Oprah Talks to Behold the Dreamers Author Imbolo Mbue
One of my favorite things about naming a new book club pick is calling the writer to surprise them with the news.
In April, I called Imbolo Mbue, the 36-year-old author of Behold the Dreamers (Random House), to do just that. I'd finished reading her debut work earlier in the year and was enchanted by its freshness, its vivid language, and, most of all, the story of Jende and Neni, a couple from Central Africa who come to America believing it will grant all their wishes. As with most things in life, it's not that simple.
My conversation with Imbolo didn't disappoint. When I told her who I was and why I was calling, there was a lengthy silence that had me repeating "Hello? Hello?" over and over. Next came the tears—I welled up, too. Finally we talked, and Imbolo revealed something that floored me—and made me think I was fated to discover her book.
A few years after she moved to the U.S. from her coastal town—the same one Jende and Neni come from—she made a trip to a library in Falls Church, Virginia, and came upon a shelf labeled OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB. Imbolo was familiar with it from watching The Oprah Winfrey Show, but she'd never read any of the authors, and she was curious. She settled on Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and later told a friend, "If God were a writer, I imagine this is how she would write." Until then, she said, she hadn't known what she wanted to do with her life, but that experience made her think, I want to feel the joy—the exhilaration—of writing.
Imbolo immersed herself in American literature, using the Oprah's Book Club picks as her curriculum, and she taught herself to write fiction. Over the next nine years, she experimented with plot and style, honing her craft. She finished a manuscript and submitted it to the agents of writers she admired. She was turned down again and again, but each rejection made her more determined. She put aside that first attempt and started a second novel, this one inspired by chauffeurs she'd seen waiting for their passengers outside the Time Warner Center in New York City. She made Jende a driver for a man who works for Lehman Brothers, right around the time of the financial crisis. The story intrigued an agent enough to urge Imbolo to keep working on it. In 2014, Behold the Dreamers was acquired by Random House, and it has gone on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award. Imbolo's instincts were right all along: Writing was what she was meant to do.
Oprah: When you got on the plane from Cameroon at 17, what did you imagine the U.S. would be like?
Imbolo Mbue: I remember whispering to myself, "I'm going to America!" I'd watched a lot of American television—The Cosby Show; Dynasty; Beverly Hills, 90210—that made it all seem so glorious. I couldn't wait to experience it. Because my knowledge of the States was so superficial, even though we were flying over the East Coast, I thought I could see the Rocky Mountains! When I arrived, all I knew was I wanted to attend college and study hard. Beyond that I didn't really have goals. Like Jende and Neni, I wanted to make a new life in a place where there were different opportunities.
OW: Jende and Neni find that being immigrants isn't easy. They work so hard that they are in danger of losing themselves, and there are countless other challenges—not least the threat of deportation....
IM: It's so hard to be a stranger in a strange land. I don't think most people understand how difficult it is to leave behind what you know and come to a country where everything about you is considered "different." I wanted readers to appreciate that part of Jende and Neni's struggle is to adapt without forgetting who they are. And in terms of visas and residency, between the language barrier and the cost of legal representation, it's very hard to navigate U.S. immigration and naturalization services. Often the violations that occur are misunderstandings, technicalities that could be cleared up easily with a decent lawyer.
OW: The characters in your story are transformed—in good and not-so-good ways—by the pursuit of their dreams. How did chasing yours change you?
IM: I would be very different if I'd stayed in Cameroon. I was shy and quiet and introverted. When I came here, I had to learn to stand up, to stand out. I had to learn to be bolder. I don't put up with things here that I would have in Limbe.
OW: I don't want to give away the ending of your book, but I will say it's bittersweet. It reminded me of how much we take for granted as Americans.
IM: I'm in awe, as are most of my immigrant friends, of what this country has to offer. When I was growing up, we did not have the freedoms that exist here. When I first arrived, I was stunned to see comedians on TV making fun of the president. I was amazed. Even the whole idea of democracy—Cameroon has had the same president for nearly 35 years!
OW: Did you ever have a moment where you felt, I might not make it here?
IM: Many times. There was a time when I was really suffering financially. I was with a friend, crying my eyes out on the street. I told her I wanted to go back. She said, "Just stick it out a little longer." I thought about the fact that America might be hard, but there's still a chance. That chance doesn't exist to the same extent where I come from. At home I wouldn't be meeting you, Oprah.
OW: Well, it's a privilege to meet you, Imbolo. You're a force.
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