An Interview with Imbolo Mbue, author of ‘Behold the Dreamers: A Novel’
Interview conducted by Dhanushka Kadawatharatchie ’19 and Jack Burger ’19
Nearly 10 years to the day, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the start of the Great Recession, Imbolo Mbue, author of ‘Behold the Dreamers: A Novel’ spoke on campus as part of the Dyson School’s Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series. The novel, set against the backdrop of the recession, touches on complex issues, including the idea of the American Dream. Dyson students Dhanushka Kadawatharatchie ‘19 and Jack Burger ’19 sat down with Mbue to discuss her experiences.
What was the biggest challenge you faced writing the book?
I think the biggest challenge was that I’d never written anything. I don’t have any background in creative writing and I have never taken any creative writing classes. My last English class was English 101 in college. There’s a lot that has to come together in creative writing; the characters have to be strong, the plot, everything – there are so many ingredients that make a story great. It’s like with anything, you need to understand it. If you’re a doctor, you have to practice your medicine. Without having experience in creative writing, it’s a very excruciating process. It took me five years to write the book.
The reason why people connected with the characters is because they are real, and to write real characters you have to go deep into them. As a human you look at another human and you come with your own judgements, but as a writer you have to put that aside and just look at people for who they are. It is a process, and much of it is subconscious. I let these things come to me. I don’t force it. If I had tried to force it, it wouldn’t have worked. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of being willing to let the story reveal itself.
In the book, you were able to put a positive spin on failure. How has that been received by readers of ‘Behold the Dreamers’?
Back when I was still looking for an agent, one agent rejected the novel and said Americans like happy endings and mine wasn’t happy enough. I said I wasn’t going to change it because I wasn’t writing for the market. That’s not what I do as a writer. I want to write to be true. I don’t come from a happy-ending culture. It was a culture where hard things happen and there’s not a lot about you can do. In the book, you just see a realistic portrayal of what happens to people’s dreams. I’m glad you see a positive spin on it. It all depends on how you look at it. My honesty was the best I could give.
Walking into the interview with Imbolo Mbue to talk about her novel, Behold the Dreamers, I had an idea of what to expect but my experience with her defied all my expectations and changed the way I viewed many things in life. She is truly an inspirational person. Listening to her share her thoughts about the novel and her experiences in life was a wonderful experience.
One of the things I love about the Dyson School is how diverse we are as a student body. We come from different backgrounds and have vastly varying interests in life. I was fascinated by her response and thought she had great advice for Dyson students: work on befriending students outside of our comfort zones.
Dyson is a place that provides us with the opportunity to learn about the world and each other. Most of us will work in firms that are very diverse and we need to have the ability to step out of our comfort zones and move around with people that are not like us in order to grow and become more worldly students that embrace our school motto “our business is a better world. – Dhanushka Kadwatharatchie ‘19
At the Dyson School, our motto is “Our business is a better world.” What does that means to you?
I think just the fact that Dyson brought me here says a lot about the school and its commitment to this motto, because my book is not a business book, per se, but it is about how a business makes bad choices that affect people’s ordinary lives. To me Dyson’s motto means that you consider your actions, you consider your choices … that you can think about your bottom line, but there are people and a wider world involved.
Your choices have consequences. When we are out there in the business world, we can make a decision for ourselves, but would it really make the world a better place? You can always change your mind in life and begin to think about the impact of your actions. It is important that we live the truth as we see it, that we are honest with ourselves, and that we question ourselves. If you question yourself and ask if this choice is right, or is it ethical, then that’s very powerful because you’re then not just thinking about yourself but about the world around you.
Interviewing Imbolo Mbue was honestly such a refreshing experience. Hearing her talk about her experience writing her book was particularly interesting, considering she doesn’t have any training in writing. I really appreciated her ability to deal with criticism of the book. Imbolo talks about keeping things true with how it is in the world, and not romanticizing things. I actually think this is a positive thing for a lot of Dyson students, as a lot of us have these attitudes that we can’t ever fail at anything, so much so that we don’t even consider it as an option. I feel like it is beneficial for us to hear that failure doesn’t necessarily mean the journey wasn’t worth it.
I also had the opportunity to ask Imbolo about her thoughts on the Dyson motto of “Our business is a better world.” She remarked that we have to remember that our choices have consequences. I think it is really easy to forget that, especially when a lot of us join large corporations where it is hard to see the impact of our actions on individual people. We could do well by ourselves to take Imbolo’s words to heart when we go into the real world, and make the world a better place. Even if it is one person at a time, we can do it. – Jack Burger ‘19
Diversity and Inclusion is important at Dyson, and it’s something we always want to embrace. Do you have any advice for our students about how we can continue to celebrate our differences?
Oftentimes students tend to stick with those who are most like them. But for me, when I was in college, I chose to open myself. It wasn’t easy for me, and no one can force you to be open to the world. You have to take the steps. Talk to the person in class next you, or someone you don’t know. What better place than a college campus? Yesterday, I had lunch on campus. I was sitting across from a woman and she finished her lunch at the same time as me so we shared an elevator together. She was wearing a vest that said campus scout on it, and I said “Hi, what is a campus scout?” She said “I go to colleges recruiting students for corporations.” I didn’t know anything about it, but she’s a Cornell alumni, and she started telling me all about her job. She asked what I do, and I said “Oh, I’m a writer, I’m here to talk about my book.” And she knew my book. She had read my book. She’d been working at Lehman Brothers and she didn’t know it was me in the elevator.
I came out of the elevator with her because she wanted to talk and tell me what she thought about the book. We started talking, and guess where she lives? It turns out that she lives two blocks from me. Can you believe it? What are the chances? What are the chances that someone worked at Lehman Brothers, read my book, and lives two blocks from me in a building where one of my children’s best friends lives. I’m in that building all the time and I came all the way to Cornell to meet her. There is a world of opportunity for us to learn about others. If I hadn’t said hi to her and asked her about her shirt, I’d never know. There is an opportunity here for students to learn more about the world and each other. We all have so much in common with each other. It’s a cliché, but it’s so true.
How have people in your hometown of Limbe, Cameroon, reacted to your novel?
They see it as very much a “Limbe” book, in that they have a sense of this is what our lives are like. I spoke at my former high school, and one teacher was upset that I was too honest in how I portrayed Cameroon, as a poor country and people trying to get out of it. But going back to the point of honesty – I had to portray Cameroon as I knew it and maybe I could have made Limbe seem like something else, but that was the Limbe I knew, the Limbe in which I grew up. Those in my hometown who read the book loved it, but they have a different interpretations because the characters like Clark and Cindy Edwards are very new to them. They know people like the characters Jende and Neni Jonga. In Limbe, overall, it’s interpreted as a book that shows Limbe for the wonderful place that it is. What are the odds that a little African town is going to end up in a book that people read in America?