‘A crazy amount of hope’: Imbolo Mbue’s new novel of impossible struggles
On the Shelf
How Beautiful We Were
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House: 384 pages, $28
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In Kosawa, the fictional African village at the heart of Imbolo Mbue’s epic new novel, “How Beautiful We Were,” the children die because the land and water have been poisoned by an American oil company. When some parents protest, they vanish, presumably killed for their efforts. Later, others are tortured, hanged or even gunned down in front of their children.
Those who continue to fight for years, even decades, encounter indifference from the corporation, antipathy from the government, tribalism from countrymen and well-intentioned but ineffective help from American activists. Even the magical realism Mbue sprinkles in is no match for the twin forces of domestic corruption and American corporate imperialism.
So it’s a little jarring when Mbue, 40, says “the story is very much about hope,” capping her thought during a video chat with a hearty, ironic laugh. She goes on to say that some of the scenes gave her nightmares.
Mbue, who came from Cameroon to America for college two decades ago and stayed, does not let her characters off easy. “There is a price to be paid for taking a stand,” she says. “When I was a child, an environmentalist in Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged to death for taking a stand against the oil companies there, and that deeply affected me.”
Yet she really does believe in the hope part, knowing that even losing battles lay the groundwork for future movements. There’s a nobility, Mbue believes, in the idea that “you carry it this far and the next generation carries it forward.”
Mbue points to Saro-Wiwa’s spiritual descendants in Nigeria, who recently earned minor victories in European courts. That’s a sign of progress, even though similar fights have ended with American courts backing the oil companies.
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Thula, the novel’s central character, grows from a determined young child to an American-educated revolutionary. She is imbued with the fierce, almost fanatical determination of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Mbue says. But in a strictly patriarchal society she must embody the line about Ginger Rogers doing all the fighting — metaphorically — backward and in high heels.
“Mandela would not have spent 27 years in prison if he didn’t believe, and Dr. King and Malcolm knew they probably would be killed,” Mbue says. “You have to have a crazy amount of hope and maybe a little bit of madness. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of madness tied to genius. That’s what Thula has.”
The author first conceived of what would become her second novel 17 years ago as purely Thula’s narrative. Its foundation was firm in her mind: A story told by “a young girl who questions her world and why nobody is doing anything to help her community,” featuring a group of young men who help fight the dictatorship and the corporation. And that was all she had. “I had no outline, no plot, I didn’t know the first thing about writing,” Mbue recalls. “I just felt, ‘This is a story I have to tell.’”
Mbue majored in business administration at Rutgers, earned a master’s in education from Columbia and went on to work in marketing. When she was laid off during the Great Recession, Mbue began writing. Her first novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” focuses on a Cameroonian immigrant struggling to stay in the U.S. while working as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive in 2008. It looks, in retrospect, like a simpler and narrower exploration of the same inequities “How Beautiful We Were” fleshes out on a larger scale.
“I’m very interested in how humans get power, use it, abuse it and lose it,” she says. Her 2016 debut earned a seven-figure advance and critical acclaim, and it emboldened her to take her old idea down from the shelf.
“When I came back to this book, I had learned a lot and was a different writer,” Mbue says.
“How Beautiful We Were” spans decades and shifts perspectives. Thula holds one chapter, but as she attains near-mythological status, we see her through chapters focused on her mother, her grandmother, her brother and, most notably, the children of the village who grew up with her (narrating in the first-person plural: “We should have known the end was near”).
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Their struggles can feel unrelenting, but interludes of communal life — including flashbacks to the courtship of Thula’s mother and father — give the narrative some breathing room. Mbue was encouraged to expand those sections by her editor, Random House publisher Andy Ward, when he read a section about a character being tortured in prison.
“The book was asking a lot of the reader to sit in that kind of bleakness for so long,” Ward says. The draft was powerful but almost overwhelming. “I said we needed to find ways to let light into the story. The people in this village have a life outside of dealing with these dark forces.” He suggested that warmer moments would “allow readers to invest more in them as people, not vehicles for the main story.”
Ward praises Mbue for the ability to fully imagine those scenes on the page — women just sitting and talking, young men undergoing a rite of passage. Yet Mbue never lets up on the throttle. “I knew to keep my focus and zoom in on the efforts of Thula and her friends,” she says, “even though they were highly, highly, highly unlikely to succeed.”
There are no white saviors in Mbue’s book — very much by design — but America itself is not the bad guy. Thula couldn’t lead Kosawa’s ongoing fight without a U.S. education. “The sense of hope and possibilities is not something I grew up around in Cameroon,” Mbue says. “That is the American in me.”
But then there are dilemmas that transcend nations. Last year, Mbue watched the burning of property during the George Floyd protests with new understanding. Thula’s friends do the same and even more. “Humans tend to resort to violence when they feel helpless,” she says. “Mandela said, essentially, ‘We tried every other way to get your attention, and if you’re not going to listen, we’re going to burn down your buildings.’”
Mbue follows her own characters down that path, which doesn’t mean she endorses it. Violence marks an irrevocable turning point in the book, and Mbue’s refusal to shy away from its implications is one of the book’s strengths, even as she remains “conflicted” on the subject. “You don’t have to condone what they do, but can you understand where they’re coming from?”
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That is just one question on her mind. Another is whether the sacrifices made by her characters and their real-life counterparts are always worth it. “Is it worthwhile to sacrifice your family and your relationships for a mission that may not succeed?,” she asks.
She also wonders whether the price we all pay for globalization — from the pillaging of African resources to the rapid spread of pandemics — is worth the benefits, including, for her, the chance to start a new life in America.
“I don’t have the answers,” she says. “That’s why I’m a novelist. If I had the answers, I’d be a professor at some fancy college. I write stories because I’m full of questions.”
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