Dreaming in the Dark

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“I’ll be frank—there were times working on this book when I definitely felt like I was just diving into the water in the dark,” admits novelist Carolina De Robertis. She’s seated in front of a wall of books—“just a fraction, of course, of the books in the house”—in the home she shares with her wife and their two school-age children in Oakland, Calif., for a Zoom call. “At times, the only way I could continue to work on the book and really give it my best as a writer was to secretly call it the Weird Book…. Yes, just put a neon sign over the metaphorical door, it’s weird.”
In The President and the Frog (Knopf, Aug.), her sixth book, the 45-year-old writer says she’s seeking something greater than truth, or, as she puts it, the ability of fiction to “use invention to more freely explore the truth.”
It opens with an 82-year-old former leader of an unnamed Latin American country being visited by a Norwegian journalist for an interview. Noticing in her something the narrator calls “the listening gift,” he wonders if he should finally reveal a long-kept secret: that talking to a frog during his time in solitary confinement when he was imprisoned for inciting revolution was what kept him alive.
The basis for the character of the aging politician was Uruguayan president and former guerrilla José Mujica, who spent 12 years in prison and later became known for his quest for human rights. Mujica, president from 2010 to 2015, donated most of his salary to charity and stayed in his own humble home, where he continued to work the land himself. And the frog is inspired by, well, a frog.
In 2013, De Robertis, who is Uruguayan American, was living in Uruguay while Mujica was president. That’s when she read an interview in which he mentioned that he had survived his torture and imprisonment by talking to a frog. “I tend to reflect on, dream on, gather material for a novel for years before I begin,” she says. “I call it the dreaming phase. But I was also in the dreaming phase for my prior book, Cantoras”—about five queer women who find refuge in one another in 1970s Uruguay and beyond—“and I wrote that book first.”
By the time she started writing The President and the Frog, Donald Trump was in the White House. “Many people, including myself, were grappling with grief and despair or other forms of really asking tough questions about how we were going to exist and how we were going to support each other to live our full humanity in the context of more open hostility,” she says.
While envisioning The President and the Frog, De Robertis also found herself thinking a lot about her grandmother—“a poet, and very bohemian and wild”—who fled to Uruguay after being exiled from Argentina. She died when De Robertis was seven, at a time when there were dictatorships in both countries.
“I thought about what it would be like if I could go back in time and tell her that the seeds of positive transformation for her country were alive in that very time, in one of those devastating prisons, in the form of revolutionary Tupamaros guerrillas who would one day rise up and carry the nation to a more progressive era,” De Robertis says.
“And I wondered, what can that desire of mine to reach back in time to my grandmother in her despair, what can that tell me about the seeds that are around us right now, in this era in the United States, where we are looking openly at the ways in which hostility and danger and xenophobia and racism are part of the fabric of our society?”
De Robertis envisioned The President and the Frog as “a love letter to anyone who’s ever felt despair,” she says, “or anyone who looks at climate change, or the spike in open racism, or just the difficulty of navigating daily life in our world.” As her protagonist slowly comes to understand the stories he needs to tell, not only to keep himself alive, but to make himself whole again, De Robertis offers a powerful reminder that narrative—writing it, reading it, engaging with it—is a healing act.
“There’s a way in which writing is a way of opening space to be able to fully breathe,” she says, “and hopefully to make room for other people through story, in a way that’s larger than myself.”
The President and the Frog seems at first disarmingly simple compared to De Robertis’s previous sweeping historical epics, which include her 2009 debut, the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain. That novel, a finalist for a California Book Award and International Latino Book Award, is a multigenerational story about three Uruguayan women and the history of Uruguay itself, and has been translated into 17 languages.
In 2012, she released Perla; inspired by a true story from Argentinean history; it follows a young woman who has a disturbing realization about her origins. De Robertis’s next book was 2015’s The Gods of Tango, a Stonewall Book Award winner, about a woman who must disguise herself as a man to play in a tango band in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. Then, in 2019, she released Cantoras, which won a Reading Women Award and a Stonewall Book Award.
“I would say, for at least three of my four prior novels, I was painting on a very large canvas. Mural painting was one of my guiding metaphors for navigating the novel process, and then for this book, I really wanted to explore portraiture,” she says.
Even a narrow lens, however, can reveal much, and through the back-and-forth of the president’s conversations with the reporter and memories from his time on the verge of giving up entirely while imprisoned, De Robertis digs into the meaning of home and country, what humans need to survive, and what matters most in a life.
De Robertis is also a translator of Latin American and Spanish literature, the editor of the 2017 anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, and a teacher of creative writing at San Francisco State University. As a child, she moved from England to Switzerland to Los Angeles as her father, the scientist Edward De Robertis, built his career. Coming to the U.S. when she was 10, “from other countries that were not my country of origin,” she says, “I had this feeling and experience of having a country inside my skin that wasn’t outside my skin.”
She went on to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, and moved to the Bay Area in 1997. “I bounced around between San Francisco and Berkeley, following the lower rents at the time, working at different activist jobs, and as a substitute teacher. And then I had this very formative experience in my mid-20s when I was about to marry a woman, the love of my life, with whom I’ve had these two children, and my parents disowned me. One of the things that they said was that I couldn’t be Uruguayan anymore, because I was gay. Because I didn’t exist in their country.
“When I was younger, back when I was writing that first novel, I thought I’d never feel at home anywhere in the world. I thought belonging was just something that would never be fully possible for me,” De Robertis says. “But I’ve built a life in the Bay Area with my wife and kids and with chosen family, and a community that we have forged where there is room for all of us. Because there’s enough openness and possibility for families like mine.”
De Robertis has two siblings, a brother and a sister, whom she remains in touch with; she’s also in contact with other relatives in South America. But she remains estranged from her parents. That rift has, in a way, clarified her mission: “It’s been such an enormous part of what’s shaped the themes that are urgent to me, and the way that I think about love and family and possibility, and the way we anchor ourselves in the world.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Fact or Fiction: On Vendela Vida’s ‘We Run the Tides’

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Vendela Vida is a little bit tired, which is understandable. It’s the day after the presidential election. The night before this interview she stayed up until three in the morning watching the results come in from a neighbor’s backyard in the Bay Area. At the time, she thought she might go to sleep knowing who the next president was. That didn’t happen, but they ate “lots of cheese and drank two gin and tonics each,” she says, “and that’s basically how our evening went, yeah.”
Vida, 49, remains “cautiously hopeful” about the state of America, in part because she doesn’t want her son and daughter, who are 11 and 15, to feel her anxiety. “It’s just very hard to try to comfort your kids during this time, so that’s what my main goal is today,” she says. So far, that’s involved doing electoral college math with her son while checking the New York Times home page every 10 minutes, though she’s taking a break for this interview about her sixth novel, We Run the Tides, due out in February from Ecco. (She’s also written a nonfiction book, 2000’s Girls on the Verge, as well as a screenplay with her husband, author Dave Eggers, that became the 2009 movie Away We Go.)
“It’s really funny that we’re talking today,” Vida begins, “because this book started the day after the 2016 election.” Back then, it was a nonfiction book about lying, a subject she had become obsessed with after rereading Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok’s 1978 work, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. “If one person starts lying, especially someone in power, it just bleeds into society and everyone starts lying,” she explains. “It’s kind of like a cesspool.”
As Vida pondered the ways in which lying contaminates a community, a novel featuring teenage girls in a 1980s seaside community in San Francisco slowly arose. “I feel like for every book I write, there’s kind of the dead twin book that doesn’t make it into the world,” she says.
We Run the Tides starts with friendship—the best friendship between protagonist Eulabee, an astute observer with a keen, often misunderstood sense of humor, and Maria Fabiola, a charismatic beauty who insists on spinning a web of deceit that captivates peers and adults alike. When Maria Fabiola tells a story about something Eulabee knows is not true, Eulabee refuses to go along with her, and in a moment, everything changes. What comes to pass is an exploration not only of truth and fiction but also of the cruelty and power of teenage girls, the male gaze and its subversion, and what happens when a city loses its bohemian soul.
In a 2011 interview, Vida told the Guardian that as a teen, she used to lie often. One whopper involved telling her neighbors that her parents had adopted a newly orphaned friend. Eulabee, too, offers up that lie early on in We Run the Tides.
But the novel isn’t based on its author or her experience, Vida insists. Yes, she grew up in the Bay Area in the ’80s, like Eulabee, with a Hungarian father and a Swedish mother. The two share a certain sensibility and sense of humor, she notes, but how could they not? Characters are an extension of a writer’s truth, even when the characters are not based on anyone.
“Maria Fabiola: it really started with her name,” Vida says. “I thought, who would this person be?” We all have Maria Fabiolas in our lives, she adds. “But for me, Maria Fabiola is completely a fabrication.”
A novel, itself a fabrication, can’t exist without poignant truths that spring to the surface through plot and characterization and detail, and Vida is excellent at details so specific and resonant as to be breathtaking. “The book is fiction, and it doesn’t even have a lot of details of things that really happened to me, but the sensibility and the sensory details are very real to me,” she explains. While writing, “it was incredible how many details came flooding back. I remembered how important the Esprit outlet was to us, in San Francisco in the ’80s. The colors of the clothes there really inspired a lot of what we did, and also inspired the book cover.” Another memory was the sound of skateboard wheels on the cement: “That was definitely a Proustian Madeleine moment, because obviously there are a lot of skateboarders in San Francisco now, but the cement is smoother and it’s just a different sound.”
And so, even though the world in which Eulabee and Maria Fabiola exist is a creation—there is no actual “Sea Cliff” community—it feels real. (The made-up schools in the book are named for Edith Wharton characters.) The novel, which is imbued with that hauntingly melancholic but strangely delicious sense of looking back that will resonate with any adult who has ever been a teen (i.e., everyone), even features a dedication noting that the characters and story in the book are not real.
Three years ago, Vida sold the Believer, the literary magazine she started in 2003 with her Columbia grad school friends Heidi Julavitz and Ed Park, to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As founding editor, she now applauds the magazine from the sidelines, which frees her up to give more time to her own writing. Recently, she rented what she generously describes as a “studio space”—a room in an establishment that used to rent hot tubs by the hour. (Given the current global pandemic, the hot tubs have been removed.)
Vida says she plans to start a new book in her new “tiled hot tub room with no hot tub.” It’s too new, the creative balloon too fragile, to be discussed. But she reveals that her books begin with “an idea that won’t go away—if there’s something I keep thinking about, there’s something there.”
In We Run the Tides, Eulabee’s father shares two important truths: that hard work conquers all obstacles, and that good triumphs over evil, which is always lurking. Knowing what we do now—about society, about human nature, even about writing—how true are those lessons? Vida still believes in them, she says. “It’s funny to be saying that today, on this day, while we’re waiting for the election results. But yeah, I do believe that.”
At the same time, lying isn’t always bad. For a teenager, the act of making up stories offers a special power. “You’re creating different futures for yourself, right?” Vida asks. “You’re trying on different hats, different personalities, and different looks or different sports. You’re trying to figure out your identity. I think that’s part of your adolescent development. The problem arises when you don’t stop lying, when it actually becomes a compulsion.”
The twist, perhaps, is that teenagers grow up, but novelists, if they’re lucky, get to keep telling stories their whole lives—and those stories change not only those who read them, but those who write them, in multiple ways. “Now it’s actually funny, because when I look at the book, I can’t even remember a little bit of what happened to me and what happened to the character,” Vida says. “It sounds very strange, but it’s kind of merged.”
Of course, in a novel, that’s not a lie. It’s just good writing


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Gina Apostol Gets Meta

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“What a weird world we’re in,” Gina Apostol says via Zoom on the day news broke of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. She’s at her partner’s house in Western Massachusetts, where she usually spends summers.
As a teacher at the New York City prep school Fieldston, Apostol is able to work remotely. This semester, she’s teaching James Baldwin to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. “It’s all Baldwin, all the time,” she says. “I was just texting my friends and my co-teachers saying that the freshmen call Baldwin ‘James.’ They’re the cutest.”
Apostol, 57, is the author of 2013’s Gun Dealer’s Daughter, a PEN Open Book Award–winning novel and her American debut, as well as 2018’s Insurrecto. Her first two novels, 1997’s Bibliolepsy and 2009’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Philippine National Book Award for fiction and have only been available in her native Philippines. But in January, a revised edition of Raymundo Mata will be released by Soho Press. The timing might be ideal, given the subject matter and its relationship to the weird world we’re in.
Raymundo Mata is a concoction of voices, languages (Cebuano, Tagalog, Waray, and English), and stories within stories. It’s based on the recovered diary of the eponymous Mata, a fictional night-blind, somewhat accidental revolutionary and fervent reader during the Philippines’ war against colonizers Spain and America at the end of the 19th century. Mata is obsessed with the writing of actual Filipino revolutionary hero, author, and ophthalmologist José Rizal.
Apostol says it was hard to use Rizal as a character. “Filipinos love this guy,” she notes. “He more or less created the country. And his novels—more or less, that’s how the country knows itself. That’s how the country articulates itself. It was hard because it was so disrespectful. But like Mata’s diary, I just put weird sock puppets in there. I don’t know. It is a scandal. It’s not what you do with Rizal. So that was fun.”
Just as important as Mata’s memoir and its connection to Rizal are the three female voices in the novel—translator Mimi C. Magsalin, psychotherapist Diwata Drake, and kooky nationalistic editor Estrella Espejo—who weigh in on the text of Mata’s diary in less-than-objective footnotes. (The characters of Magsalin and Espejo also appear in Insurrecto, which Apostol describes as “Raymundo Mata without footnotes.”)
“I was saying to my agent, ‘I’d like to actually go back to Raymundo Mata and look at it again, because of the fake news shit that’s going on right now—to reflect on what this metatextuality means,” Apostol says. “Because in our current space, it is weirdly damaging in the sense that people are making up all of these things. The novel is about the instability of textuality that we all seem to be victims of right now.”
Raymundo Mata is also about being a reader and about the reader’s experience, which, Apostol points out, is something we’re missing in the conversation about fake news. In the last third of the book, Mata writes in his diary, “A reader has as much to say about a book as an author, if not more.” By weaving together the voices and opinions of the three women weighing in on Mata’s diary, Apostol makes the book about the readers, not the writer. And, as she sees it, there are five readers in play: the three women, Mata, and the reader of the novel itself. In this sense, the book questions the necessity of recognizing the inherent multiplicities of thought, opinion, interpretation, and reality that must coexist in any society.
As the saying goes, two things can be true at the same time. “We keep wanting the unifying thing, which is really problematic and unhealthy,” Apostol says. What we should seek instead, she adds, is to be ethical—to consider the effects of our actions and consider multiple ways of looking at something, choosing the one that brings about the better result.
None of this means that Raymundo Mata isn’t fun. It is—especially once you let yourself fall into it. Writing it was clearly a romp for Apostol. “I was just laughing every day,” she says. When revising the U.S. version, she let herself do it all over again. “In the spirit of the novel, whatever I wanted to change, I changed. One of the ways I envisioned that novel is that you could put it online and people could just keep adding footnotes, forever.” She also “punned away,” she says. “It is true, Filipinos just… I mean, if you look at even just their Twitter handles or whatever, they’re full of puns. Because they have 60 languages. And it’s a form of power. If you’re going after President Duterte, you use a pun. You punish him. As I’ve always said, it’s not an efficient form of revolution, but it has its uses.”
Like her other novels, Apostol says, Raymundo Mata is about “figuring out truth given the ways we’re always so blinded to it.” Understanding and accepting what the translator, the psychotherapist, and the editor each want lets readers interrogate their own desires—what they hope for in their relationship with a book, and even with history. It also highlights their power and responsibility in crafting stories, no matter how they come to them.
“What’s our place in the stories that are being told?” Apostol asks. “It’s not just being a Filipino or these identifiers that we have. There are multiple pulse points. And that might allow us to be more aware of being manipulated, aware of the authorship that others are doing to us. It’s so important now, because we have to be so much smarter about how we read, how we take in information.”
The act of writing itself turns out to be yet another story—”a way to block off all the noise and do something that might be more meaningful,” Apostol says. “Writing really is what pulls me. It’s what drives me. But I will say this about teaching, and especially teaching younger people: it’s an everyday kind of meaningful activity. It is grounding, I think, to have a job that takes you out of yourself. And to be honest, here’s the self-interest part: I get a lot from them, too.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Xiaolu Guo’s Search for a Perfect Home

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In March, Chinese-born British author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo left New York City in a rush. She’d been a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at Columbia University, and, just before the Covid-19 lockdown, she started to get very worried, she explains on a Zoom call from Berlin.
“I thought they were announcing closing borders,” she says. “And I changed my ticket, actually, to leave earlier. I left everything, so the rental flat is still full of clothes. And my office, full of books. Everything’s there”—including some chocolate she remembers leaving on the table. “I thought, Oh I’m just going to be back. Maybe a week or something, you know?”
Months later, home, for Guo, remains in wild, disconcerting flux. In a way, though, she is more prepared than most for the isolating geographical complications of a pandemic. Questions of identity, language, and what makes a home—both internally and externally—are central to the 47-year-old’s impressive body of work, which includes six books written originally in English, seven books originally in Chinese, and 11 films.
Her new novel, A Lover’s Discourse, which will be published by Grove Atlantic in October, returns to familiar topics for the author. It’s an examination of linguistics, love, and the connections between people, often disrupted by country. She began exploring these themes in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, the first novel she wrote in her second language of English, which she largely taught herself. (That book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007 and has been translated into more than 20 languages.)
Both A Lover’s Discourse and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary were inspired by the work of Roland Barthes, whose 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments Guo studied in her 20s while attending the Beijing Film Academy. Dictionary is told from the perspective of a young Chinese woman who moves to London and falls in love with an Englishman as she attempts to learn English. Discourse tackles similar themes, and is composed largely of conversations between a Chinese graduate student (like Guo once was) and an Australian man (Guo’s partner is Australian), who fall in love in Brexit-era London.
“In the book, the Chinese character, she’s a new immigrant,” Guo says. “The man is Anglo-Saxon, widely European.” As a white man in Britain, he naturally fits in, in terms of language and identity, whereas she struggles to find her way as an outsider. Searching for identity and connection, the unnamed narrator of Discourse moves through various roles—immigrant, academic, lover, wife, mother—each of them allowing her to sample a sense of purpose, place, comfort, and belonging, or lack thereof, while giving Guo a chance to explore the nuances of feminism, power, language, and strangely subjective cultural expectations. What her character is truly after is authenticity, Guo says. “The idea of authentic home and the idea of authentic love. Whether you’re married or not. I really think it’s what we miss in modern life.”
The author calls her books “documentary novels,” and notes that she was almost offended when A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was classified as fiction: “In China, you don’t separate fiction and nonfiction. I’m not used to this idea: ‘Are you a fiction writer? Are you a poet?’ I thought, ‘Oh, but you can’t categorize me.’ ”
But the social reality of categorization—that the groups to whom one belongs, where one belongs, and why can so easily define you—isn’t just a matter of her work. When Guo was a newborn in China, her parents, unable to care for her, gave her to a peasant couple in the mountains to raise. At the age of two, she was given back to her grandparents, who lived in small fishing village. Then, at seven, she rejoined her parents, living on a Communist-era compound. (She chronicles these early life experiences and others in her 2017 memoir, Nine Continents.)
Art helped her survive these disconnections, and she left China in 2002, coming to London on scholarship to the National Film School. She’s since lived in Berlin, Switzerland, Paris, and the U.S. “I’ve been drifting along in all these countries as a short-time resident,” she says. “This is a habit as a person, a nomad, continues to drift and to look for a perfect home. Because I think, once you lose your original home, you just don’t have one.” Even after nearly 20 years in Europe, the author grapples with where she truly belongs: “I became a legalized European, then Brexit happened, and now I am only British. Now, suddenly, I’m a foreigner in Europe.”
At first, upon news of impending lockdown, Guo returned to her flat in East London, which she shares with her partner, a philosophy professor, and their seven-year-old daughter. In June, when travel restrictions were lifted, the family went to Berlin, with hopes of returning to London in a month. (Guo intends to go back to New York City at the end of August to start her new residency at Baruch College.) But the American Embassy where she needs to get her scholar visa has been closed indefinitely, she says. Travel bans between Europe and the U.S. continue. Home is as confusing to her, right now, as it is to her characters.
In A Lover’s Discourse, there’s a scene in which the protagonist and her partner go to get the birth certificate for their child, who, by virtue of being born in London, is English, even though neither of her parents are. The clerk asks if they want an original copy, as well as the original certificate. The narrator is perplexed: How can a copy be original? “The original copy I will produce here is original,” the clerk explains, adding that future copies will be produced elsewhere, and therefore will not be original.
This foregrounds a series of questions Guo continues to ponder throughout the novel: What is original—and does it matter? What is authentic? And how has colonialism influenced our thinking? “Who owns the land originally?” Guo asks. “Before that, who was killed in order to allow that? I think we move around, we just think, Okay, we might not be original now, but we might be original 10 years ago or 10 years after.” Where you’re born is, after all, “a very accidental human consequence,” she says, and is more political than anything. “We could be born in a war zone in Vietnam as American, or French in Burma,” she says. Through the couple in A Lover’s Discourse, Guo presents a countering, modern idea: “We should abandon the idea of traditional land. Adopt a new concept of home and identity.”


Meanwhile, Guo’s own feelings continue to evolve. “In my novel, there’s a strong sentimental value to the new home,” she says, an idea “that the nature, the human geography, should be something close to your original homeland. But nowadays, after a pandemic, you think, ‘Well, it’s not about that sentimentality, it’s about sustainability.’ The idea of home is even more pressing and also may demand to be more local.” At the same time, she finds herself pulled back to New York City, arguably the least familiar of her many homes.
As an artist, Guo posits, perhaps your home is the work you do, and your need to follow your drive to create wherever it takes you. “I try to live as this process of my character going through different languages and different lands,” she says. “It became so obvious: language is a writer’s identity. There’s only one loyalty—to the language I’m writing in now.”
Bonus Link:
Sticks and Stones

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Dissidents, Revolutionaries, and Protestors: On Imbolo Mbue

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It wasn’t easy to pin down an interview with Imbolo Mbue, the 39-year-old novelist whose first book, 2016’s Behold the Dreamers—a dissection of capitalism, class, and the American dream set during the Great Recession—went on to become a New York Times bestseller, an Oprah Book Club pick, and the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. But the scheduling challenges weren’t any person’s fault. On March 12, in an attempt to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency for New York City, where Mbue lives with her husband and children. So, instead of meeting in person, she answered questions via Skype from her Midtown apartment, casually dressed in a denim shirt, her hair up in a bun, during a brief break from figuring out what exactly one does during a pandemic.
In a way, there was something appropriate about the timing. Mbue’s latest novel, How Beautiful We Were, publishes in June and follows the residents of Kosawa, a fictional African village that’s been devastated over the course of several generations by a greedy American oil company and the corrupt national government. The village children are dying from contaminated drinking water and the land can no longer produce medicinal herbs. Finally, the villagers determine that no one will help them—they’ll have to fight back. Among them is a child named Thula, who goes on to lead a movement aimed at bringing democracy to her people and a redemption of their ancestral land.

It’s an epic work tackling a number of brutal realities: the question of whether we protect ourselves or the greater community, how anger manifests in those who have been exploited for others’ gain (and further entrenches those determined to stay in power), and how a willful ignorance of the ways we are inextricably tied together threatens to destroy us all.
“We are so connected, and I think that, for better or worse, my novel deals with globalization,” Mbue says. “We are seeing the perils of globalization right now. People pay prices for other people’s actions in other parts of the world.”
Growing up in the coastal town of Limbe, Cameroon, Mbue was always different. “I was a bookish kid, and in the place I’m from, people don’t really read books,” she says. She came to America at 17 to attend Rutgers University; Thula fro How Beautiful We Were comes to the United States at the same age for her studies.
“I also grew up in Africa in a time when people were trying to fight back,” Mbue says. “There were a lot of revolutionaries in my childhood, not in my country but all over Africa. So even as a child, I always had this love and admiration for dissidents and revolutionaries and protestors.”
Though Mbue shares some attributes with her heroine, their lives took very different tracks. While Thula becomes a revolutionary, Mbue earned her bachelor’s in business administration and, later, her master’s from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 2009, after she’d been laid off from her job in market research, she noticed black drivers waiting at the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle for white executives. That moment sparked Behold the Dreamers.
The novel’s central character, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who gets a job chauffeuring a Lehman Brothers executive, sold for a rumored seven figures in 2014—the same year Mbue became an American citizen. But before the book sold, she says she faced “years of rejection.” She adds, “It was more like a roller coaster than like smooth sailing, you know?”
Mbue is a private person—so private that when her agent was sending out Behold the Dreamers to publishers, they would Google her name, “and there was nothing, because I just didn’t even exist on the Internet,” she says, laughing. “Then I got a book deal, and then my name appeared on the Internet, and then my picture appeared on the Internet, which was actually funny, because there was no picture of me on the Internet before.”
Mbue says she cares deeply about maintaining space to do what is true to her, supporting the solace of “a cocoon” in which to think and create without getting caught up in what other people want. “You have to know yourself.” So she’s not on social media. A friend manages her Facebook page. She prefers not to talk about her kids or her husband (who reads all of her press “but knows not to say a word to me”). She doesn’t even enjoy talking much about herself, outside of her writing.

But there is one personal anecdote Mbue loves to tell. A few years after moving to America, she visited a library in Falls Church, Va., where she encountered Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, an Oprah Book Club pick. It inspired her to start writing, though at the time she kept her work a secret from her friends and family, considering it just a hobby. Then in 2017, when Mbue’s first novel, Behold the Dreamers, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, Mbue received a call from Oprah Winfrey herself. “I said, ‘You won’t believe it, but you, your Book Club, is what affected me and got me to start writing, actually.’ Oprah responded, ‘Oh my God, why haven’t I heard this story before?’ ”
How Beautiful We Were, which Mbue describes as an incredibly difficult book to write—“a love song to anybody with the strength to overthrow a system”—has been nearly two decades in the making. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you write such timely books,’ ” she says. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean, timely? I’ve been writing something that was on my mind in 2002!’ Nobody was talking about the oil industry when I was writing this book. I was thinking about a story that mattered to me.”
Mbue returned to the novel in 2016, after Behold the Dreamers. “I knew that I had to write the story that had been haunting me,” she says. “And then after Mr. Trump won the election, there was all this hysteria, and I just was like, ‘You guys just continue your noise and hysteria. I’m just going to work on my story.’ It was a wonderful, wonderful sense of solace, having this story.”
How Beautiful We Were went through “a gazillion drafts,” says Mbue, who poured herself into the task, spurred by an innate curiosity and a sense of herself as an observer informed by two very different worlds. “I’ve seen such a range of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to stand up, and what it means to have a voice. I think America really shaped my mind, and Cameroon shaped my character.”
Mbue didn’t hesitate to ask the hard questions, to dive into those stories behind the story: What is it like to be a freedom fighter, or a revolutionary, or a dissident? What are the sacrifices you make? And what sacrifices do your family make? And what price do you pay?
When asked if she’s nervous about preparing to publish a book in the midst of a pandemic, she shakes her head. “I just don’t want to make anything worse. We want it to be over as soon as possible, so we all have to do our part. And hopefully it is over soon.” Then she adds, “I am very much at peace, because it was a story I had to tell, and I told it, and my part is mostly done.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.