A Conversation with Imbolo Mbue
Q: Did you know you wanted to be a writer from a young age?
A: No, I never considered becoming a writer as a young girl. I didn’t even know that being a writer was a career choice because I’d never met anyone who was a writer until I moved to New York City in my 20s. I knew there were people who wrote books, because I read a lot of books, but I never thought about who these people were, and how they came about to write books. Even after I read Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and became inspired to start writing, it wasn’t so much to become a writer as it was to enjoy writing the same way I enjoyed reading. I’d been writing for 12 years before my first short story was published and then about two years later this novel was published. So it basically took 14 years from the time I started writing fiction to when my first novel came out. And in that period, I wrote hundreds of pages that are still sitting in my computer.
Q:What did you think of America before emigrating here?
A: Much of what I knew while growing up was based on TV shows—shows like “Dallas” and “Santa Barbara,” which depicted characters living in material comfort. I got the impression that there was very little poverty in America and that it was a place where with hard work, anyone could succeed. And I can’t blame this on the shows—it was simply my way of analyzing the world. My understanding of America was also shaped by people from my town who’d emigrated to America and returned home to visit with nice clothes and shoes and an air of affluence that I attributed to the fact that they were living materially comfortable lives similar to the ones I’d seen on TV.
Q: How did your first impressions match up with what you’d imagined?
A: I had quite an awakening the very first day I arrived when I was in a car passing through an inner-city neighbourhood. That was the first time it dawned on me that widespread poverty exists in America, and it’s tough. And poverty is tough no matter where a person lives. But I’d never considered that this country, which I’d imagined wonderful things about, had people sleeping on the street, unable to afford college or basic healthcare, working long hours to barely make enough money to live on. Over time I would experience some of these challenges myself. One of the things I learned and saw around me is that the sense of failure at living in poverty can be very acute, especially for immigrants who purposely came here searching for a better life. I know many people who can’t escape this shame—they work hard but barely get by; they feel like they have nothing to show for all their hard work; they wonder what they didn’t do right, how come their American Dreams haven’t come true.
Q: Your novel strikes a balance in addressing the pitfalls of the “American Dream,” without moralizing these failings. How did you craft that balance?
A: I wanted to tell a story about people like myself living in the America I had experienced—a wonderful country, and yet flawed in its own way. While the novel certainly highlights issues of class and income inequality, my goal wasn’t to moralize but to tell the story, as truthfully and completely as I could.
Q: Why did you choose to set the story during the Great Recession?
A: I was interested in exploring how the recession had affected the lives of New Yorkers from different backgrounds. The story starts in the fall of 2007 when the country seemed pretty stable and we were watching the rise of Barack Obama, which I thought was apt, considering that both the Obamas and the Jongas were dreamers—different kinds of dreamers, but still dreamers. The timeframe allowed me to present the Great Recession from Jende and Neni’s perspective, and being that Clark Edwards is employed at Lehman Brothers, it also allowed me to imagine what it might have been like for employees at Lehman Brothers in the days surrounding the collapse of the bank.
Q: You must be interested in how economic breakdowns affects people’s lives.
A: I’m very interested in the stories behind numbers, especially at a time like the financial crisis when there were lots of dismal statistics. I remember in the heat of the crisis, sometimes when I heard of a company laying off X number of employees, I wondered who the employees were, and how long they’d been at the company and how that job loss would affect their lives. I had lost my job at the end of 2009 and I was struggling to find a new job when I started writing this story, so mine was one of the thousands of stories of how challenging it was to be unemployed during the crisis. The crisis affected the two families in the novel in different ways, but ultimately, they both had to deal with it opening and widening up existing cracks. It was a tense time for countless people worldwide—marriages were tested and careers were derailed and dreams were reevaluated, and sometimes abandoned.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write this novel?
A: Mostly, I 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 neighbourhood 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.
Q: Clark and Cindy Edwards represent the privileged 1% yet they’re undoubtedly human, relatable in their struggles and sadness, and a reader can’t help but sympathize with them. It isn’t often we see novelists portraying the uber-wealthy with empathy, but that is precisely what you did. How were you able to craft a sense of empathy for these characters and why?
A: Oh, it was a long journey for me to develop empathy for Clark and Cindy Edwards. I wish I could say that from the moment I met them, I understood them and valued them and felt for them, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Writing this novel was a lesson in empathy—when I started writing it, I had a lot of judgment towards the Clarks and Cindys of the world. But to tell this story, honestly and completely, I had to learn to see them as humans—imperfect humans, yes, but still humans like the rest of us, with virtues and vices and joys and despairs and a long list of dreams. Developing empathy for Jende and Neni wasn’t difficult. They’re from my town, I know the struggles of being a black, working-class immigrant, but someone like Cindy Edwards, on the surface she couldn’t be any more different from me. I had to learn that showing empathy doesn’t really have anything to do with having similar demographics or backgrounds or lifestyles. It’s about a shared humanity.
Q:Though on the surface, the Edwards and the Jongas seem completely different, many themes and issues unite them, one of which is the desire for wealth—striving to acquire more money. Was it your intention to write about money?
A: I wasn’t exactly aiming to write about money but it is very much at the centre of the American Dream, and because of this I ended up writing about how money, or its lack thereof, can make or break families. For the Edwardses, money isn’t in short supply, but the price they had to pay to acquire that money has created fractures in the family. The Jongas on the other hand have very little money, and that comes with its own share of problems. To borrow from Tolstoy, both of these families are unhappy in their own way.
Q: One of the remarkable things about the Jongas is that they represent the older generation of immigrants who came here, worked hard, scrimped by with as little as they could so they could save for a better life. How do younger immigrants, coming of age in a consumerist culture, differ from the older generation?
A: The Jongas are indeed good savers, a trait I’ve noticed among older immigrants. Saving is great, but it’s just not easy being a saver in a culture where one is constantly being bombarded with seductive messages about things to buy—things that will supposedly bring happiness. Considering how loud and prevalent these messages are, it is understandable how the younger generation might not value saving as much as their parents. That notwithstanding, I believe it’s not only a consumerist culture that makes it hard for the younger generation to save but also the challenges of making ends meet. There are millions of hard-working young people who’d love to save and live a debt-free life but they can’t because low salaries, massive student loans, high cost of housing, and the concentration of most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a tiny minority make it difficult for them to have any money left at the end of the month.