The PEN Pod: On Using Storytelling to Push Back Against Systems with Imbolo Mbue
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke to Imbolo Mbue, author of The New York Times bestseller Behold The Dreamers. Her latest novel, How Beautiful We Were, is a gripping and urgent novel that tells the story of the struggle between the community in Kosawa—a fictional village in Africa living under a dictatorship—and an American oil company causing oil spills, gas flares, toxic waste. Told from the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula, the novel touches on topics like corporate greed, colonialism, and environmental destruction. Imbolo joined us to speak about the importance of telling stories that center and celebrate lived experiences; the relationship between simple, ordinary concerns and global political movements; and navigating the publication of her book being delayed. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Imbolo is up until the 12:45 mark).
Your novel is set against the background of the fictional village of Kosawa, where children are dying from poison caused by American oil companies’ leaking pipelines. Can you tell us when you began working on this idea and how it evolved over the course of writing it?
I began working on it in 2002, which was almost 19 years ago. The first thing I wrote the moment I decided to start writing was always the idea of what would happen if a village decides to fight against a powerful, multinational corporation. Beyond that, it was also about having a community that is not only more international-facing, but also a look at it in a country that is ruled by a dictatorship. So this village has to deal with this more international outlook and also having a dictator as president, and a dictatorship that doesn’t really care about their welfare. What would people do in such a situation? What resources would they wish to use to fight?
I grew up being very fascinated by revolutionaries and dissidents and activists as a child. I found them to be remarkable people. This story came from that childhood fascination: this idea of people pushing back against systems that are way more powerful than them and at the center of the novel is one family. First, the father is very involved in this fight, and then the father’s brother, and ultimately the fight is taken on by one of the children in the family—a young girl named Thula who decides to lead the struggle to make this oil company pay for all the damages it has done in their community.
“I grew up being very fascinated by revolutionaries and dissidents and activists as a child. I found them to be remarkable people. This story came from that childhood fascination: this idea of people pushing back against systems that are way more powerful than them.”
If I’m correct, you started this before Behold the Dreamers?
That’s right, I started it way before Behold the Dreamers. I wrote it for many years: I spent about nine years writing it, and then one day I got the inspiration to write a story about a chauffeur and a Wall Street executive living in Manhattan and how their lives were affected by the financial crisis. I thought, “Wow, how wonderful, I get to add something different,” because I’ve been living in this village for so long and it felt so good to get out of it, and to have this novel set in New York City—which is where I live for the most part. And so, that was why I put it aside. But the moment before Behold The Dreamers came out, I knew that I had to go back to the story because it just wouldn’t stop haunting me—the characters in the novel just wouldn’t let me go. So I went right back to it, and I spent another three years trying to finish it.
That’s wonderful. You spoke a bit about the characters and how the novel is told through multiple perspectives, and I’m wondering if you could speak a bit about agency and the agency of your characters. What led to this decision, and was it important for you to allow the people—the community and individuals, and specifically the children—who were affected by this foreign corporation to tell their own story?
Yes, absolutely. It was very important to me. I think we are all tired of hearing stories being told from a perspective of people who are not at the center of a particular struggle, so it was important to me that I go there and be with these characters and really present to the reader what their lives are like. I haven’t exactly lived in a place like that, so a lot of it was research. I’ve read a lot about similar stories around the world, but it was very important to me that the characters tell their story and also for their world to be celebrated for that. This world that is disappearing, this very different world—places like Kosawa are not as common as they used to be compared to when I was a child. I spent my early childhood living in Africa in villages. My mother worked in community development, so I got to live in two different villages as a child. I thought it was wonderful to grow up in a village, so I wanted to also celebrate that lifestyle and to tell the stories of what it’s like to be involved in this struggle.
“I think we are all tired of hearing stories being told from a perspective of people who are not at the center of a particular struggle, so it was important to me that I go there and be with these characters and really present to the reader what their lives are like.”
Like I mentioned earlier, I am very fascinated by protestors, by movements from civil rights movements, to anti-apartheid movements, to Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March—all of these protests fascinate me. I thought to myself, “What if I put a lot of elements of all these different movements, what if they were put in one location to show what it’s like for the people involved in these fights? To show how it affects their marriages, their friendships, their relationships with different members of their communities.” That was a big part of it. But again, this is a novel that I would write over the course of 17 years. So during those 17 years, the novel evolved a lot. Ultimately, I told a lot of it from the perspective of children, because I wanted to explore what it’s like for children growing up in a world that had been so designated by corporate greed, and how that affects them, and how they grow up to question the world and setting decisions that they might take as the result of growing up in such a world.
In speaking about the children and thinking about the novel and their experience in going up against a mega corporation, we’ve talked about them a lot as we’re thinking about the environment. In your novel and outside your novel, we see the effects of environmental destruction on both humanity and nature. Can you speak a bit about the responsibility that we have not only to take care of ourselves, but the environment too, and how you sought to explore this thread and this relationship in the novel?
Well, there’s a scene in the novel where the children are talking about the world in which the ancestors lived, because before the oil company came, the ancestors lived in a clean environment—the rivers were clean and there were no oil spills and everything had a simplicity to it. And now they’re living in this world where oil spills happen all the time, and there are gas flares, and rivers are covered in toxic waste, and children are dying of strange diseases. That is the price we have to pay for not being very careful about the environment, and that is what the characters in this novel are trying to fight for, trying to fight for the right to live in a clean environment. And that is a very basic human right.
But their main concern is not a big global movement—they are not concerned about how to make the world recognize that environmental justice is a huge issue. Their concern is just the fact that they just want to be left to live alone on their land. They just want to be left, and learn to swim in clean rivers; they just want to be able to go to school without worrying about getting the disease from playing during recess. It’s very simple, ordinary concerns that they have. I wasn’t writing from the point of having an agenda about making a point about environmental justice, even though that is very important to me. It was more important that I just told the stories of these characters and what it’s like to live in a polluted environment and what it’s like to come across against really, really big orders and what is involved in fighting to have a clean environment.
“I wasn’t writing from the point of having an agenda about making a point about environmental justice, even though that is very important to me. It was more important that I just told the stories of these characters and what it’s like to live in a polluted environment and what it’s like to come across against really, really big orders and what is involved in fighting to have a clean environment.”
We’ve now been in a pandemic for about a year, and your novel was originally scheduled to be published last year, but there was a delay because of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m wondering what the past year has been like for you with your book tour beginning soon. Are there elements that you think that you’ll miss due to our virtual world? Are there opportunities that you think are benefits to the virtual format in terms of getting your book out into the world and connecting with readers?
That’s a good point. So this time last year, I believe it was around this time last year, I was speaking in Nashville, TN. I remember I flew to Nashville, TN in the morning, and I flew back in the evening and I was feeling so exhausted from all the traveling. I thought, “Oh god, I would so love to not get on the plane anytime soon.” But I knew that wasn’t the case because my book was supposed to come out a few months later. Then the pandemic happened! And now, I’ll be very happy the next time I get on the plane. I don’t even love flying like some people do. It has been a process of learning, right? Learning our capacity as humans, what we can put up with.
For me, my book being postponed was difficult for me because this is something I’ve been working on for so many years, and just when it was about to come out, it didn’t come out, and it was moved nine months later. It has given me time to step back a little bit. I have been reading a whole lot of books and I am slowly getting to enjoy doing the virtual events, even though there’s no substitute for standing in front of a fellow human and talking to them. I definitely miss audiences. I miss even the people who will stand up during events and critique my work and tell me what they didn’t like. I miss them already! But I am also enjoying not traveling as much. I’m finding the balance of appreciating this moment as well as also looking ahead to when I can get back and stand in front of people again.
Yes, I think we’ll all be happy when we can all be in a room together and feel the energy of everyone. You mentioned that you’ve been reading a lot. Do you mind sharing what you’ve been reading?
Yes. What did I just finish reading? Right now I’m reading a book called Hades, Argentina by a writer named Daniel Loedel—it’s his debut novel. I’m also reading a memoir called Dog Flowers by a writer named Danielle Geller. I’m also in Obama’s memoir because it’s a great one to be reading right now. And I am also very excited about Kazuo Ishiguro’s book because he’s one of my favorite writers, so I’m going to order that one as soon as it gets here.