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Author Imbolo Mbue Explores The Politics Of Oil In 'How Beautiful We Were'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Imbolo Mbue is the author of the new novel "How Beautiful We Were." It was described in The New York Times as a nuanced exploration of self-interest, of what it means to want in the age of capitalism and colonialism. Her first novel, "Behold The Dreamers," which was published in 2016, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Imbolo Mbue spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: "How Beautiful We Were" is Imbolo Mbue's latest novel. And it's set in a fictional African village in the 1980s. The book is a David-and-Goliath tale, pitting the villagers of Kosawa against an American corporation known as Pexton. The company has drilled for oil on the nearby land and, over the course of years, destroyed the environment. This has caused the villagers to lose their ability to hunt and forage and maintain their way of life. It's also caused many of the villagers and their children to grow sick from environmental toxins and die. But a sequence of events set in motion by the village madman convinces some of the villagers that they shouldn't give up on their ancestral land, that it's worth fighting for.

One of those fighting is Thula, a young girl who becomes a revolutionary. Mbue started working on "How Beautiful We Were" 17 years ago but took a break to write her first book, "Behold The Dreamers," which came out in 2016. That book about immigrants from Cameroon living in New York City was adapted into an opera, chosen for Oprah's Book Club and translated into 11 languages. Mbue grew up in Cameroon and moved to the U.S. to go to college before settling down here.

Imbolo Mbue, welcome to FRESH AIR.

IMBOLO MBUE: Thank you so much for having me, Arun.

VENUGOPAL: Your first novel, "Behold The Dreamers," was set in New York City. You set this book in a fictional African village, Kosawa - why a fictional village?

MBUE: Well, I was more interested in the characters than I was in the setting. My interest was more in writing a story about what happens when a group of people decides to push back against a powerful corporation. And then, in the process of doing that, I decided to put it in this village, which is not like anywhere I've ever been to. But it felt very real because it is in Africa. And I spent my childhood in a couple of African villages. I also grew up in a town that had oil. So I was aware of the politics of oil as a child. And so I created this village. And I - in an effort to really show the extent to which the people struggle when they try to take on such a powerful adversary.

VENUGOPAL: So you grew up in Cameroon. There's an oil refinery nearby as you're growing up. How did the presence of this oil refinery shape your politics growing up?

MBUE: Well, I was very aware of the fact that, usually, people who live on the land do not benefit from the oil wealth as much as the government or the corporations from overseas. So in my town, barely anybody I knew had a job at this oil refinery. The people who had jobs there were people were connected to powerful people in government. A lot - all of the top jobs, they went to people in another part of the country. And there was a lot of grumbling among the adults in my town about how they couldn't get jobs there. So as a child, I was aware that having oil on your land doesn't exactly mean that you're going to benefit from it because you're from that place. And because I had this awareness of oil politics, I was very sensitive to how complicated it is, this issue of oil exploration.

And the other thing that happened when I was growing up is that there was a famous environmentalist in Nigeria. His name was Ken Saro-Wiwa. And he was trying to fight against the Shell oil company because Shell's drilling for oil was destroying his ancestral land, similar to what is in the book. And Saro-Wiwa was executed. So being aware of oil in Cameroon, in my town, and then hearing about what happened to Saro-Wiwa certainly got the bells ringing in my head about how much injustice is involved in this process of oil exploration.

VENUGOPAL: The environmentalists who was executed when you were growing up, tell us a little more about what happened to him.

MBUE: So when I was growing up, we didn't have a television in my house. We only had a radio. And the radio was our source of news about what was happening in the outside world. And it was on this radio that I heard the word environmentalist for the first time. I heard about a man in Nigeria. His name was Ken Saro-Wiwa. And he was fighting against the Shell oil company because Shell was polluting his ancestral land. And it was called - it is called Ogoniland. So Shell was polluting Ogoniland. And Saro-Wiwa was an environmentalist. And he was very upset about it. And he and his fellow environmentalists just started this fight with Shell to get Shell to stop polluting their land. But the Nigerian government at that time, of course, you know, was - took the side of Shell because they were supporting the corporation. And they used trumped-up charges to get Saro-Wiwa to be imprisoned.

And I remember every day after school, I would rush home to get home in time to hear the news to find out what was happening with Saro-Wiwa because the whole thing just seemed so unfair to me. So I was very hopeful that Saro-Wiwa will be released because there was this global outcry. And there was all this pressure being put on the Nigerian government at the time. But then one day, I came back home. And I heard on the radio that Saro-Wiwa and his fellow environmentalists had all been executed. They were hang to death. And so that was - I think that moment was probably a defining moment for me as a person with a social and political conscience because I was very upset. And in the process of writing this book, I did a lot of research. And I found out that to be an environmental activist can actually be very, very dangerous. But, yes, it certainly started with Saro-Wiwa. And this happened in 1995. So it was about 25 years ago that it happened.

VENUGOPAL: And so did he kind of serve as sort of a mythic or heroic figure for you?

MBUE: He was one of many. And because I grew up in Cameroon in the '80s and '90s, I was very aware of a lot of men who were pushing back against this sense of injustice from the Mandelas to the Steve Bikos, Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara. All of these men were celebrated. They were all part of my inspiration. And also, while I looked at Saro-Wiwa and the Niger Delta, I certainly looked at, you know, the BP oil spill in America. I looked at Standing Rock. I look at what happened in Ecuador, what is happening there between the people in the Lago Agrio region and Chevron. So I got inspirations from all over the world, not just from Africa.

VENUGOPAL: Our guest is writer Imbolo Mbue. Her new book is called "How Beautiful We Were." Her first book, the New York Times bestseller "Behold The Dreamers," won the PEN/Faulkner Award. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO'S "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)")

VENUGOPAL: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Arun Venugopal, back with novelist Imbolo Mbue. Her first book, "Behold The Dreamers," won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Her new book is called "How Beautiful We Were." As serious as the subject matter is, the book is often really funny, in part because of the character of Konga, the village madman. What is the function of Konga in this story?

MBUE: Well, yeah, I'm glad you find Konga funny (laughter). He was actually one of my favorite characters. No, he is the one who gets the uprising started. He's the one who says to the villagers, why are we letting them do this to us? Why do we feel as if somebody has to do something to save us? Let us do something. And he comes up with this crazy idea, which is what basically jump-starts the struggle between this village and this oil company and the government and the country, and the whole thing lasts for many, many years.

Konga is a madman, right? In the village, he has a special place because he doesn't act like the rest of them. He doesn't exactly talk or interact with anybody for the most part. He mostly keeps to himself. And my inspiration for the character of Konga was this idea of madness, right? There's so much misunderstanding about mental illness to begin with, but there's also this idea that doing certain things are, quote-unquote, "crazy." You know, whenever you come up with a - with this big idea, people usually say, are you crazy? What are you talking about? That's so crazy. That's insane. And I wanted to explore what it's like to actually be mentally ill and having this ability to see the world different because of that 'cause that is what Konga has.

And also, the idea that you need a certain kind of madness in a way to bring about significant change in the world. One of my favorite quotes growing up was echoed by an African revolutionary, Thomas Sankara, and it talks about how to bring about any kind of change, like, there's - you're going to need to be different. You're going to need to think different and see things differently. And that was Konga. So with Konga, I was really trying to pay an homage to craziness, to wildness, to people who are eccentric and different and people who, by being so, bring about significant change, I mean, for better or for worse, right? For Konga's - in Konga's case, you have to read the book to decide whether his ideas ended up benefiting the village.

VENUGOPAL: I'd like you to read a section of the book where Konga, the madman, talks to some other men in the village. And just to set it up here, he has an exchange, Konga has an exchange, with a group of men who are going out in search of their fellow villagers who've either been killed by the American corporation, Pexton, or may be imprisoned. And it's this scene where, basically, he interacts with Bongo, who is the narrator, as well as a gentleman by the name of Lusaka, who's sort of, like, a revered village elder, I guess. And some of the leaders want to turn to the West for help, but Konga completely disagrees.

MBUE: (Reading) You do understand that all people from overseas are the same, don't you? The Americans, the Europeans - every single overseas person who has ever set foot on our soil, you know they all want the same thing, don't you? How do they remember the Europeans when he has no memory? You're young, he says. Someday, when you're old, you'll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who will want to save us are the same. No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.

VENUGOPAL: You know, this passage, it reminded me of a couple things also from the 1980s. It reminded me of these ads that we were constantly subjected to as kids, you know, growing up in the U.S. these ads where they're raising money for starving children in the Third World. And it also reminded me of the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - the song by the British all-star group, Band Aid, you know, featuring Bono and Sting and Duran Duran, and it raised all this money for famine relief. And at some point, as I was growing up, I remember hearing the verse, and there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime.

MBUE: (Laughter).

VENUGOPAL: And I remember thinking, like, OK, sounds kind of like Texas or Florida. I mean, there's just something so ridiculously distant and, I guess, kind of - what's this word? We talk about the bleeding-heart liberal, right? This performative kind of philanthropy. And it sort of kind of cuts to what you're seeing is all about, that when you say the people who come to kill us and the ones who come to save us are all the same. I'm just wondering, is this something you developed after moving to the U.S. and living in New York and encountering all these people who want to save Africa or the Third World?

MBUE: Yeah. Well, the funny thing is that I did not really know about that image of Africa till I came to America. So, yes, you're right. I was surprised when I came here and people said, oh, it must be awful; it must have been awful for you growing up. And I'm thinking, what are you talking about? (Laughter) Because, like, I mean, this is not quite an issue that the book talks about, but - maybe in a way it does. You know, I think the issue was that - you know, the idea that I got in America was that, you know, we were poor because we didn't have certain things in life.

So when I came here, I mentioned that, you know, I grew up - I spent my early life in houses that did not have electricity or running water, not - in some houses, they did; some houses, they didn't. Like, I think the very first few houses we lived in, there was no electricity or running water. But my family house in Limbe, we had electricity; we didn't have running water. But it was all very normal to me. There was nothing poor about it. I had relatives and friends and neighbors who lived in huts. And so there was no such thing as, oh, you guys live in huts; it's so awful. No, they lived in huts, and their lives were wonderful. Their lives were full and vibrant. And it was only when I came to America that I got this idea that, oh, those poor people, they live on $2 a day. And I'm thinking, $2 a day? That's a lot of money in my town.

(LAUGHTER)

MBUE: People in my town, you know, live very well on $2 a day. Maybe not now, but back when I was growing up, it wasn't that awful to live on $2 a day. But what this village is going through in the novel is different, right? Their struggle is not that they want - you know, they want to live in big houses. They live in huts. They don't have running water. They don't have electricity. But before this oil company came, their lives were wonderful. What they're dealing with is that they have many, many, many years of injustice that have been thrown on them.

First, you know, there was the slave trade - right? - which did not really affect them, but it happened in their area. And then there was colonialism that came, and because of colonialism, they're living in a country which is ruled by a dictator who is in bed with European powers, and that is all very much affecting the country. And then they're living in the age of neocolonialism and corporate imperiality among globalization. So his point is that the outside world has done so much damage to us, do we really want to go back to them to come save us? Even if they think that they are different - right? Some of them think that they're liberal, some progressive and they care about Africa. But he sees them as being a sort of other.

But with this particular struggle in this particular village, I think what Konga has has is quite a justified cynicism, right? He's justified in thinking that we can save ourselves. Like, we have depended for too long on people coming from other places to save us. And maybe Konga then says (ph), I don't believe in this whole white savior thing. I don't believe in white saviors. Let's not trust them. Let us save ourselves. Then, of course, you know, it gets more complicated than that.

VENUGOPAL: Tell me a little more about, you know, where you grew up as a kid. You know, what was - in Limbe, in Cameroon, correct?

MBUE: Mmm hmm.

VENUGOPAL: What can you tell me about Limbe?

MBUE: Well, Limbe is a town in the English-speaking part of Cameroon. So Cameroon is a bilingual country. Most of the country speaks French, about 80% percent of the country. And Limbe's in the 20% that speaks English. So they the northwest and the southwest regions are English-speaking. And Limbe is right on the ocean, sits right on the Atlantic Ocean. So I grew up in this town that was English-speaking, and it was by the ocean, and it was warm, and people were very friendly. I lived in a neighborhood where we had a public tap. So, you know, in the evenings after school, we all carried our books and went to the tap and fetched water and went back home. And again, I thought that was all wonderful. There was nothing horrible about having to go fetch water. It happens in many parts of the world. I loved it. I thought we had a great lifestyle.

The one thing about Limbe which was not so wonderful, which is not uncommon around the world, is that there just weren't a lot of opportunities, which is something that I explore in my first novel. I mean, it's different nowadays because the world has changed. But when I was growing up, it was many people's dream to leave and to come to America. And I had the great blessing of being able to come to America to go to college here. But I was very aware of marginalization as a child. I was also aware of what it's like to live in a dictatorship because the president of my country is the same president now that was in my childhood. He's been president for almost 40 years. And maybe that is part of why I was so fascinated by dissidents and revolutionaries because I knew that many people were not happy that were living in a country with a dictator. But there wasn't a lot of effort to get rid of him. I mean, he's still there because, you know, efforts to get rid of him haven't been successful.

And maybe my creation of a character like Thula, who takes on the dictator of her country, was, I guess, some kind of a childhood wish I had that I wouldn't - I could live in a democratic country because I really did not know what democracy was till I came to America. The idea of democracy completely fascinated me. When I became a citizen, I voted for the first time in 2016, and the whole day I was so excited that I got to vote because, you know, such issues were just not commonplace where I came from. But that said, Limbe was a beautiful town. I think Cameroon was a beautiful country. It still is in many ways. It's just, you know, when you have a dictator for so many years, you know, there's just certain freedoms that you cannot really have.

VENUGOPAL: What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?

MBUE: Oh, makossa, which is Cameroonian pop music. It's very heavy rhythms, very, you know, serious African dancing with lots of twisting and turning. And that's what I listened to. When I came to America, I discovered country music. And so I - my first days in America, I listened to a lot of Shania Twain and Dolly Parton and LeAnn Rimes and Dixie Chicks. So that was my introduction to American music - country music (laughter).

VENUGOPAL: That's quite the playlist - makossa and Dixie Chicks.

MBUE: Yeah, well, I love it. I still do. I just - there's something about country music that made me feel a little less homesick. I don't know what it was.

VENUGOPAL: Oh, really?

MBUE: But just listening to country music just made me feel - it made me feel like I was so close to home. I don't know what it was. But yes, I had - country music has a special place in my heart.

VENUGOPAL: Country singers, they wear their hearts on their sleeve, right? They're not being coy or - you know, these are basic human dramas and emotions, I guess.

MBUE: Yeah, I think so. And also, because when I came here, I was so homesick, and there were all these love songs and - about all these emotions. And I was like - I was just (laughter) - I just felt, OK, to your point - they wear it on their sleeves - like, I could just be emotional and think about my home and dream of being home and someday I'm going to go back home again, which is, you know, a separate point, which is probably why my - I think of my novels as love songs, maybe because when I came here, I listened to a lot of country music love songs, and I think that in most of my novels, I was hoping to write a sort of love song.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Imbolo Mbue, author of the new novel "How Beautiful We Were." After a short break, they'll talk about her first novel, "Behold The Dreamers." In 2016, before the election, the novel was described in The Washington Post as the one novel Donald Trump should read. Later, Kevin Whitehead will review a new Louis Armstrong boxset, and Maureen Corrigan will review two new novels about love and family. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITHOUT YOU")

THE CHICKS: (Singing) 'Cause without you, I'm not OK. And without you, I've lost my way. My heart's stuck in second place - ooh - without you. Well, I never thought I'd be lying without you by my side. It seems I'm...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with novelist Imbolo Mbue. Her first novel, "Behold The Dreamers," was a New York Times bestseller and won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It's about immigrants from Cameroon who are working for a wealthy white Wall Street executive and his family just as the economic downturn hits. Her new novel, "How Beautiful We Were," is about a fictional African village that decides to fight back against an American oil company that has polluted the land. Mbue is from Cameroon and became a U.S. citizen in time to vote in the 2016 election. She spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal.

VENUGOPAL: What was it like to vote for the first time in the U.S. in 2016?

MBUE: Oh, it was - wow, it was so good until it wasn't (laughter). I was so excited. I should mention that I got my citizenship in 2014, which was a huge moment for me. I remember when I got my citizenship, oh, I cried my eyes out. I was like, I can't believe it. I can't believe it. I am an American. I was so happy. And then two years later, I got to vote for the first time. And I went to the polls. And I was so proud of myself. I took a selfie in the poll booth. I don't whether I can do that, but I did. And then obviously, when the results came, the person who I voted for did not win.

But it was a huge moment for me because I had never been a part of a democratic process before. I just had never. I had seen democracy as something that other people took part in. It just never occurred to me that I could be - I could have a say in who the leader of my country is, because in all those years in America, I saw my American friends going to vote. You know, growing up in Cameroon, and I saw the adults going to vote. And I watched them. And I knew that obviously the votes didn't really matter in Cameroon whoever you vote for. You know, whoever wants to win is going to win. But I never took part in it. So in 2016, I got to take part in it. And that was significant. It was - I think I still have that picture. I did very much feel for the first time that I could have a say in the future of a country to which I belong.

VENUGOPAL: Just a couple months before the election, The Washington Post ran an article about your book, "Beholds The Dreamers." And the headline says, "Behold The Dreamers:" The One Novel Donald Trump Should Read Now." What did you think when you saw this headline?

MBUE: (Laughter) I thought, oh, boy, does he read? No, I - what I think what we're trying to get at, you know, was that that novel and this one as well, they're all about empathy, right? I mean, these days, we hear the word empathy left and right. But that is what literature is. Writing both novels really pushed me to go beyond myself to really think about the other side, the other people who I don't agree with, the other people who have these points of view that really are so different from mine. And so what that I think it was trying to say, I believe, is that this is a time, like every time - and again, this gets said over and over. It's become a cliche. But really, it's a time for us to consider that other people do have a point of view.

With both of my novels, people say to me, oh, both of your novels show so much kindness to everybody. You don't exactly take sides. But that was not how I started. When I started writing both novels, I took sides. I said, this is a side I support. (Unintelligible) about an African immigrant family and a wealthy white American family. And when I started a novel, I definitely took sides because I empathize with the African immigrants. They were like me. They were African immigrants, didn't have money, trying to settle in a new country. And I completely showered them with empathy. With the white Americans, I said, well, you know, the rich white people didn't really need my empathy. But I had to learn that it doesn't matter. You know, everybody is worthy of your empathy.

VENUGOPAL: What did your family think when you told them that your first novel was going to be published?

MBUE: Well, they said, what do you mean, you're a writer? (Laughter) Because I did not come to America to become a writer. I fell into writing. I - my first plan was to become a lawyer. That didn't work out. And I tried to become a college professor. It didn't work out. And I just tried to get a corporate job, and then I lost that. So I said, OK, I'll take my writing more seriously. So I like to joke that I became a writer because nothing else seemed to have worked well for me. But no, I think the way - I think they were surprised.

My mother was surprised because I don't come from a literary world. Like I said, people don't leave my town to become writers. But I should also mention that if my mother had any concerns - and she had a few concerns - is because being a writer in Cameroon in my childhood and in some ways now as well, it was seen as being very dangerous. When I was growing up, on the radio, I heard it all the time. This writer was put in prison. So and so writer was - you know, journalist was put in prison for 10 years. So and so journalist has been arrested. I mean, it happened all the time.

So I saw being a writer as being a very dangerous occupation. And so when I called home and I said that I wrote a book, I think the first concern was, oh, no, please don't say anything that's going to get you into prison. And first, I laughed it off. But, you know, one of my fellow Cameroonian writers, he was put in prison just a couple of years ago. So it is, you know, not only in Cameroon but all over the world. And you know that from your work that writing can be a very dangerous profession. But so far, the dictatorship in my country hasn't come after me, so I am safe.

VENUGOPAL: Where did you come up with the idea for your first book?

MBUE: That novel was inspired by chauffers I saw on a street corner in Manhattan. And this was in 2011. I was working. And I saw the chauffeurs. And I became very fascinated about the idea that some people had chauffers. And I started thinking about what it was like to be a chauffeur to a wealthy American family and also how the lives of the chauffer and his family and also the lives of the man he worked for, a Wall Street executive, how the lives of both families were affected by the financial crisis of 2008. Because I had lost my job. So I was working at a media company in 2009 when I lost my job because of the financial crisis.

So I decided to write a story about two New York City families struggling to keep their lives together because - after the financial crisis happened. And that - the novel also allowed me to explore the idea of the American dream, because I came here really believing in it, because I - you know, based on what I'd seen on television, based on Hollywood and a lot of, you know, movies and TV shows, that the American dream was something for the taking, right? You come to America. You work hard. And you will live in a nice house like "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" or "Beverly Hills, 90210." And then I, you know, I came here and I saw that it wasn't quite like that.

And I realized that a lot of immigrants I knew were disillusioned. Not only immigrants, even Americans who I met, they were disillusioned about the American dream. And so through this African immigrant chauffeur and the Wall Street executive, I was able to explore the cost of the American dream.

MBUE: You've talked about all these stories that you grew up on, the stories of revolutionaries. And I'm wondering what you learned from this and specifically the question, why do some people rise up and fight while others do nothing?

MBUE: Well, the one thing I learned is that these people are incredibly hopeful. They have this ability to hope, unlike anything I've ever seen. I mean, in the process of writing this novel, because I spent so many years, I'd read a lot of biographies and autobiographies and memoirs of dissidents and protesters and revolutionaries and anybody who ever took a stand and activists. And I realized that the reason why they're able to do what they do - right? - the reason why Mandela was able to be in prison for all those years or Dr. King or Malcolm X, they went out and did what they did knowing that they could lose their lives was because they were hopeful, was because they really believed that whatever they did would make a difference.

And so that is what really helped me with the character of Tula. She's a young girl. And she's not married. She doesn't have children. And yet she believes that, even though she's a woman, she can lead her people to victory against an American oil company and a powerful dictator. I mean, you have to have a whole different level of hope to believe that you can bring an American oil company to justice, an American oil company that has resources and lawyers and all kinds of powers at its disposal. But Tula does believe that. And that is something that I learned from reading, from looking at their lives.

VENUGOPAL: Imbolo Mbue, thank you so much for joining us today.

MBUE: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Imbolo Mbue is the author of the new novel, "How Beautiful We Were." She spoke with guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior producer at WNYC in New York. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new Louis Armstrong box set. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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