What does it mean to pursue the American dream in the 21st century? To find the answer, writer Imbolo Mbue traces the lives of two very different couples in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 in her insightful debut. We asked her a few questions about her own experience moving to America from Cameroon, her love for New York City and who she’d like to see play her characters on screen.
Your own immigration story is almost as dramatic as the Jongas’. Can you tell us about it?
My immigration story has some parallels to the Jongas. Like them, I moved from Limbe, Cameroon, to the United States, though I came here at a younger age to attend college, unlike Jende and Neni who moved here as adults. I lived in Harlem for several years, so like them, I was also an African immigrant living in Harlem. That, however, is where much of our similarities end—most of their story, and the struggles they endured, was inspired by stories told to me by other immigrants.
You have been in the United States for more than 10 years. Do you get to visit Limbe? What do you miss about it?
I’ve been back to Limbe a couple of times to visit and even after all these years, I still miss it. I miss the utter simplicity of life there, and the delicious food and laid-back ambiance.
What made you decide to write a novel?
I was inspired to write this story after I saw chauffeurs and executives on a Manhattan street. Being that I had lost my job in the recession, I was curious about how the recession had affected New Yorkers from different walks of life, so I began writing a story about a fictional Lehman Brothers executive and his chauffeur, and the different ways in which their lives were impacted after Lehman Brothers collapsed. The more I wrote the story, the more obsessed I became with telling it.
Neni is such an incredible character. There is almost nothing she won’t do to make her dreams come true, and some of her actions are pretty shocking. How do you feel about Neni, and what inspired her character?
Thank you—she is indeed an incredible character. She believes in the accessibility of the American Dream, and she is convinced America can give her the life she could never have gotten in Limbe. Because she had limited opportunities to make something out of her life in Limbe, she is mindful of what a privilege it is to be living in New York City and attending college with aspirations of one day becoming a pharmacist. As a result, she will not let anything or anyone stand in the way of her dream, something I find admirable even if I do not entirely agree with how she goes about doing it. Still, I do empathize with her, because she was inspired by women I grew up around in Limbe, and immigrant women I’ve met in America—strong-willed women with limited power and resources who make tough choices because they believe they have to do what they need to do for themselves and their children.
There is so much about New York City in this novel—Jende considers Columbus Circle the center of the world since it is in the center of New York City, and Neni muses that “while there existed great towns and cities all over the world, there was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood, that only New York City could offer a child.” What does New York City mean to you?
I love New York. It’s a pity that phrase has become a cliché but there really is no better way for me to express how I feel about my adopted hometown. As strange and chaotic a place as it can be sometimes, it was only when I moved to New York City that I finally felt at home in America. Maybe something about New York reminds me of Limbe. Or perhaps it’s because the city, in my opinion, welcomes anyone from anywhere. I’m not entirely sure. What I’m sure is that I have a great sense of belonging here, and as an immigrant, that means a lot.
The Edwards family has achieved the American dream, but it certainly hasn’t made them happy. Do you think observing the Edwardses made Jende and Neni see America and their dreams of success differently?
No, I don’t think so. The Jongas, Neni in particular, are so determined to achieve career and material success that not even seeing the price of holding unto it will deter them. The truth is that both the Edwards and Jongas are unhappy in their own ways, à la Tolstoy. One family is dreaming of achieving material success and the other family already has material success, but we can see the prices they each have to pay.
The themes of this novel are very timely. One character says of America that “we as a country have forgotten how to welcome all kinds of strangers to our home.” How do you see novels like yours fitting into the debate on immigration?
I think it’s a novel people on either side of the immigration debate can use to support their arguments. If you’re pro-immigration, there’s something in the novel to support your argument. If you’re anti-immigration, there’s something in there to support your argument, too. My goal was to tell the story completely and leave it up to the reader to interpret it in whichever way fits their worldviews.
I don’t want to give away the ending. But when you were writing, did you know what was going to happen to the Jongas?
Yes, from the very first draft, I knew how the story was going to end and I couldn’t change it even if I wanted to.
This book has been optioned for film—do you have any news on that project? A dream cast?
I don’t have any news but if someday the movie is made, I’d be very eager to see the scenes between Neni Jonga and Cindy Edwards—those two women are fire and ice and their relationship exposes a lot about class and power.
Who are some of your favorite African writers? Anyone new that we should be looking for?
I read Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen last year and deeply loved it. It took me back to my childhood in Limbe, and to me there’s nothing quite like a book that reminds me of what it was like being an African child growing up in Africa. I had a similar experience reading NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, another novel I loved by a young African writer. I’m very much looking forward to both of their second novels.
Were you a big reader as a kid? What were some of your favorite books?
I was a voracious reader as a kid, though I barely read any children’s books. My favorite stories growing up were Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, even though thinking about it now, I have no idea how such books could deeply affect a young child.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on my reading list—too many wonderful books coming out and not enough time to read them, so I’m trying to read as fast as I can!
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