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Author Imbolo Mbue near her home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., on Feb. 15, 2021.LAUREN LANCASTER/The New York Times News Service

In the home where Imbolo Mbue grew up, in Limbe, a coastal town in Cameroon, there was no television. The radio brought the news, and it was from the radio that Mbue followed the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Nigerian environmentalists who were confronting Shell Oil. The Dutch multinational had extracted millions of barrels of oil from their home in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta, poisoning the land and the water in the process. Nigeria’s military dictatorship had imprisoned Saro-Wiwa and eight more activists who helped lead the opposition; there was a global campaign, including pleas from the Vatican and the government of Canada, to free them. “I became very emotionally invested in it and I spent a lot of time praying that Ken Saro-Wiwa would be set free,” Mbue recalled recently. “And then one day I came back from school and I found out that he and his co-environmentalists had been hanged. And I was devastated. I was really devastated.”

This was 1995. Mbue had never heard the term ‘environmentalist’; she couldn’t imagine what the Delta looked like, its latticework of creeks and streams choked with leaking oil. But her imagination was caught by the heroism in this story. It stayed with her as she moved to the United States in 1998, first to study, and then to join the immigrant hustle, washing dishes, selling vacuums door to door. It came back to her when she read Saro-Wiwa’s books for the first time, as an undergraduate at Rutgers University – and when she glowered at each Shell gas station she passed. And the story was with her when, in 2002, she picked up a copy of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon at a public library, and decided, all at once, that this was what she wanted to, do, too: write.

“I was like, ‘Oh I’m going to start writing.’ Nobody told me, ‘You need to know how to write in order to start writing.’ Which is probably for the best, that would have just been an obstacle.” Imbue, on the phone from New York, gave her signature enormous laugh at the idea.

She began work right then on a book of her own, about a girl from a village called Kosawa, where the creeks are fouled by crude and the air is thick with the flares from the oil wells and the graveyard is full of tiny coffins and the oil company operates with an impunity brutally protected by the dictatorship. By now she was working days answering phones at a dentist’s office and selling lingerie at Nordstrom, and she worked on the book in stolen moments. “It was a place of solace for me.”

Come 2014, Mbue sold a manuscript to Random House in a deal worth more than US$1-million. Sony bought the film rights, with George Clooney to direct. That novel was an Oprah book, on every bestseller list; reviews described it as the 21st-century incarnation of the Great American Novel.

But this wasn’t a book about an African village struggling against an oil company. This was Behold the Dreamers, an immigrant story, about a Cameroonian named Jende Jonga who gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a wealthy executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende’s wife, Neni, joins him in the U.S., studying chemistry with the hope of becoming a pharmacist, and also begins to work for the Edwards family, serving canapés at parties, taking care of their child, cleaning their beach house. When the financial crash comes, it upends all of their lives.

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The Associated Press

So what happened to the village story? Mbue had imagined she might just keep writing it for the rest of her life. Then one day in early 2011 she was out on a walk and passed the Time-Warner building in Manhattan, where a line of chauffeurs stood waiting by shiny black cars. Mbue noted that many appeared to be African immigrants, and asked a friend what kind of a person has a chauffeur, in America. Wall Street guys, was the reply. “And I thought, ‘What is their relationship like? What would happen to it in the financial crisis?’”

Mbue went home, put Kosawa aside, and began that story. “It had never even occurred to me that I could write anything else: I was so invested in just this one story. So when I started writing Behold the Dreamers, it was such a joyful occasion because I had left this fictional African village, which was in my head, and I was writing about the people living in the city in which I was living. They were taking the subway, they were in Columbus Circle, they were walking down streets that I walked down, too. So it was such a breath of fresh air.”

By the time she had this story down on paper, she knew a bit about how publishing worked (more on that, in a minute) and she relentlessly stalked Jonathan Franzen’s agent. This led to the sale of Behold the Dreamers and a surreal phone call Mbue made to her mother back home. “I called at 2 a.m. Cameroon time, because I didn’t want her to hear about it first on social media. I said, ‘Oh, I got a book deal.’ She was like, ‘What do you mean? What do you mean you’re a writer?’” Mbue tried to explain that she had been working for some time on a novel (well, two, actually.) “‘And a publisher wants to publish it’ … And she was like, ‘Oh boy, I have no idea how I am going to explain this to other people.’” Mbue laughed so hard at the memory she could barely get the words out.

When the whirlwind promotion for Dreamers was over, and she contemplated what to do next, she thought she might just chop up that first manuscript and use bits and pieces of it in short stories. “But then I couldn’t. The moment Behold the Dreamers came out it was like: ‘You know what you need to do.’ That voice said, ‘You know you have to go back and finish that stuff. You know you have to finish it.’ So that’s what I did.”

When she returned to the story of Kosawa, the environmental angle took on even greater importance, she said. She had the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in mind, and environmental damage caused by Chevron in the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador, and the battle over water resources at Standing Rock and the fight of the community of Parkersburg, W.V., against the chemical company DuPont.

But even with the new validation for her identity as a writer, Mbue struggled to finish her first-turned-second book. “I was like, I’ve been writing this for so long I don’t know how to not be writing this novel.” Her editor finally wrestled it out of her hands, and How Beautiful We Were was slated for publication in June of last year. Then the pandemic began, and publishing was thrown into total upheaval. By that point Mbue had progressed from not being ready to let go – to being desperate to have the book in the world and out of her brain. When Random House decided to postpone publication until the following spring, she was shattered. “I just couldn’t imagine having to wait another 11 months for it.”

Mbue fled the perpetual sirens of the early pandemic in Manhattan to shelter in the Hudson Valley with her husband and children. She used the startling disruption of her usual routine of writing and speaking and flying off to literary events to learn Spanish, and also French, which she has honed by attending services through ‘Zoom church’ broadcasts by congregations in France and in Cote d’Ivoire.

How Beautiful We Were is the story of Thula, the girl who survives a childhood in the poisoned air and water of Kosawa to go to America, where she learns about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Wounded Knee, and comes home to lead her people in a showdown with Pemex, the oil company, and its political backers.

Mbue had learned to be a writer with this story. When she began, she said, “I didn’t know the first thing about plot or character or pacing. I didn’t know jack squat. I just had this idea, ‘Oh, there was this girl in this village and the villagers are fighting this corporation’ and I just started writing. And it was really, really awful writing. It was just plain awful.” But it didn’t matter. “That was the beauty of not having an audience. Nobody knew who Imbolo Mbue was. Up to the day I got a book deal, you couldn’t find my name on the internet. So there was that freedom.”

In about 2011, a friend who met a literary agent told the woman about Mbue “who is always writing” and the agent offered to read her work. “She said, ‘This is nowhere close to being ready but you have the gift of beautiful writing.’” It was the first time Mbue had been given an opinion on her work by anyone other than her close friends, none of them writers (“I didn’t really trust their opinions”) and it was immensely encouraging.

Utterly ignorant of how the whole business worked (“How do books end up in bookstores? I have no idea”) she had unwittingly taught herself how to spin out a story. “If I was focused on being published, I don’t think I would have written a book like How Beautiful We Were.” Now she began to imagine Kosawa not simply as a place she would inhabit in her mind, but as a book out in the world.

It’s a book about questions, she says, about how to fight, and how much to sacrifice, and what power does to people, even the “good” ones. Thula’s admiration for Martin Luther King echoes Mbue’s own, for Saro-Wiwa and other African heroes such as Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba. Thula takes what she learns from them, and adds to it her own relentlessness. “The last line of the first chapter – ‘They should have known we wouldn’t be easily defeated,’ Mbue mused. “It’s like, ‘Even if you’re going to defeat us, we are going to let you know that we are proud people’ … It’s a celebration of daring to stand up.” It’s a celebration she has been waiting to share for nearly 30 years, since she first dashed home from school to catch the news on the radio.

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