Visiting Writer: An Interview with Imbolo Mbue
Ahead of tomorrow’s Visiting Writers Event, I had the pleasure of talking on the phone with the charming and gracious Imbolo Mbue about Behold the Dreamers, character development, drafts, and Motorola RZRs.
YD: How is all the travel going? Are you working on any new projects?
IM: If you can believe it, I haven’t written anything all year. I hope to get back to writing sometime soon. It’s been a long year, but it’s been wonderful. Next month, I’ll take some time to relax and then next year, I’m on the road again. While I don’t like the process of getting on a plane, the experiences have been nothing but wonderful.
YD: Let’s start with the protagonists of Behold the Dreamers. Did you set out to create parallels between the Jongas and the Edwardses?
IM: I did not intend to create parallels. I wanted to explore each family separately, to write about these two separate families. When I started writing, I did not think that their lives were similar in any way because on the surface, they didn’t seem at all similar: one is a family is a working-class family living in Harlem and the other is a wealthy, upper-class family living on the Upper East Side.
My original intention was to write about these two families living in New York City during the Great Recession: one family heavily dependent on the other. Now, I understand it when people say they see similarities between Jende and Clark and Neni and Cindy, but none of that even crossed my mind while I was writing. I wanted to write about each of the characters separately: Jende’s story, Neni’s story, Clark’s story Cindy’s story. Everybody has their own unique story.
YD: Speaking of Cindy and Neni, I felt that there was a really complex portrayal of marriage in this book. The power dynamics between Jende and Neni and then between Clark and Cindy are particularly compelling. Could you talk a little bit about these two marriages and how they came together on the page?
IM: Marriage is such a big theme in the novel. This is my first novel and I don’t have a creative writing background, so I wasn’t thinking along the lines of themes or any sort of agenda— it was just a fact that they were married. I wanted to portray the kind of marriages that I had seen. Jende and Neni’s marriage is something that I grew up around. I do not come from a nuclear family myself, but I’ve been around married people growing up in Cameroon and I’ve seen wives who were strong and outspoken, but ultimately their husbands made the final decisions. And this happened in marriages in which the women were strong.
And then I came to America and it was different. In America was the first time I saw a quote-unquote egalitarian marriage. There’s no such thing in Cameroon. I’d never seen a man doing dishes. I’d never seen a man changing diapers! It was fascinating, they’re such different marriages, and yet. It appeared to me that ultimately, the women were carrying a lot of the load. Even in a marriage like Cindy’s, where she’s not exactly cooking and cleaning and changing diapers, she still has to carry the load of keeping the family together, just like Neni does. She still has to make a lot of sacrifices for the sake of her family. These are the kinds of choices that men do not have to make as often as women do. I wanted to write about these marriages not so much to find how the two women endured similar struggles, but just to see how being in those two kinds of marriages affected the characters.
YD: You mention choices. I feel like so many of the best scenes in the novel hinged on choice. For example, that choice that Neni makes when Jende gets fired. When she goes to Cindy’s house with her Motorola RZR—which is the best timestamp by the way, I loved my Razor!
IM: I know, it was! I used to have one. When I got it, I thought “I’m on top of the world!” I was using a flip phone until a couple of years ago, just before my book sold. I only got a smartphone because I needed it to communicate with my agent. The flip phone was so satisfying—you’d snap it closed and know the conversation was done.
YD: It truly was the best phone. So, in this scene —starring the Motorola RZR— Neni blackmails Cindy. Throughout the book, you are so deft at building suspense, and this was such a delightfully tense scene. So much of that tension was about the choices that these two women were making in that interaction. How did you decide to have Neni move in that direction?
IM: I started writing this without any sort of outline and discovered that Neni is very determined. While she’s a good person, she questions a lot of things. I’d written that scene in which Neni finds Cindy when she’s in a drunken stupor and after that scene, I thought, “This is something that Neni has.” If Cindy were to do something that hurt Neni, she’d be able to retaliate. Somebody like Neni, might say, “I can play that game also.”
And that scene, I don’t know what your thoughts are about it, but I have done a lot of events and women often approach me and say, “Oh, God, Imbolo, I’m so upset, why did Neni do this?” Some women are on Neni’s side, some are on Cindy’s side and they want to know, which side I’m on. I think, “I don’t know! It’s not my place to choose a side!” Part of it, is that you don’t associate blackmail with an African woman. If a white man had done it, readers might have not been so surprised.
Who is to say that an African woman, or an immigrant woman, or a working-class woman can’t do something rash? I have made choices out of desperation myself and so does Neni. It all comes down to choice, right? Cindy made the choice to get rid of Jende to protect her family, and Neni made the choice to take action to protect her own family.
YD: I loved that turn! What I found wonderful about that scene is the way it revealed a dimension of Neni’s character that continues to emerge later in the narrative. She’s her own person. She may be out of her element in a foreign country but she has the ability to be ruthless in pursuit of this American dream.
IM: That’s very interesting to hear you say that. That’s how you saw it, but other people just say, “That’s just not what good people do.” An African woman recently said to me, “This is not something African women do.” But who hasn’t done things they look back on and think, “I can’t believe I did that?” I don’t think Neni went over there planning to blackmail Cindy. She went there hoping that Cindy would help her. And when Cindy did not help her, she decided to use what she had. But yeah, to your earlier point, it comes down to choices. Even for the minor characters like Vince, Bubakar, and Fatou—life is full of choices and I wanted to write about people making choices. Sometimes those come back to hurt them, like the blackmail ended up hurting Neni.
That scene definitely brings out Team Neni and Team Cindy, and you’re definitely Team Neni. Thank you, I hear so much feedback on that scene, but your perspective on it is unique. A lot of people are caught up on the fact that Neni’s a good character. They really love Neni and think she’s so wonderful and tell me that they don’t condone what she did. And I’m like, “I don’t condone blackmail, either!” Who condones blackmail? It’s not simple. Life is complex.
YD: Yes! Neni is deeply complex. She does this incredibly brave thing in that scene—whether it’s right or wrong— but she does takes action to solve a problem. And then later in the book, Jende beats her and she…stays. She doesn’t leave him.
IM: These characters are based on people I knew, people who were so tough in one way and so weak in another way. It fascinates me and confuses me sometimes. I think that’s why I wrote what I wrote, because I’m so fascinated and confused by human nature.
YD: In what ways would you say that Jende was weak?
IM: I think that Jende has too much respect for authority. He isn’t a bold person. And part of it is cultural. This is a novel that is very much about class and the power that class gives you. He would never do what Neni did—not that Neni made the best decision. I don’t think he believes in questioning anything. He’s too willing to accept that things. Out in the world, Neni is a much stronger person. The scene in which he beats Neni shows weakness. Is that strength? Isn’t that the opposite of strength? Beating someone smaller than you, who can’t retaliate?
YD: Absolutely, and its particularly interesting to read that scene from Neni’s perspective. Speaking of perspective, let’s pan out a bit and talk about the structure of the book. You alternate between the points of view of Neni and Jende in third person. Through their eyes, we see the Edwards family. How did you decide to use that narrative strategy?
IM: When I first wrote this, I wrote it from four points of view, with four main characters. I had to rewrite the whole thing and change it to two points of view because the original wasn’t doing justice to Cindy and Clark. When I sent the book out to agents, it was rejected over and over. The agents kept saying, “It’s a novel of good promise, but we can’t get ourselves to like the Americans as much as we like the African immigrants.”
At first I said, “I’m not going to change it,” and then I got an agent and she suggested that I try rewriting it from Jende and Neni’s perspectives instead of all four. I decided that would be best. It’s one thing to see the world through Clark’s eyes, but it’s another to see him through Jende’s eyes. Seeing Cindy taking pills wasn’t as powerful as watching Neni discovering her in a drugged state and exploring her emotional story. Even I became more sympathetic towards the Edwardses. I had to rewrite the whole thing. It was not pretty. I did not think I had the capacity to do it, and I was worried it wouldn’t do justice to Clark and Cindy, because it was their story also, but in the end, the changes let me paint a complete picture.
I always knew the book was going to be in third person. From a class perspective, early drafts focused too much into the Lehman Brothers’ story and what happened behind the scenes there, and then I wasn’t sure how to do that from Jende’s point of view. I used the fact that he works for Clark to allow the readers to get a glimpse of what was happening. Ultimately, I think that the two points of view from Jende and Neni created a whole other world, seen through their sensibilities as African immigrants from Cameroon. It’s a whole other world that’s uniquely theirs.
YD: Were the chapter lengths always the same?
IM: The chapter lengths were more or less the same back then. The beginning and endings were the same. But in the first draft, the blackmail scene it was written from Cindy’s point of view. Cindy’s sitting at home, minding her business and then Neni comes in. It was the same scene.
YD: I wonder what Team Cindy and Team Neni would have thought?
IM: I think they would have been on Neni’s side. Cindy’s point of view was not the most sympathetic point of view. It’s not like her life on the surface looks like the life of someone who’s having a hard time. Its only when you go deeper that you realize that this woman is very broken.
YD: How many drafts did you write?
IM: It must have been dozens upon dozens of drafts. It couldn’t have been less than 60 or 70. I had no outline. I just started writing, not knowing what I was doing. I did so many drafts! Even after the book was sold to the publisher. I think from when the book sold to when it came out, I probably did about 20 more drafts. And then at one point, we thought, “Oh! The book is all done!” and my publisher called and said, “Nope, not yet. It still needs work.” It was a lot—it took me five years!
YD: Wow. How did your drafts work? You would just start from the beginning and start copying over?
IM: Yes, beginning to end. Everything. If one thing changes, I have to redo the whole novel. Even after it was sold and the copyeditor went through it, I had to rewrite a lot of things. Not everybody needs to do that, but I need to go through beginning to end every time.
At one point, I said, “I don’t want to ever read this book again.” It was last year that I actually finished it. Last night, I got a really nice email from Zadie Smith about the book and I went back and re-read some of these scenes. I thought, “Oh, right– I love this scene!” When you’ve read and re-written something 60 times, you think you never want to see it again. I enjoyed it, but it was a lot of work and sometimes it was disheartening. You feel like you’ve been writing forever. It gets really hard. But then somehow you find a way to do it again.
YD: How did you stay organized through all these drafts?
IM: It was hard, rewriting and going back. Now, I’m learning about things like outlines. I think in the future, I’ll be more organized. At least in my Web document, I’ll try to know where chapters begin and end! Tracking cuts, too, just in adjusting from four point of views to two, there was a lot of stuff deleted and a lot of stuff added. It was just too complicated and intricate to get everything right. But maybe it’s just me. Colson Whitehead wrote Underground Railroad in two years. And look at that book, it’s a masterpiece. I don’t know how many drafts he did. I’m just one of those writers; I need to rewrite over and over to get it right.
YD: Trust me, for MFA students it’s reassuring to hear that something as lovely as Behold the Dreamers didn’t just pour out of you in a couple of sittings.
IM: [Laughs] Not at all! That book is full of sweat and blood.
YD: Let’s talk a bit about the ending. As I was reading, I thought about the fact I’m from an immigrant family and I remember everyone thinking the way Neni thinks, “We’re going to figure it out, whatever it takes—we’re not leaving.” And in reading towards the end, I kept waiting for a shift, but the narrative took them back to Cameroon. How did you decide on the ending?
IM: That happened in the first draft. There was never an “Oh, they got their papers, Neni becomes a pharmacist, they live happily ever after” ending—that never happened. Even in the first draft.
I never set out to write the story like that, I just started writing the first draft, and then I got to the end and they went back home. That’s just how it ended. I understand that not everyone loves those endings. When I was looking for an agent, I had an agent reject the manuscript and say to me, “Sorry, Americans love happy endings, they’re not going to want this.” But I had to do justice to the story. It is an untold story. Some people come here and realize that this not worthwhile. They’re not going back home because anything has improved there, but they look at what their life looks like in America and they decide it isn’t want they want.
YD: Would you say it’s an unhappy ending?
IM: I don’t know. What do you think?
YD: I wasn’t sure. For Neni, it seemed sad. I kept thinking that maybe she would run away and find a way to stay. I don’t know.
IM: I’m very conflicted sometimes. Because I’ve thought about going home, but I’m still here. I’ve had some really ugly moments in this country, but it worked out. For me, my life is in New York City right now. Going back to Limbe doesn’t have the same appeal to me. Jende has a lot to look forward to there, but yes, for Neni the situation is different. It’s the price of being a woman, of being a wife and a mother. You want one thing; your family wants something else. You have children to think about. You have to sacrifice your own dreams. It’s a shame but this is what we have to deal with as women.
YD: I did feel the strong feminist exploration of dreams in this story, about the choices and sacrifices that women have to make.
IM: It doesn’t have to be like that. Why can’t Neni have her way? Why does she have to follow Jende? I am a storyteller. I don’t have the answers. I can only tell the story as I see it. It bothers me that it all came down to Jende making the decision. But that’s also the reality I have seen.
YD: Along those lines, and in terms of the ending, I remember the last scene of the book and how it focuses on the concept of home and what it means to the Jongas and to Liomi in particular. How did you get to that ending?
IM: I think it all came down to that ending, ultimately. Jende wanted to be home, but what is home to Liomi? He hasn’t been in Limbe in four years. That’s a long time for a child. The theme of home was very unconscious for me. It was about my search for home after I left my hometown, Limbe, and the idea of questioning where home is. Ultimately, we want to feel at home and belong. I had that struggle and then I moved to New York City. I haven’t felt at home anywhere else in America.
It comes down to belonging, to knowing that you are somewhere where you are accepted and welcome. That is what all the characters wanted — especially Vince, who is in a strange situation because he has the kind of home that many people would wish for in terms of material comforts, and yet home to him means something different and so he goes to India to look for a sense of belonging that he cannot get in New York. These characters are all on a quest to feel at home.
YD: Who are your literary influences?
IM: There are so many! But I’ll talk about the one who just won the Nobel Prize! Kaoru Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers. I am on cloud nine! His books have had such an influence on me: The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and The Unburied Giant.
As far as when I first started writing, it was Toni Morrison, which I know is hardly unique. But I was blown away by Song of Solomon. Also, Frank McCourt was the first time I read immigrant literature. I think that was the first time I read about what it was like to leave home and about issues of class because he came from a very poor family. I read a lot of nonfiction also, like Andrew Solomon’s book, Far from the Tree which was an education in empathy for me. I like Julia Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, about Japanese immigrants in the 1940s. I don’t read so much to learn to from any book. I just read to be inspired by excellence. When I read these books, I’m just in awe of how wonderful, how life-changing a great book can be.
YD: As I student, I’m always trying to read for craft. But then I read something like Jazz and I can relax because the idea of imitating her is impossible.
IM: I know! I was doing an interview in France recently and this man said, “You love Toni Morrison but your writing is nothing like Toni Morrison’s.” I thought, “Are you kidding me? Of course, my work is nothing like Toni Morrison’s!” The whole idea is to be inspired by what she’s doing and then go out there and do your own thing. You go out and do your best to, in your own way, do something excellent. It’s all about excellence. I don’t try to mimic anybody. I just try to be true to myself, write the way I write, and tell the stories I want to tell.
YD: How did you find your writing voice?
IM: I never really thought about the publishing part of things. I never thought I would be a writer at this level. It wasn’t something I was going after. I wrote because I enjoyed writing, I found it beautiful to put words together. And then I thought, “Oh, I am actually good at putting words together. Let me figure out how to do it better.” There wasn’t a moment where I thought I found my voice, per se. I just sat there and wrote and asked myself, “Do I like this? Is this beautiful? Is this strong?” I was just enjoying myself and writing for the sake of writing.
And it was years. I wrote for years before anybody ever saw my work. I was the only one who saw my work. I thought “Ooh! I am good!” — even though most of it was probably very bad. From the beginning, from the day I sat down to start writing in 2002, the voice I had was the voice of someone who wanted to discover herself through the process of writing.
YD: Since Times Square is featured prominently in Behold the Dreamers, I wondered: who would you choose if you could invite any three authors, living or dead, to walk through Times Square with you?
IM: I’d probably start with Junot Diaz, because he seems very funny. Definitely Junot Diaz. Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite novels, so Charles Dickens. Maybe Junot Diaz and Charles Dickens together would be interesting. And who else would I want? Maybe Frank McCourt. I like funny people. I recently met his widow and she was lovely. I would like to walk around with him, especially since he was also a New Yorker…Wait, I don’t know how Dickens is going to do that in that group.
YD: Times Square is pretty intense. Maybe Dickens would be a little scared?
IM: [Laughs] You know what, I’m going to take him out. Maybe I’ll go with Zadie Smith instead. Let’s make it a New York thing, how’s that? Oh wait, but Junot Diaz is from New Jersey, right?
YD: Yeah, but I think he’s a New Yorker in his heart.
IM: Yes! I like that. All three of them are funny, so I think we’ll have a good time. Maybe we’ll just sit at one of those places on the corner and do some people watching.
Imbolo Mbue moved to the US from Cameroon over a decade ago. She attended Rutgers for undergrad and holds an MA from Columbia University. Her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers (2016), won the 2017 PEN-Faulkner Fiction Award and is the latest Oprah’s Book Club selection. Behold the Dreamers was also named a Notable Book of 2016 by the New York Times and The Washington Post. Tomorrow, October 11, she’ll be participating in AU’s Visiting Writer’s Series. The public reading and book signing will take place in the SIS building’s Abramson Family Founder’s Room at 7:30 PM.
Image Source: Glamour
Yohanca Delgado is a editor-in-chief at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.