How Beautiful We Were

“We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known?”

Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were, Book Cover

So begins Imbolo Mbue’s powerful, elegiac novel about an African village that dared take on an American oil company. Decades before the novel opens, Pexton began drilling for crude oil on land adjacent to Kosawa. Spills from its pipeline have destroyed farmland and poisoned drinking water. The villagers’ many pleas — to government officials and corporate bigwigs — have been greeted with empty promises or (worse) stony silence. With their traditional way of life disappearing and their children dying, they pin their hopes on a young girl named Thula. Will she be their savior?

When a group of well-intentioned Americans visit Kosawa, the villagers beat their drums and sing, “This story must be told, it might not feel good to all ears, it gives our mouths no joy to say it, but our story cannot be left untold.”

Listed among the top 10 books of 2021 by the New York Times, How Beautiful We Were is a nuanced study of the powerful forces that turn people first toward activism, later toward revolution.

Imbolo Mbue, author of How Beautiful We Were

Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and has been adapted into an opera and a stage play.

A native of Limbe, Cameroon, she was educated at Rutgers and Columbia universities and now resides in New York City.

“This is a novel of questions,” says Imbolo Mbue, in this Living Writers podcast about How Beautiful We Were. “What is just? What is fair? What is right?”

Meet Imbolo Mbue at Colgate on Sept. 22

We’re sorry that you missed Imbolo Mbue’s visit. If you’d like to see an archived copy of her presentation, please join the Living Writers mailing list.

Tell Us What You Think

We’re sorry that you missed our Aug. 8 faculty roundtable and discussion of How Beautiful We Were. You can listen to a recording of the first 20 minutes below. Guests included Alexander Karn, associate professor of history, and Nimanthi Rajasingham, associate professor of English.

Join the discussion on Twitter @ColgateLW using the hashtags #ColgateLivingWriters and #HowBeautifulWeWere

Go Beyond the Book

  • “What starts as a David-and-Goliath story slowly transforms into a nuanced exploration of self-interest, of what it means to want in the age of capitalism and colonialism — these machines of malicious, insatiable wanting,” writes Omar El Akkad in his review for the New York Times
  • “Through some rare alchemy, [Mbue] has blended the specificity of a documentary with the universality of a parable to create a novel that will disturb the conscience of every reader,” writes Ron Charles in the Washington Post. Read more here
  • “Because I grew up in Cameroon in the ’80s and ’90s, I was very aware of a lot of men who were pushing back against this sense of injustice,” says Imbolo Mbue, in this NPR interview. “All of these men were celebrated.” 
  • “African spirituality simply acknowledges that beliefs and practices touch on and inform every facet of human life, and therefore African religion cannot be separated from the everyday or mundane,” writes Harvard Professor Jacob Olupona in this article.
  • In “Habitations of the Sacred,” Colgate’s former Provost and Dean of the Faculty Tracy E. Hucks emphasizes how African medicine considers not only material ways to treat disease but also conceptualizes spiritual health as a way to overcome destructive colonial histories.

Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same.

How Beautiful We Were

Living Writers is organized by the Department of English at Colgate University with generous support from the Olive B. O'Connor Fund as well as the President and Provost/Dean of the Faculty. Support from the Africana & Latin American Studies Program, Arnold A. Sio Chair in Diversity and Community, Colgate Arts Council, Core 152, Core Communities and Identities, and the Core FSEM program helped make this event possible.



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