Mbueís debut novel "Behold the Dreamers"
looks at the American dream from the points of view of
two couples ó a wealthy New York couple deeply
affected when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, and an
immigrant couple from Cameroon trying to make it in the
book was published last year to great acclaim, winning
the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and named a top
book of 2016 by the Washington Post, the San Francisco
Chronicle and many others. In June, just as it was about
to be published in paperback, it was chosen as an Oprah
Book Club pick ó and you know what that means.
is out on the road, speaking at bookstores and
libraries. In a wide-ranging e-mail conversation, she
talks about the thrill of hearing Oprahís voice, the
best new writers coming out of Africa, and how her view
of America has changed since leaving her native
What was it like to have your novel chosen as an Oprah
I donít suppose Iíll soon forget the moment when I
picked up my phone and heard, "Hi, Imbolo, itís
Oprah." First I was speechless, and simultaneously
thinking, "She sounds exactly like Oprah!"
When I finally somehow got myself together, I told her
about how I began writing after I read one of her book
club selections (Toni Morrisonís "Song of
Solomon") and how much it meant for me to get her
support, considering the role she has played in my
Mbue in Twin Cities
"Behold the Dreamers" is about two couples
pursuing the American dream. But the couples have very
different definitions for what the American dream is.
What does it mean to you?
The American Dream to me is about freedom. Ultimately,
isnít that what we as humans beings are really after
ó the freedom to be and do and have and go as we
desire? Itís what the immigrant family came here to
find ó material and financial freedom, which is
precisely what the wealthy, American-born family has
already achieved. The challenge, of course, is the cost
of achieving this dream, and that is something both
families have to reckon with.
How has the situation of new immigrants changed in the
U.S. since you started writing this book six years ago?
Immigration wasnít as much in the news in early 2011
when I started the novel. Interestingly, I started it as
a story about how two very different New York City
families were affected by the financial crisis. Iíd
lost my job about a year after Lehman Brothers collapsed
and I wanted to write about the experience of other New
Yorkers during that period. In doing so, the story ended
up touching on multiple issues, including the American
How has your view of America changed between before you
moved here from Cameroon until now?
My view of America before coming here was fairly naive,
largely informed by movies and TV shows. It didnít
take long after I arrived here to learn that most people
did not have the kind of wealth I saw on
"Dallas" or "Dynasty." That said, I
still very much believe that this is a country of
tremendous opportunity ó that is the reason why
millions around the world aspire to someday arrive here
to achieve their dreams.
What, if anything, do you hope readers take away from
I hope they take away from it whatever they wish to take
away from it. I wrote this novel to tell a story Iíd
been inspired to tell and my goal was to tell the story
honestly and completely. How it would be interpreted
didnít much occur to me, and itís always a thrill
for me to meet readers who, in sharing with me their
experience of reading the book, end up teaching me a
There seems to be a sudden strong awareness of great
writing coming out of Africa, particularly, it seems,
with women writers. Are there any African authors you
The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongío is one of the
greatest novelists to come out of Africa and I would
highly recommend his work ó his novels "Devil on
the Cross" and "Matigari" are among my
favorites. Iíd also recommend my fellow Anglophone
Cameroonian writer, Mbella Sonne Dipoko. For recent
novels by African writers, Yaa Gyasiís "Homegoing"
and Chigozie Obiomaís "The Fishermen" are
both incredibly powerful and excellent.
What books inspired you when you were growing up?
Shakespeareís "The Merchant of Venice" was
my favorite of his plays when I was a young girl in
Cameroon. I wanted to grow up to someday be as tough and
fearless as Portia.
What books do you reread?
I donít reread. I have way too many books on my
Where are you right now as you answer these questions?
What do you see?
I am in my apartment in New York City, sitting next to a
pile of books I canít wait to read. One of the great
things about being a writer is that you get to meet
wonderful writers and hear them talk about their books
and, of course, itís hard for me to not want to read
the books thereafter. I recently met Helen Macdonald,
Lauren Groff, Ayad Akhtar, Lynsey Addario, Maria Semple,
Greyson Bryan and Kati Marton at the Sun Valley Writersí
Conference in Idaho and Iím looking at their books