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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Mbue Talks Classism, Trump and Discovering Her Passion for Writing

By Noell Saunders

Acclaimed novelist Imbolo Mbue impressed a packed crowd at Old Dominion University's Ted Constant Convocation Center, recounting her incredible journey from leaving her native Cameroon to attending an Ivy League university and becoming a best-selling author.

Her 2016 novel, "Behold the Dreamers," won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. The novel focuses on a young couple from Cameroon trying to make a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy. The novel addresses marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trap doors on the path to the American dream.

Mbue spoke at Old Dominion as part of the President's Lecture Series and annual Literary Festival.

Like her characters, Mbue was a young immigrant who struggled in her pursuit of the American dream. Long before moving to America and becoming a writer, she told the crowd, she was a little girl living in Cameroon with an unwavering curiosity.

"I was a child living a double life," she said. "I was carefree and relaxed on the outside but raging inside with a need to make sense of the world."

Mbue recalled her oceanfront hometown as a happy place where children obeyed their parents, the young obeyed the elderly, but classism was rampant, which she found perplexing.

"It was happening all around me," she said. "At church, the rich people would have the best seats, and they were even treated better in school."

She came to America in 1998 with idealized visions from watching TV shows like "Beverly Hills 90210" and "The Cosby Show." She was shocked to see homeless people, dilapidated houses and young men idling on street corners in the middle of the workday. Mbue ultimately realized that for some people, the United States was far from paradise.

"I couldn't recall ever seeing poverty on these type of shows," Mbue said. "People lived in big houses, they drank soda, they shopped in malls and they ate something called meatloaf."

Mbue earned her bachelor's degree at Rutgers University and a master's at Columbia University. But her hardest struggles came after she finished college, when she juggled such jobs as a bank teller, department store sales associate, phone desk receptionist and, her least favorite, door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesperson.

"In America, I was poor and I found American poverty to be vicious," she said. "America offered me many things, but it did not offer me the simple relaxed life of my childhood."

After graduate school, she lost a corporate job during the Great Recession. When she couldn't find employment, she started to take her writing more seriously.

She found Toni Morrison's novel "Song of Solomon" in a public library. That book further inspired her to write, though she saw it as a hobby, never envisioning it would become a career.

"I never imagined to be speaking at Old Dominion University or being on television or sitting with Oprah on her porch sipping cocktails," Mbue said.

Mbue wrote for solace and peace. Silence, she said, was invaluable for a writer. Through silence, she discovered more things about herself and the world.

"In the silence, all the 'isms' of the world turn into one. The racism and the sexism and other prejudices of my adopted country, they are one and the same thing," she said.

"Behold the Dreamers" was published just before the 2016 election. The Washington Post wrote a review with the headline: "'Behold the Dreamers': the one Donald Trump should read now."

After President Trump's controversial comment on African countries this year, Mbue declined a request from a national radio program to comment about it.

"It's not that I don't think we should have a conversation about the topic," she said. "On the contrary, I believe we need to hold our leaders accountable."

But, she said, it's time the nation and individuals started focusing less on Trump and more on their own shortcomings - and, in particular, "the ways in which our own identities are contributing to the brokenness of this country."

"America won't let me forget that I'm black and a female, but this country is the same place I found the freedom to recognize those identities for what they are," Mbue concluded. "America chopped me to pieces and showed me how to put myself back together."

The President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring renowned speakers who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

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