Mbue, he said, “comes from a place where the story has been so stifled, so killed, so destroyed, that I really always marveled that she could find the craft to put herself together, first of all, to tell the tale.”
While she worked on the book, Mbue researched the anti-apartheid and American civil rights movements as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and other political and environmental actions. Her main character, Thula, is a child, but she contains aspects of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders, Mbue said, a nod to the news stories about social uprisings that she as a girl would listen to on the radio.
“I would think to myself, why do some people rise up and fight while others do nothing?” she said. “Are people justified in doing anything and everything possible for the sake of justice? How do we balance our desire to fight for change against our desire to protect the ones we love? These are questions the characters have to deal with. I do not have answers — I much prefer to ask questions.”
Yet Mbue also explores the lives of some of the oil workers in her book, including ones who need the work but struggle with the knowledge that it is harming Kosawa. “Their wives and children were afar, waiting for money for sustenance, praying to their ancestors to make the men as prosperous as those who had worked at the oil field decades before and returned to build brick houses,” she writes.
It was an effort to recognize that we are all complicit in modern-day life, she said, something she was reminded of during a walk in Central Park last year, when she thought about the opportunities she gained as an immigrant because of what Native Americans lost.
“One might be tempted to think that because my novel is about characters fighting a multinational, it is a story of good guys versus bad guys,” Mbue said. “But what’s the point in looking at life through such a narrow lens? There are those who are committing atrocities in their pursuit of justice and there are folks who work at corporations who are fighting for equality.”
Andy Ward, who edited the book and is publisher at Random House, said he sees that nuanced perspective in her writing. “It’s important to Imbolo to inhabit her characters to their cores and to render them with as much empathy and moral complexity as possible,” he said.