Imbolo Mbue’s rise to the top of the literary tree is a true fairytale of New York.
The 33-year-old Cameroonian writer, who was born in a house without running water or electricity, became the talk of the town when she got a million-dollar advance for her first novel, “Behold the Dreamers”, in 2014.
Two years later the book that Mbue wrote at the kitchen table of her tiny New York apartment — often while breastfeeding her babies — is getting the kind of reviews that authors dream of.
The New York Times called it a “dissection of the American dream that is savage and compassionate in all the right places”.
The critical reception on the other side of the Atlantic — where it was published simultaneously in French — has been equally warm, with Le Monde hailing “the discovery of a formidable writer”.
“I started the book when my first child was a baby,” Mbue told AFP, “and I rewrote it while nursing my second.
“I perfected the art of holding them with one hand and writing with the other,” she laughed.
“People afterwards said, ‘How wonderful for you!’ And I said, ‘Oh, no it wasn’t. Really, you don’t understand!'”
Mbue’s tale of a migrant from her oceanside hometown of Limbe who lands a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive — just before the bank’s collapse triggered a global financial crisis — is a bittersweet tale of great expectations slowly shattered.
Folly of the 1 percent
Despite the latitude that the subject matter gave her to skewer the people who drove the world into recession, Mbue’s immigrant heroes take a surprisingly tender view of the follies of the privileged one percent of US society they serve.
This gives the book what the Washington Post called “a kind of angelic annunciation of hope, which ultimately makes her story even more poignant”.
Like her characters Junde Jonga and his wife Neni, Mbue arrived in America at 17 with little more than her wide-eyed innocence and doggedness to declare.
Still Mbue had reason to feel embittered by the crash. The crisis cost her the good job in market research she landed after working herself through a master’s degree selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.
With “so many Americans also out of work”, she found it hard to get work and started writing.
“I wanted to be a college professor but my husband said only I could tell this story.
“It’s funny because he didn’t actually read the book until months after it was sold. Then he asked, ‘What is it about?'”
Instead of sending her manuscript to any old agent, Mbue went straight to Susan Golomb, who represents Jonathan Franzen, one of America’s most admired novelists.
Age of Trump
“I spent three years pursuing her,” she recalled. “I stalked her basically. She finally read it and I rewrote it and then she rejected me again, before finally saying OK.
“I don’t give up easily,” she said.
Despite her success, Mbue is under no illusion about the American Dream in the age of Donald Trump.
“The odds are against you in America as an immigrant. I hope people realise this. Washing dishes or working in a cab, you get stuck and exhausted.
“You don’t come to America to fail, but you have to have a lot of weapons to succeed.
“I’ve done some tough jobs,” Mbue added, “but writing and raising children are the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
“I am not the sort of person who would chose this path (as a writer). I have that immigrant mentality of wanting stability. I cannot just think of myself.”
So despite her new-found fame, Mbue is not leaving her “very small” apartment. “I am superstitious. I had so many good things happen there I don’t want to move. I am all cramped in there with screaming children, but I think if I move maybe my mojo will go away.”
By Fiachra Gibbons