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Imbolo Mbue Tells A Tale Of Corporate Greed And Environmental Destruction In New Book


"How Beautiful We Were" is a novel that opens in an African village in 1980 called Kosawa that is fictional, but not by much. A U.S. oil company operating in the area has poisoned much of the air, water and food. Many have died. Many more are sick. But the company is protected by corrupt local officials and the nation's powerful dictator. A delegation from the oil company comes to Kosawa to hold one of those public meetings that's meant to placate locals. Then Konga, who's considered the village madman, steps in, and the village sees an opportunity.

"How Beautiful We Were" is by Imbolo Mbue, who won the PEN/Faulkner Award for her debut novel, "Behold The Dreamers," and she joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: I gather you grew up in a town in Cameroon before you came to the U.S., which is a kind of local oil town.

MBUE: Yes, I am from the town of Limbe. I grew up being very aware of the politics of oil. I was aware of how much the people who lived where the oil was did not benefit as much as the country's elite.

SIMON: Yeah. I've also read in interviews that you've been working on this novel, one way or another, for quite some time.

MBUE: Yes, 17 years. This is the very first book I started writing when I decided to start writing. The story just continued haunting me. It was haunting me from the moment I started, and I knew that I had to finish telling the story.

SIMON: What do you think brought it out now? The success of your first novel made people very eager to read whatever you wrote next, but what else?

MBUE: Well, I think that it has to do with having a fascination with revolutionaries and with dissidents and activists. All my life, I've always been fascinated. And right now, in America, we're living in a time when there's so much need for change. So I knew that I had to write about issues that mattered to me, about the characters because even though it has to do with an environmental crisis - it has to do with corporate greed - at the heart of it, it's a story about people. It's a story about the community and family and friends and marriages.

SIMON: Yet, one of the great pleasures of your novel is that you don't present people one-dimensionally...

MBUE: Right.

SIMON: ...You know, not even the oil workers, who might...

MBUE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Seem to deserve some villainy. Tell us about Konga, the so-called village madman, because I so appreciate that you don't present him just as that.

MBUE: Yeah. And that is the thing that fascinates me about human beings - we are all so complex. I didn't want to write a story about the good guys versus the bad guys because one can be tempted to think that, oh, this is a story about the bad American corporation versus the good African villagers. And on the surface, it might look like that because there is, in fact, a lot of injustice going on that the corporation is doing to this - the African villagers. But the African villagers are not entirely wholesome people. They have their own flaws, just as the American corporation also has wonderful people, people who try their best to find some kind of a compromise between the villagers and the oil company.

So that is the same thing with the character of Konga. This is a madman, and a lot of the villagers had decided that, well, he's a madman. What good is he? But there is something to be said for people who brought about a lot of change in the world. There's a certain madness involved in it - not being similar to other people, haven't really crazy ideas. And that is what Konga was. He was crazy in the literal sense, but crazy in the idea that he thought an African village could actually fight against an American oil company and stand a chance.

SIMON: Yeah. Tell us about a young girl when we meet her who becomes the young woman who's the center of the story, Thula.

MBUE: Yes. Thula is a young girl growing up in the village of Kosawa. She was born at a time when the village was already polluted. So at the beginning of this story, we see Thula and her friends. They're living in a village in which the river is covered with toxic waste. The pipelines are spilling. The children in the village are dying. And Thula doesn't understand. She doesn't - she cannot make sense of why there's so much environmental destruction around, and nobody's doing something about it. That desire to understand and to do something about all the wrongs that she sees around her drives her to spend her life looking for ways to bring the oil company to justice.

SIMON: We should explain. I mean, she winds up going to school in the United States.

MBUE: She does. She comes to America. She goes to New York City. I mean, if you want to be a revolutionary, New York City is a good place to go to.

SIMON: Well, I had to laugh when people in the government, when she comes back determined to foment change, blame the influence of Greenwich Village.


MBUE: Yeah.

SIMON: That was (laughter)...

MBUE: Yeah. Yeah, it is. I mean, I moved to New York City myself. And I have to say that living in New York City shaped my mind a lot. You know, there's something about being in a place where people are so free and encouraged to question everything. That allows you to feel very free to question things yourself.

SIMON: You mentioned coming to the United States when you were young - went to Rutgers, then Columbia.

MBUE: Uh-huh.

SIMON: In acknowledgments, you have expressed special concern for English speakers in Cameroon.

MBUE: Yes, because we're going through quite a lot right now. Most people don't know that Cameroon is a bilingual country. The majority of the country speaks French, and I come from the minority that speaks English. And pretty much my whole life, we've been marginalized. And a few years ago, a group of Cameroonians, quite like in my book, they stood up to fight against the dictatorship and demand equal rights. And it's been a good deal of carnage since then. Villages have been burnt down. Schoolchildren have been killed in school, and protesters have been gunned down by soldiers.

SIMON: Yeah. I so admire the way you take the world of the 1980s into our times now, what you describe is a world of cellphones and flat-screen TVs, where children who live in the village now can use the Internet to read about the village that used to be.

MBUE: (Laughter) Right.

SIMON: And they're driving bigger cars that need more oil.

MBUE: Right.

SIMON: A reader will reflect. It's hard for even good people to know what sacrifices were made for us to live.

MBUE: Yeah. And I think about that - about my choices and how they affect other people around the world. The choices you make affect people in remote African villages and remote Asian towns in other - all parts of the globe. It affects us. And I am very aware of that, also, because I grew up in a post-colonial country, and I came to America. And that is an advantage of globalization that I grew up in Cameroon and I came to America, and I'm a writer in America. I write in English, which is the language of our colonial masters. So you can see that is an advantage. But I - it's so easy to distance yourself from other things happening around the world that are benefiting you, of other struggles. Your consumption of oil, your consumption of cheap goods from China - it's so easy to look at the people over there and think that, well, they're so far removed from my own life. But ultimately, it is all very connected. And our choices really matter.

SIMON: Imbolo Mbue - her novel, "How Beautiful We Were." Thank you so much for being with us.

MBUE: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LURIE'S "AFRICAN SWIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.