Behold the Dreamers
M D Zigo, April 2019
Few people become famous and even rich, overnight. I believe Imbolo
Mbue is one of them. She is someone you would want to meet in your lifetime.
Until her critically acclaimed debut novel was published, the world had very
little knowledge of her. I did not know her until early 2017 - never heard of
her or came across any of her previous writings (which I later found out), were
few. Did she emerge from the blues?
I first knew about the author of Behold the Dreamers through a post a friend shared on Facebook. Later on, I stumbled upon her piece in The Guardian titled ''With Every Inch, the Challenge Multiplies: Me and My Afro,'' and I didn't think it my kind of article. However, being so inquisitive, I read on. The feature summarised thus:
''It's been short, long, straight
and punky- reflecting the twists and turns of my homeland, Cameroon.''
''Last summer while detangling (a
process that takes at least an hour and requires a lot of patience), I received
a phone call from a friend. There was an uprising in Cameroon, she said.
Hundreds of our fellow anglophone Cameroonians were rioting and protesting. The
government had unleashed its soldiers. Some protesters had been arrested. A few
might be dead. Our Struggle, ''the anglophone problem'' was back on the
spotlight. I sighed, too disturbed to respond. Hadn't we had enough?''
Highly informative and beautifully written, the piece was really not
only about her hair, but also about the gripping subject of decolonisation in
Africa and the relationship about the two communities in a bilingual country. I was impressed - even marvelled at the way
Mbue fused two interesting topics into one. Fusing them in such a way as to
keep interest in both required skills and I respected her for that. I decided I
needed to know more about her and her writing.
When I checked on her, I immediately realised I took the right decision
to research her.
Born in 1982, in Limbe, Cameroon, she moved to the US in 1998, at age
17, after a brilliant education in
Cameroon. She obtained her B.S from Rutgers and an MA from Columbia University.
She got her American citizenship in 2014. She became the talk of the town when she got a million-dollar advance
for her first story in 2014. According to reliable sources, she never wanted to
become a writer. Truth is, she became one - not just any ordinary author, but
one who became a household name - not only in New York - not only in the US,
where she resides but across the world and greatly loved by her fans. By the
time I enquired about her, Mbue was receiving a lot of buzz and trending on
social media. I did not delay ordering a copy of her book. When the book
finally arrived a few days after purchase, I found out the reason for her
In her acclaimed book, Imbolo
Mbue tells the story of two New York city families during the 2008 financial crisis:
an immigrant family from Cameroon and their wealthy employers. The piece of
work, according to the New York Times, is 'a
dissection of the American dream...savage and compassionate in all the right
places.' Sonia Nazario, a pulitzer
prize winning author summarises it as ' a
beautiful novel about one African couple starting a new life in a new land,
Behold the Dreamers will teach you about the promise and pitfalls of life in
the United States, as about the immigrant who come here in search of the so called
American Dream.' I agree with Ayelet
Waldman that 'It's rare that a book is so
fascinating, so emotionally compelling and so beautiful that I can't put it
I had become Imbolo Mbue's best fan - perhaps in my part of the world,
so much so that I told everybody I encountered, willing to listen, about Imbolo
Mbue's writing. When an opportunity came to meet her in person a few months
after, I did not hesitate to seize it. This was at the Louisiana International
Literature Festival in Denmark, August of 2017. The event takes place every
year, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, located some 25 miles North of
Copenhagen, with a panoramic view of Sweden across the ocean. That's where I
saw Imbolo Mbue. She was on a book tour - one of the few authors selected
around the world, to participate. We met on a sunny August Saturday, after she
completed a discussion/book signing event, along the coastline - a gentle
summer breeze blowing from the ocean, reminiscent of her native Limbe on the
Atlantic Coast of Cameroon.
I was an unexpected guest and she told me so. She had not expected to
see any Cameroonian, talk less of one from the English-speaking part of
Cameroon as she’d not met anyone from homeland, since
arriving in Denmark. Wearing a beautiful purple dress and a unique hair-style, she
reminded me of her article on '...me and my afro.' Our meeting lasted for only
20 minutes but created a lasting impression. We chatted about Cameroon and the
Cameroonian community in Denmark. We took many pictures and I made a video of
her signing my copy of her well-crafted masterpiece.
She scripted a positive message on my copy:
Such a pleasure meeting you in Copenhagen -thank you so much for your kindness and support! I hope you'll keep writing and someday, I'll get to read your work.
Cameroon oh Yay!
Here's to us representing and being the best we
Our meeting was brief and meaningful. She would have loved to attend a
gathering of Cameroonians from the South West Region of Cameroon, scheduled
later that evening or eat a 'fufu' and 'eru' meal my wife prepared, but time
did not permit. I returned home that Saturday evening pleased with myself-
knowing what a privilege it was meeting such a young and successful
Imbolo Mbue and I were worlds apart: she was already a successful
writer- acclaimed and renowned around the world- what I dreamed to become many
years ago. I was please I'd met her and drawn inspiration. 'I hope you'll keep
writing and someday, I'll get to read your work,’ she’d written. We were
worlds apart but also similar in so many ways; agemates, parents with two kids
at the time, family types, from the same country and region, had learned using the same
educational syllables until college, suffered the same prejudices and affected
by the same system of government, lived
in the same city and had all moved abroad, although to different
countries. I look up to her for
inspiration and motivation.
Today, I am pleased to hear that Imbolo Mbue’s
work continues to do well. The
book is a New York Times Bestseller, won multiple awards and chosen the best
book of the year by many publications. Her book is a favourite of Oprah’s. Behold the Dreamers has been translated into
many languages and recently optioned for a movie. Imbolo Mbue continues to make herself useful as she continues to inspire
and motivate others through her keynote speeches.
It was a privilege meeting Mbue. I look forward to reading her next big masterpiece.
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