#87: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Imbolo Mbue, by Celia Johnson
September 2, 2016
Most people come to New York City clutching their dreams. Some fight to get in and fight even harder to stay. Others have a much easier path. But what happens when the city fails them? Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, follows a young Cameroonian couple, Jendi and Neni, who are in New York because they want a better life for themselves and, even more so, for their six-year-old son. Jendi has been working as a chauffeur for Clark, an executive at Lehman Brothers, and his high-society wife, Cindy. And Neni has been toiling away at school, hoping one day to become a pharmacist. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is about to threaten everything these four people have strived to attain. I spoke to Imbolo about her inimitable characters, her creative process, and how rejections helped her improve her manuscript.
Jende, Neni, Clark, and Cindy do not have the same dream. Even the spouses don’t necessarily align. What they share is ambition, each one striving to secure or preserve a bright, prosperous future. Without offering any spoilers, these characters surprised me at crucial moments, when their dreams were threatened. Did they surprise you too?
Yes, they very much did. Even now, when I re-read some sections of the book, I’m amazed at how far people will go to keep their dreams alive or hold onto the dream lives they have. I suppose that’s just part of being flawed humans—we make choices which we think will benefit us in the short-term, forgetting that the choices might come back to haunt us, and all four of the main characters have to deal with that.
What kind of research did you conduct for this novel?
I mostly relied on my experience of having lived in New York City for years as an immigrant from Cameroon—Jende and Neni are from my hometown of Limbe, Cameroon, and they live in a Harlem neighborhood where I used to live. Much of their story, however, was inspired by other immigrants I’d met and with whom I’d discussed the joys and woes of an American immigrant experience.
As for Clark and Cindy, I mined the brief encounters I’d had with people who seemed to be from their world, as well as conversations I had in parks with nannies and housekeepers who worked for people like them. To better understand what went on at Lehman Brothers, I read excerpts of the report prepared by the court-appointed examiner who investigated the firm’s collapse.
Where you do write?
I write at the dinning table in my living room. There really isn’t much to it—a wooden table in a typical far-from-spacious New York City living room.
What’s your creative process like? And do you have any particular quirks?
I generally sit at my dinning table and write whatever I’ve been inspired to write. With Behold the Dreamers, I’d been inspired to write a story about the relationship between a Wall Street executive and his chauffeur and I began doing so the day I got the inspiration, learning everything I needed to know about the characters along the way. As for quirks, the only place I’ve been able to write in the past five years is at my dinning table, though I do fantasize about someday having a “writerly” writing space.
What have you loved most about the publishing process so far?
Before my agent sold my novel, I’d been unemployed for several years so going through the publishing process felt like finally having a “job,” and a really wonderful job at that.
Have you encountered any unexpected challenges?
The biggest challenge I’ve encountered is how incredibly difficult it is to write a novel, especially a first novel. I’m still in awe of how difficult it was—I’d never considered it would demand so much of me physically, mentally, and emotionally. And yet, given the chance, I’d do it again.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep writing. It was the advice given to me by agents who saw potential in my earlier work but rejected me so I could become better. The rejections hurt, but the advice was invaluable.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.