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.”

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