Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel “Behold the Dreamers” looks at the American dream from the points of view of two couples — a wealthy New York couple deeply affected when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, and an immigrant couple from Cameroon trying to make it in the new world.
The book was published last year to great acclaim, winning the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and named a top book of 2016 by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and many others. In June, just as it was about to be published in paperback, it was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick — and you know what that means.
Mbue is out on the road, speaking at bookstores and libraries, and she will be in the Twin Cities on Aug. 15 at Barnes & Noble Galleria. In a wide-ranging e-mail conversation, she talks about the thrill of hearing Oprah’s voice, the best new writers coming out of Africa, and how her view of America has changed since leaving her native Cameroon.
Q: What was it like to have your novel chosen as an Oprah book?
A: I don’t suppose I’ll soon forget the moment when I picked up my phone and heard, “Hi, Imbolo, it’s Oprah.” First I was speechless, and simultaneously thinking, “She sounds exactly like Oprah!” When I finally somehow got myself together, I told her about how I began writing after I read one of her book club selections (Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”) and how much it meant for me to get her support, considering the role she has played in my writing journey.
Q: “Behold the Dreamers” is about two couples pursuing the American dream. But the couples have very different definitions for what the American dream is. What does it mean to you?
A: The American Dream to me is about freedom. Ultimately, isn’t that what we as humans beings are really after — the freedom to be and do and have and go as we desire? It’s what the immigrant family came here to find — material and financial freedom, which is precisely what the wealthy, American-born family has already achieved. The challenge, of course, is the cost of achieving this dream, and that is something both families have to reckon with.
Q: How has the situation of new immigrants changed in the U.S. since you started writing this book six years ago?
A: Immigration wasn’t as much in the news in early 2011 when I started the novel. Interestingly, I started it as a story about how two very different New York City families were affected by the financial crisis. I’d lost my job about a year after Lehman Brothers collapsed and I wanted to write about the experience of other New Yorkers during that period. In doing so, the story ended up touching on multiple issues, including the American immigrant experience.
Q: How has your view of America changed between before you moved here from Cameroon until now?
A: My view of America before coming here was fairly naive, largely informed by movies and TV shows. It didn’t take long after I arrived here to learn that most people did not have the kind of wealth I saw on “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” That said, I still very much believe that this is a country of tremendous opportunity — that is the reason why millions around the world aspire to someday arrive here to achieve their dreams.
Q: What, if anything, do you hope readers take away from this book?
A: I hope they take away from it whatever they wish to take away from it. I wrote this novel to tell a story I’d been inspired to tell and my goal was to tell the story honestly and completely. How it would be interpreted didn’t much occur to me, and it’s always a thrill for me to meet readers who, in sharing with me their experience of reading the book, end up teaching me a great deal.
Q: There seems to be a sudden strong awareness of great writing coming out of Africa, particularly, it seems, with women writers. Are there any African authors you recommend?
A: The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the greatest novelists to come out of Africa and I would highly recommend his work — his novels “Devil on the Cross” and “Matigari” are among my favorites. I’d also recommend my fellow Anglophone Cameroonian writer, Mbella Sonne Dipoko. For recent novels by African writers, Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” and Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen” are both incredibly powerful and excellent.
Q: What books inspired you when you were growing up?
A: Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” was my favorite of his plays when I was a young girl in Cameroon. I wanted to grow up to someday be as tough and fearless as Portia.
Q: What books do you reread?
A: I don’t reread. I have way too many books on my to-be-read list.
Q: Where are you right now as you answer these questions? What do you see?
A: I am in my apartment in New York City, sitting next to a pile of books I can’t wait to read. One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to meet wonderful writers and hear them talk about their books and, of course, it’s hard for me to not want to read the books thereafter. I recently met Helen Macdonald, Lauren Groff, Ayad Akhtar, Lynsey Addario, Maria Semple, Greyson Bryan and Kati Marton at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference in Idaho and I’m looking at their books right now.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks