Living Writers: Imbolo Mbue Visits Campus to Discuss Novel ‘How Beautiful We Were’

An abundance of students and faculty filed into the Colgate MemorialChapel to hear award-winning novelist Imbolo Mbue speak about her book, How Beautiful We Were, on the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 22. As part of the Living Writers series at Colgate, led by Professor of English Jennifer Brice, Mbue traveled to campus to speak to the Colgate community. She led a talk on her journey as an author and facilitated a discussion about her recently published novel, which served as the required reading for the class of 2026.

To begin the event, Brice took to the stage to introduce Mbue, highlighting her recent awards and providing a brief introduction to How Beautiful We Were. Senior Adanya Jeudy, a student in the Living Writers class, also prepared a welcoming introduction.

“It means a lot to me that people are open to listening to the stories I tell,” Mbue said. 

Published in the spring of 2021, Mbue’s sophomore novel opens a dialogue between America’s profit-driven destruction and ruination of small towns, environments, communities and interpersonal relationships in the African village of Kosawa.

As a native of Cameroon, the author explained how shifting cultures when she moved to the United States for college heavily influenced her work. With lighthearted and inventive humor, Mbue recounted stories from her college years at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and memories from living in New York. Her observations ranged from differing senses of self-esteem among Americans to class differences, politics and corporate culture, ultimately inspiring her first two books, Behold the Dreamers and How Beautiful We Were.

“In addition to being from Limbe, I also had the advantage of spending the first years of my life in a couple of villages where my mother worked as a community development professional. The houses in which we lived never had electricity or running water. But I don’t remember wishing our lives were different. I had a very happy childhood,” Mbue said. “Other than that, many times I wonder if I would have become a writer if I had never come to America.”

“Having the opportunity to talk with writers like Imbolo Mbue about their writing process is an invaluable experience,”  junior Molly Rynne, another student in the Living Writers class, recounted. “Mbue is very well spoken and hearing her talk about her work only adds more power to it.”

The book focuses on environmental justice and the corruption of large corporations. However, Mbue stated that she views the novel more as an account of storytelling. The novel highlights which stories are told, and leaves the readers wondering which may have been left untold. 

Junior Kate Liu, a Living Writers student, noted that she enjoys having the opportunity to hear from writers directly after reading their work.

“Though How Beautiful We Were is an objectively sad book, its purpose and complexities captivate readers. I think it has a lot to teach us about facing the climate crisis, especially in international terms. Being able to hear from Mbue herself brought me a new admiration for the novel and her writing as a whole,” Liu said.

Mbue’s fierce writing style keeps readers on the edge of their seats; the novel’s fast pace achieves a dual emotional response that makes the audience sad enough to grieve for the real communities affected and moved enough to take action for a better future.