To tell her story, Mbue focuses on an American oil company, Pexton, that operates with no regard for the environment and a corrupt national government that sits idly by as Pexton’s operations poison the local water supply. In no time, children are poisoned and dying and crops are decimated. As deaths accumulate and villagers realize they have lost the ability to grow and produce the medicinal herbs they and their ancestors would rely upon, they plead for help. When their desperation is met by silence, they decide to fight. One girl in particular, Thula, emerges as the center of the resistance. She stands up to demand an education and even travels to the United States and back again to learn what she must to bring democracy to her country and redemption to her ancestral land.
How Beautiful We Were is an epic novel that is as brutal as it is gorgeous for its prose and story, but also for the questions Mbue forces her readers to confront. Is the self greater than or more important than the larger community? Should one generation sacrifice itself for the next? These ideas are woven into the larger topic of globalization and its effect on smaller, isolated communities. It is this idea of globalization that Mbue has made her true focus. We may want to fill up our gas tanks, but what did it take to produce that gas and what was destroyed to make it convenient and cheap here in America?
I adored this book and was thrilled when Mbue agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff.
RACHEL BARENBAUM: Imbolo, I could not put this book down. It is gorgeous. Congratulations. I’d love to start off by asking you about the theme of globalization. Why did you make globalization the center of How Beautiful We Were?
IMBOLO MBUE: Thank you so much! Funny you should start off by mentioning globalization considering we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. There was once a time when humans were barely affected by the actions of their fellow humans who lived a hundred miles away, and now an outbreak that started on one side of the globe has shut down almost the entire planet. It’s simply the reality of life in our modern world — people, ideas, products (and sadly viruses) can move with ease around the globe. And that comes with its share of complications, especially for people and places who don’t quite have the power to assert themselves on the global stage.
What did you want readers to walk away thinking about globalization? Anything personal from your life that you want to share on the topic of globalization?
I grew up in postcolonial Cameroon and have now spent most of my life in the United States. Living in two very different countries has been a privilege; my mind and character have both benefited from it. So, I have an appreciation for the benefits of globalization even as I recognize that it comes with a load of disadvantages, including the fact that places like Kosawa are being crushed in the game.
In other interviews you have talked about growing up in Africa during a time when people were trying to fight back, that even as a child you had a love and admiration for dissidents and revolutionaries. Can you talk about how that love and admiration led to Thula?
Well, when I was a girl, I had a T-shirt with the image of a murdered revolutionary named Thomas Sankara. Everywhere I went, people would stop me to ooh and aah at his image and pretty much worship him. I also remember when Nelson Mandela was in prison, we had pop songs in Cameroon calling for his release; any child on the street could give you a rundown of what was happening in South Africa. I believe growing up in such a culture really forged in me a great deal of awe for people who dare; that is where Thula and the other audacious characters come from. The main difference between Thula and the celebrated revolutionaries of my childhood is that they were men and she isn’t. It took me a very long time to ask the question — what about the women?
Aside from Thula, my favorite character was Konga. To describe him you wrote, “[A] vengeful spirit had taken Konga’s sanity as punishment for an evil committed by one of his ancestors centuries before Konga was born.” He made a relatively brief appearance but his actions kicked off the first real clash between the men working for the oil company and the villagers. What were you thinking about when you created Konga? Why was he such a powerful character even though he occupied so few pages?
I’m very fascinated by the idea that it takes a certain kind of madness to overthrow the status quo and bring about change. That’s why I love that old Apple commercial, “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.” How often are people told “that’s crazy” or “you’re crazy” when they suggest a bold move? Konga wasn’t afraid of being called crazy. While everyone else was wringing their hands wondering what could be done to put an end to a terrible situation, he came up with a crazy idea.
I adore the central role that women in general, and Thula in particular, play in this book. In one passage, a young Thula explains, “[O]ur mothers were realizing, as we all were, that no one was coming to save us and we had to save ourselves by whatever means presented itself.” Can you talk about this moment, this realization? And the role you wanted women to play in this novel?
We need to talk more about the role women have played in historical struggles. All the revolutionaries I heard about in my childhood were men; it was as if the women’s only duty was to be wives or mothers or mere followers. But women have been at the forefront of numerous movements. The Underground Railroad. The Women’s March. Black Lives Matter. That’s why I was fascinated by Thula — she knew she had what it takes to lead a fight for justice.
One of the most powerful passages in the novel reveals a realization that Thula’s brother, Juba, has near the end.
[O]n all sides the dead are too many — on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who’s never chosen sides. What good are sides? Who could ever hail themselves triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted, there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost.
Can you talk about this?
It is part of our human nature, to choose sides, and to stick with those sides sometimes even at the expense of our own principles. Look at America today. We’re so into sides! There’s nothing wrong with having your tribe, but we really need to ask ourselves, how is all this splitting into sides serving us? From an evolutionary perspective, tribalism has its purpose, but would it be possible for us to be a little less tribalistic?
Twins Jakani and Sakani do not appear often in the novel, but when they do they are magical and I could not stop thinking about them. They come into the world and leave the world holding hands, among other wonders. Can you tell us about them and their role in the novel?
I grew up in a world were that was appreciation for the supernatural. I remember when I came to the US and told my new friends about inexplicable events that had happened in my hometown and they laughed, totally incredulous. So Jakani and Sakani are, among many things, a celebration of life in a world where there is a thin line between the natural and supernatural realms.
Moving onto craft, this is a sweeping multigenerational epic. How did it come together? Did you work with an outline? Did you start with one story before another?
I didn’t write an outline; I’m not really into outlines. This is the first story I ever started writing, and of course I knew nothing about craft when I started. I wrote it slowly over a 17-year period. During that time, I read a lot, researched a lot, read some more, and slowly the story took shape. My debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, was also published during that time, and I learned a lot about myself as a writer in the process of writing it. In a way, I think it was good that I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first started this novel, it would have seemed a little crazy (ha!) to attempt something like this with zero knowledge of craft.
Finally, what are you reading now? What books do you recommend?
I just started Daniel Loedel’s Hades, Argentina, which is off to a great start.
Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.