It wasn’t easy to pin down an interview with Imbolo Mbue, the 39-year-old novelist whose first book, 2016’s Behold the Dreamers—a dissection of capitalism, class, and the American dream set during the Great Recession—went on to become a New York Times bestseller, an Oprah Book Club pick, and the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. But the scheduling challenges weren’t any person’s fault. On March 12, in an attempt to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency for New York City, where Mbue lives with her husband and children. So, instead of meeting in person, she answered questions via Skype from her Midtown apartment, casually dressed in a denim shirt, her hair up in a bun, during a brief break from figuring out what exactly one does during a pandemic.
In a way, there was something appropriate about the timing. Mbue’s latest novel, How Beautiful We Were (Random House, July), follows the residents of Kosawa, a fictional African village that’s been devastated over the course of several generations by a greedy American oil company and the corrupt national government. The village children are dying from contaminated drinking water and the land can no longer produce medicinal herbs. Finally, the villagers determine that no one will help them—they’ll have to fight back. Among them is a child named Thula, who goes on to lead a movement aimed at bringing democracy to her people and a redemption of their ancestral land.
It’s an epic work tackling a number of brutal realities: the question of whether we protect ourselves or the greater community, how anger manifests in those who have been exploited for others’ gain (and further entrenches those determined to stay in power), and how a willful ignorance of the ways we are inextricably tied together threatens to destroy us all.
“We are so connected, and I think that, for better or worse, my novel deals with globalization,” Mbue says. “We are seeing the perils of globalization right now. People pay prices for other people’s actions in other parts of the world.”
Growing up in the coastal town of Limbe, Cameroon, Mbue was always different. “I was a bookish kid, and in the place I’m from, people don’t really read books,” she says. She came to America at 17 to attend Rutgers University; How Beautiful We Were’s Thula comes to the United States at the same age for her studies.
“I also grew up in Africa in a time when people were trying to fight back,” Mbue says. “There were a lot of revolutionaries in my childhood, not in my country but all over Africa. So even as a child, I always had this love and admiration for dissidents and revolutionaries and protestors.”
Though Mbue shares some attributes with her heroine, their lives took very different tracks. While Thula becomes a revolutionary, Mbue earned her bachelor’s in business administration and, later, her master’s from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 2009, after she’d been laid off from her job in market research, she noticed black drivers waiting at the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle for white executives. That moment sparked Behold the Dreamers.
The novel’s central character, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who gets a job chauffeuring a Lehman Brothers executive, sold for a rumored seven figures in 2014—the same year Mbue became an American citizen. But before the book sold, she says she faced “years of rejection.” She adds, “It was more like a roller coaster than like smooth sailing, you know?”
Mbue is a private person—so private that when her agent was sending out Behold the Dreamers to publishers, they would google her name, “and there was nothing, because I just didn’t even exist on the internet,” she says, laughing. “Then I got a book deal, and then my name appeared on the internet, and then my picture appeared on the internet, which was actually funny, because there was no picture of me on the internet before.”
Mbue says she cares deeply about maintaining space to do what is true to her, supporting the solace of “a cocoon” in which to think and create without getting caught up in what other people want. “You have to know yourself.” So she’s not on social media. A friend manages her Facebook page. She prefers not to talk about her kids or her husband (who reads all of her press “but knows not to say a word to me”). She doesn’t even enjoy talking much about herself, outside of her writing.
But there is one personal anecdote Mbue loves to tell. A few years after moving to America, she visited a library in Falls Church, Va., where she encountered Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, an Oprah Book Club pick. It inspired her to start writing, though at the time she kept her work a secret from her friends and family, considering it just a hobby. Then in 2017, when Mbue’s first novel, Behold the Dreamers, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, Mbue received a call from Winfrey herself. “I said, ‘You won’t believe it, but you, your Book Club, is what affected me and got me to start writing, actually.’ Oprah responded, ‘Oh my God, why haven’t I heard this story before?’ ”
How Beautiful We Were, which Mbue describes as an incredibly difficult book to write—“a love song to anybody with the strength to overthrow a system”—has been nearly two decades in the making. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you write such timely books,’ ” she says. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean, timely? I’ve been writing something that was on my mind in 2002!’ Nobody was talking about the oil industry when I was writing this book. I was thinking about a story that mattered to me.”
Mbue returned to the novel in 2016, after Behold the Dreamers. “I knew that I had to write the story that had been haunting me,” she says. “And then after Mr. Trump won the election, there was all this hysteria, and I just was like, ‘You guys just continue your noise and hysteria. I’m just going to work on my story.’ It was a wonderful, wonderful sense of solace, having this story.”
How Beautiful We Were went through “a gazillion drafts,” says Mbue, who poured herself into the task, spurred by an innate curiosity and a sense of herself as an observer informed by two very different worlds. “I’ve seen such a range of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to stand up, and what it means to have a voice. I think America really shaped my mind, and Cameroon shaped my character.”
Mbue didn’t hesitate to ask the hard questions, to dive into those stories behind the story: What is it like to be a freedom fighter, or a revolutionary, or a dissident? What are the sacrifices you make? And what sacrifices do your family make? And what price do you pay?
When asked if she’s nervous about preparing to publish a book in the midst of a pandemic, she shakes her head. “I just don’t want to make anything worse. We want it to be over as soon as possible, so we all have to do our part. And hopefully it is over soon.” Then she adds, “I am very much at peace, because it was a story I had to tell, and I told it, and my part is mostly done.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).