about a village and what happened when the people decided to fight against far more powerful forces than themselves. It was always about oil and a country led by a dictator, and I spent many years writing and rewriting. Finally, I had to put it aside because I wasn’t equipped— as a writer or a person—to tell a story of this magnitude.”

Having come to the United States from Cameroon in 1998, when she was seventeen, Mbue went on to receive a BA in business management from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in education and psychology from Columbia Teachers College. An avid reader from childhood, she learned her craft from great literature, citing the influence of Shakespeare, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, the Bible. In 2011, in the midst of the financial crisis, she had her inspirational moment walking through Columbus Circle in New York City, where a line of limousines awaited their wealthy passengers. She describes wondering how or if the drivers talked with the titans of industry and finance who were in the back seat. That curiosity led to Behold the Dreamers, the story of two vastly different families: a chauffeur, Jende Jonga, and his wife, Neni, who are immigrants from Cameroon, and Clark Edwards, whose position at Lehman Brothers makes him and his wife, Cindy, part of the powerful 1 percent.

David Ebershoff, an editor at Random House and the author of the best-selling novel The Danish Girl (Viking, 2000), describes his certainty of Mbue’s success upon first reading the manuscript. “When her agent, Susan Golomb, sent the manuscript to me, and I dove into the story of two families, one Cameroonian, one American, both in New York City, I knew,” he says. “I knew I was reading a powerful novel by a masterful storyteller working in the biggest themes of American life—race, class, immigration, gender, equality, and opportunity. I knew one day Imbolo would be a literary star. I knew readers would fall in love with her characters and her writing. I knew how rare her gifts are, and I knew I very much wanted to be her editor.”

He continues: “A few days later Imbolo and Susan came to my office. As I listened to Imbolo speak about the novel and her own remarkable life, I was even more certain. The late, wonderful Susan Kamil, the publisher of Random House, was in the meeting, and afterward she and I walked Imbolo and Susan Golomb to the elevator. As the doors closed, Susan Kamil told me to call Susan and Imbolo immediately and not let them leave the building until they accepted our offer. I got them on the phone in the lobby of Penguin Random House and asked if we could be her publisher.”

Their confidence was well-founded. Acquired with a seven-figure advance, Behold the Dreamers received praise from reviewers, became an Oprah’s Book Club pick, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and has been optioned for a television miniseries. Washington Post book critic Ron Charles praised Mbue for illuminating “the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse.” His review ran under the headline “The One Novel Donald Trump Should Read Now.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM POETS & WRITERS MAGAZINEView All

Girmay Edits BOA Selections

In October 2020, BOA Editions, an indie press located in Rochester, New York, named poet Aracelis Girmay the first editor-at-large of its Blessing the Boats Selections, a line of poetry books written by women of color.

3 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

What We Ought to Do: THE SONG OF IMBOLO MBUE

In her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue uses the chorus of voices in a small African village fighting for justice in the shadow of an American oil company to sing in celebration of community, connection, and enduring hope.

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Pandemic Pen Pals

Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.

3 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Neither muscle nor mouth

Neither muscle nor mouth / devoted to one way of speaking. Every language // I borrow from somewhere else,” writes Threa Almontaser in The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, April 2021), winner of the Walt Whitman Award. In her debut Almontaser summons the language of her ancestors and family members, poets both contemporary and historical, experimental rock bands and rappers, and many more, to fashion an idiom that is both rebellious and reverent. Dedicated to the people of Yemen, the book offers a portrait of a country and its history and future. “Yemen has such an ancient and rich history, but with its current collapse, search engines show only the sad photos of starving kids,” says Almontaser. “I wanted to portray not only the war, but the beauty of Arabia Felix, of what it could still return to being.”

3 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

PANDEMIC WRITING GROUP

Finding Creativity, Community, and Play

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

New Ways of Surviving

WRITING THROUGH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Revising the Dream

PUBLISHING A DEBUT NOVEL IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Writers Confront Climate Crisis

Author and activist Toni Cade Bambara has said the role of the artist is “to make revolution irresistible.” So when Jenny Offill, author of the novels Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) and Weather (Knopf, 2020), heard about the work of Writers Rebel—the writers’ arm of Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group that works against climate change—she felt compelled to get involved.

3 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

A Room of (Almost) My Own

FINDING SPACE, AND PERMISSION, TO WRITE

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Craft Therapy

In her third book, the essay collection girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March, Melissa Febos transforms scars into meditations on culture and psychology.

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021
RELATED STORIES

Cameroon's Jet Li

A Cameroonian young man pursues his kungfu dream in China and teaches Chinese martial arts back in his country

5 mins read
China Africa (English)
February 2021

A Nail In The Coffin

2020 saw Nkunzi and MaNgcobo facing their enemies and Gabisile hiding her murders, among other storylines.

3 mins read
TVPlus - English
31 December 2020

तमिलनाडु के गांव में कमला हैरिस की जीत की प्रार्थना

अमेरिका में जारी राष्ट्रपति, उपराष्ट्रपति चुनाव में उपराष्ट्रपति पद की उम्मीदवार कमला हैरिस की जीत के लिए तमिलनाडु के तुलासेंतिरापुरम गांव के लोगों ने मंगलवार को विशेष प्रार्थना सभा का आयोजन किया।

1 min read
Dakshin Bharat Rashtramat Chennai
November 04, 2020

An ancient concept for a futuristic wind turbine

With the threat of Eskom load-shedding ever-present, and a growing need to shift to renewable energy sources, investing in an Archimedes Windmill for your home might just be the solution you need.

5 mins read
Popular Mechanics South Africa
May/June 2020

Greys and Timnehs continue to dwindle

Frequently included with the most traded of all bird species listed under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus), and the now separately recognised (from 2010) Timneh Parrot (P. timneh).

4 mins read
Parrots magazine
May 2020

A whole new you

Nonka needs to make a change – and Fikile is just the person to give her one.

3 mins read
TVPlus - English
25 March 2020

Mama's boy/daddy's boy

Terrifying Thulani Mbhele is a changed man when he rocks up at MaNgcobo’s door claiming to be MaMlambo’s son!

3 mins read
TVPlus - English
11 March 2020

Cocoa market covers the pleasant tastes and the world!

Cocoa Market size is anticipated to witness a surge in demand owing to a significant expansion in food industry as they offer better taste, texture and color with various health benefits; according to an exclusive research report by Global Market Insights, Inc.

2 mins read
Food & Ingredients Turkey
November 2019

Pirates Have To Do The Right Thing

Before the July/August transfer window slammed shut, one of the hot topics was that of Thulani Hlatshwayo possibly joining Soweto giants Orlando Pirates from Bidvest Wits, where he’s been for the last five years. Despite all that talk, the burly defender, who goes by the nickname ‘Tyson’, has remained with the Clever Boys and even penned a new deal with the 2016/17 Absa Premiership champions. Despite his expressed wish to don the famous Black and White colours of the Buccaneers, the 29-year-old is still happy to stay with the Braamfontein outfit and challenge for titles. In this interview, the Bafana Bafana captain speaks to Soccer Laduma’s Tshepang Mailwane about why he did not move to Pirates, new Bafana Bafana coach Molefi Ntseki and the ongoing 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

7 mins read
Soccer Laduma
20 November 2019

Find Quiet In The Chaos

Goukamma Nature Reserve between Knysna and Sedgefield is free from crowds but still close to all the Garden Route hot spots. Nature is the priority, and that’s a good thing.

10+ mins read
go! - South Africa
October 2019