Poets & Writers


IN THE FIRST pages of How Beautiful We Were, published by Random House in March, Imbolo Mbue writes about a “sickness that had arrived like a thief in the night,” an illness that brought fevers and “raspy coughs” until soon “death had grown more ruthless.” She writes: “They told us it would soon be over, that we would all be well in no time.”

Sounds eerily familiar, yet this is not a novel about the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite uncanny similarities to the present—and unlike much contemporary dystopian fiction about environmental collapse—the second novel by the Cameroonian-born author is a more realistic saga about taking a stand against all odds. Thriving in the shadow of colonialism in the fictional African village of Kosawa, the multinational corporation Pexton profits from the oil beneath the land without regard for the air and water, which has “progressed from dirty to deadly,” as the country’s dictatorial leader enjoys the wealth and privilege that accompanies this arrangement. It is such intricacies of power that Mbue, who calls herself “a student of human complexity,” explored in her first novel, Behold the Dreamers (Random House, 2016), and that she spreads onto a larger, more dramatic canvas in How Beautiful We Were.

Zooming from the Hudson Valley region of New York, where she has settled during the pandemic, Mbue says she is looking forward to the March 2021 launch of How Beautiful We Were, delayed almost a year from its original publication date of June 2020 because of COVID-19. She muses that she is perfecting her Spanish and French as she continues to shelter in place, hoping to return to her home in New York City soon while her schedule fills up with online events to promote the new book. But then, a few more months hardly seem to matter for a novel that has taken its time—nearly two decades—to come to fruition.

Mbue wrote most of the opening chapter of after the election of

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