Bestselling author Imbolo Mbue joins Traverse City’s National Writers Series to discuss her new book, “How Beautiful We Were,” on Friday, March 19, an African tale inspired by the Flint water crisis.
This free virtual event takes place via Zoom at 7 p.m. ET; pre-registration is required. Her book is available at Horizon Books with a 20% NWS discount and at other area bookstores. The guest host for this Northern Michigan event is the director of Arts and Culture for the city of Detroit, Rochelle Riley.
The setting for author Imbolo Mbue’s new book may seem foreign to most readers in Northern Michigan: A small village in sub-Saharan Africa, thousands of miles from North America, rife with pollutants in the water, in the air, and in the soil. And yet the fictional hamlet of Kosawa, the community at the center of “How Beautiful We Were,” has one town in Michigan to credit as part of its inspiration: Flint.
As her first novel, the critically-acclaimed “Behold the Dreamers,” was being released in 2016, Mbue was watching the Flint water crisis unravel. That’s what brought Mbue back to her first, yet-unfinished novel that she started in 2004, which would go on to become “How Beautiful We Were.” More specifically, it was what was happening to the children of Flint, she says, that inspired her to write.
“I think I’m very much still connected to the African child that I was, the child who struggled to understand why there was so much injustice in the world,” Mbue says, “and America seemed like a place that really cared about children—and it does, for the most part. Children are well protected here. But then Flint happened.”
Mbue, who was raised in Cameroon before coming to America for college, says that Flint’s crisis set the stage to finally recast the events of her story mostly from the perspective of children. In the book, the village goes up against an oil company called Pexton, which has spent years polluting the rivers and soil around the village. Despite the deaths of numerous children and repeated promises to take care of the environment, Pexton never follows through … and a toothless government is no help either. Accordingly, the village decides to do what they can to fight back.
“Something as basic as clean water: that is what really affected me with [Flint]. And that was a huge part of why I started the novel to be told from the voices of children,” Mbue says. “It was around that same time that I got that scene of the very first child … drinking poison water. Flint was very much on my mind.”
If all of this still sounds like something that’s thousands of miles away from home, as a writer whose introduction to literature came through Shakespeare, miles and centuries away from Cameroon, Mbue understands.
“It’s about humans, right?” she says. “I think that is why we connect to stories. I used to hear stories from India, from South America, all over the world. It is not about the places—it’s about the people. They struggle with power, they struggle with relationships … That is the wonderful thing about literature to me. I didn’t know anything about [Shakespeare’s] world, but I was fascinated by … ‘The Merchant of Venice.’”
It’s a wonderful reminder that the limitations of art are few, and the stories of people halfway across the world can also resonate with us here at home. “When it comes to art in general, I don’t believe that there are boundaries,” Mbue says. “I don’t believe that it matters because Kosawa could be Michigan. Because they are dealing with similar issues.”
So as a writer who spent so much time creating this world and telling a modern David and Goliath story, what would Mbue say to anyone who finds themselves in this real-life equivalent tale of environmental destruction? “I think it’s important that I really portray what happens when we do not think about the consequences of [our] actions,” Mbue says, and cites the real-world actions of children that give her hope for whatever’s coming next.
“I am so heartened by how young people are rising up and saying, ‘Enough is enough, we’re gonna fight for ourselves now … because we can’t depend on you to fight for us anymore, we have to fight for ourselves. We may be children but we’re gonna fight for ourselves,” Mbue says.