American dream comes true for African writer

Imbolo Mbue (above) wrote Behold The Dreamers on the kitchen table of her tiny New York apartment while breastfeeding her babies.
Imbolo Mbue (above) wrote Behold The Dreamers on the kitchen table of her tiny New York apartment while breastfeeding her babies.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Imbolo Mbue became famous for getting a million-dollar advance for her first novel about a migrant caught up in the Lehman Brothers' collapse

PARIS • Imbolo Mbue's rise to the top of the literary tree is a true fairy tale of New York.

The 33-year-old Cameroonian writer, who was born in a house without running water or electricity, became the talk of the town when she got a million-dollar advance for her first novel, Behold The Dreamers, in 2014.

Two years later, the book that she wrote at the kitchen table of her tiny New York apartment - often while breastfeeding her babies - is getting the kind of reviews that authors dream of.

The New York Times called it a "dissection of the American dream that is savage and compassionate in all the right places".


Imbolo Mbue wrote Behold The Dreamers (above) on the kitchen table of her tiny New York apartment while breastfeeding her babies. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The critical reception on the other side of the Atlantic - where it was published simultaneously in French - has been equally warm, with Le Monde hailing "the dis- covery of a formidable writer".

Mbue said: "I started the book when my first child was a baby and I rewrote it while nursing my second. I perfected the art of holding them with one hand and writing with the other.

"People afterwards said, 'How wonderful for you.' And I said, 'Oh, no, it wasn't. Really, you don't understand.'"

Her tale of a migrant from her oceanside hometown of Limbe, who lands a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive just before the bank's collapse triggered a global financial crisis, is a bittersweet tale of great expectations slowly shattered.

Despite the latitude that the subject matter gave her to skewer the people who drove the world into recession, her immigrant heroes take a surprisingly tender view of the follies of the privileged 1 per cent of United States society they serve.

This gives the book what the Washington Post called "a kind of angelic annunciation of hope, which ultimately makes her story even more poignant".

Like her characters Junde Jonga and his wife Neni, Mbue arrived in America at age 17 with little more than her wide-eyed innocence and doggedness to declare.

Still, she had reason to feel embittered by the crash. The crisis cost her the good job in market research she landed after working herself through a master's degree selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

With "so many Americans also out of work", she found it hard to get work and started writing.

"I wanted to be a college professor, but my husband said only I could tell this story. It's funny because he didn't actually read the book until months after it was sold. Then he asked, 'What is it about?'"

You don't come to America to fail, but you have to have a lot of weapons to succeed. I've done some tough jobs, but writing and raising children are the hardest things I've ever done.

CAMEROONIAN WRITER IMBOLO MBUE

Instead of sending her manuscript to any agent, Mbue went straight to Susan Golomb, who represents Jonathan Franzen, one of the US' most admired novelists.

"I spent three years pursuing her," she recalled. "I stalked her basically. She finally read it and I rewrote it and then she rejected me again, before finally saying okay. I don't give up easily."

Despite her success, she is under no illusion about the American Dream in the age of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. "The odds are against you in America as an immigrant. I hope people realise this. Washing dishes or working in a cab, you get stuck and exhausted," she said.

"You don't come to America to fail, but you have to have a lot of weapons to succeed. I've done some tough jobs, but writing and raising children are the hardest things I've ever done."

She added: "I am not the sort of person who would chose this path (as a writer). I have that immigrant mentality of wanting stability. I cannot just think of myself."

So despite her newfound fame, she is not leaving her "very small" apartment.

"I am superstitious. I had so many good things happen there, I don't want to move. I am all cramped in there with screaming children, but I think if I move, maybe my mojo will go away."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2016, with the headline 'American dream comes true for African writer'. Print Edition | Subscribe