Imbolo Mbue‘s debut novel Behold the Dreamers burst onto the literary scene last year. The novel was recently selected as Oprah’s Book Club pick for 2017 (and the book has just come out in paperback). Below the author describes how a chance encounter with Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon changed the course of her life.
It was the spring of 2002; I’d been in America for a few years, after having migrated from Cameroon to attend college. I was living in Fall Church, Virginia, a town in which I had no family or friends. As I was wont to do under such circumstances, I went to one of my favorite places—the public library.
Though I’d grown up in villages and towns without public libraries, I had lived for a few years with an aunt who had books in her house and it was there I’d discovered what a wondrous thing a book can be. My reading life began at around eight; my introduction to literature included works by Shakespeare and Dickens (The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice were among my most-loved; A Tale of Two Cities left me shaken).
I also read novels by great African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o but I didn’t read much that wasn’t written by a European or an African. Which is why on that day in 2002, when I went to the library, I wasn’t planning to borrow a novel written by an American.
Fate, of course, had other plans, because upon entering the library, I immediately noticed Oprah’s Book Club selections on a separate shelf. Song of Solomon caught my eyes and I borrowed it, thinking it would be a story inspired by the biblical book of a similar name. From the first page, however, I could tell it was no such story.
I was enraptured by the story of Macon Dead, and by the beauty and power of Ms. Morrison‘s prose. I remember telling a friend, midway through the book, that if God were a writer, She would write like Toni Morrison. Despite having been a lifelong reader, I’d never considered writing, but the moment I finished reading Song of Solomon, I began writing. Fiction writing became my new favorite hobby, alongside reading.
My love for writing notwithstanding, I didn’t give much consideration to becoming a writer—when I eventually moved to New York City, it wasn’t to become a writer but an educator. After graduating from Columbia University’s Teachers College, I got a job at a media company doing market research. I was working there in the fall of 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis arrived.
A year later, I lost my job. A new job was hard to come by so, in between sending out countless résumés, I read a lot. And wrote a lot. When I got the inspiration for a story about a Lehman Brothers executive and his chauffeur, I threw myself into the story, and it ultimately became a novel called Behold the Dreamers.
It still awes me how my writing journey began—by reading a great book.
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posted by Cybil
on July, 25