I love stories, and always had a strong admiration for courageous and hard working women who managed to achieve their goals against the odds. Since my childhood and at different stages of my life, I have felt empowered, impressed and/or inspired by the journey of several women, among which Pocahontas (as told by Disney Studios), Helena Rubinstein, Oprah Winfrey, my mother, and many of my amazing girlfriends and cousins.The Cameroonian-born author Imbolo Mbue is the latest addition to that list.
I first heard of Imbolo in 2016, after she made history as Africa’s first million-dollar novelist for her debut novel Behold the Dreamers. More Recently, she made the headlines as Mrs. Oprah Winfrey herself has picked her novel for her 2017 Book Club selection. Behold the Dreamers bridged in a unique way the gap between the WallStreet Elite and the African Immigrants, and will probably change the way you see the world.The more I read about the New York-based mother of two, the more I realized that behind what seems to be an overnight success, were a fascinating story and many valuable lessons that we could apply to our own career and projects.
1. She was a careful spectator before stepping into the light
In the past months, the literary world has praised the meticulous story telling skills of Imbolo Mbue, acknowledging the compassion and unique sense of perspective in her writing style. However, before being under the spotlights, Imbolo spent a significant portion of her time as a silent spectator of people lives, feelings, and stories.
Before deciding to write a novel, she was an avid book lover. In her own words, reading books taught her a lot, and opened her mind to other ways of living. Imbolo is also very observant, and her high ability to pay attention to details lead her to get the inspiration for The Longings of Jende Jonga, which would later become Behold the Dreamers. In 2011, while she was unemployed, she was passing by a Building in Manhattan and noticed drivers waiting outside while their privileged employers stepped in. She then started asking herself what it would be like for an African immigrant to work as a chauffeur for a Wall Street executive and got the inspiration the future best-seller from that moment.
Imbolo also has a lot of empathy. She managed to comfortably tell the story of an immigrant family coming from Cameroon, as she shared – to some extent – very similar circumstances. However, she also succeeded in stepping out of her comfort zone and putting herself in the shoes of the members of the elite New York society. She did so without expressing judgment, leaving it to the reader to interpret each side of her story under the lenses of their own values. In an interview to Louisianna Channel, the author warned about the dangers of numbers and generalization in the approach of a social issue and emphasized her preference to the literature that looks at people and their stories.
2. She failed, and it happened to be okay
As she said, “Some dreams might not come true”, and sometimes it’s for the best. Not reaching some of her goals seemed a blessing in disguise at times. One of Imbolo’s dream was to become a college professor, and she didn’t achieve it (at least, not yet). Working for a Media company, she then lost her job due to the recession. She also applied and missed the opportunity enroll in a Ph.D. program. It is during that struggling time that the started writing her novel. Her initial intention was to write about the financial crisis impact on immigrants and executives, but the story ended up significantly revolving around the immigrant experience. And as we now know, it was for the best!
3. She is one fortunate lady
Imbolo embodies perfectly the quote “Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”. At the age of 21, she was in a library when a corner dedicated to Oprah Book Club caught her attention. She went to that corner and picked Toni Morrisson’s Song of Solomon from the shelves. Imbolo was fascinated and started writing for the first time as soon as she finished it. Funny enough, 14 years later, the very same Book Club that triggered her thirst for writing would be the one to propel her debut novel to another level of popularity. In June 2017, Oprah Winfrey announced that she had chosen Behold the Dreamers as her new pick for the Oprah’s Book Club selection, giving to Imbolo a one-of-a-kind “full-circle” moment.
Behold the Dreamers is Mbue’s first book but got her to she sign a million-dollar deal with Random House prior to publication in 2016. Her novel received a handful amount of prestigious reviews. It was named as a Best Book of 2016 by Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Guardian among others, and New York Times and The Washington Post designated her novel as one of their Notable Books of 2016. Her work was acclaimed during Frankfurt Book Fair and French autumn literary season in 2016, and she won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut novel, including a 15 000$ prize.
Imbolo Mbue’s book also benefited from a timely the political context. In the heat of an intense 2016 Presidential Campaign, the Washington Post called her book “The one novel Trump should read” in August. It was a sure hit!
Imbolo Mbue is definitely a living proof that « for souls nobly born valor doesn’t await the passing of years».
4. She is pragmatic
In addition to her candor and charming personality, Imbolo is not very grounded in reality.
In her interviews, Imbolo Mbue frequently acknowledges that the immigrant life in the West is not a walk in the park. Talking about a number of bills people receive in their mailboxes as an example, she realized how much life in the West is more complex but also full of opportunities. That is perhaps why she believes that “there is no such thing as a success story””.Imbolo says she wakes up every day and do her best, as she knows that tomorrow’s success is not granted. Speaking from experience, she recommends to “accept failure and go the other direction” as one never knows where it will lead.
Imbolo Mbue surrounds herself with professionals. She chose to stay in her lane by really focusing on being an excellent writer, but works closely with people that are great are promoting her work and running the business side of her career. Imbolo Mbue, has, among others has a literary agent, publicists, and also a team in charge of her public engagements.
She believes in the power of narration. “You should use a story in which about way that benefits you the best”, she said, talking about the different interpretation people would make of her novel.
You want to tell your story for a project or an application, but do not know where to start? Contact me and we could work together.
5. She is persistent
Despite her breathtaking talent and the enthusiasm around her book, writing Behold the Dreamers took her about five years. The book was first published under the title “The longings of Jende Jonga”, and she had to rewrite and resubmit her manuscript several times for a couple of years before Susan Golomb, one of her dream agent agreed to represent her. Imbolo is definitely no overnight success.
In conclusion, Imbolo’s achievements are a great reminder of the power of patience and persistence on the way to success. She is also a living proof a great realization that failures and delays are many often disguised ways for life to redirect our paths towards the best expression of ourselves. Have you been working on a project on the low but still are not sure if it will ever come to fruition? Do you have a passion that you nurture but have no idea how to make a living out of it? Don’t worry; It may not manifest in the way or timing you expected, but your dedication will eventually pay off. In the meantime learn as much as you can, and enjoy the process.
I hope one of these lessons resonated with you. Did you know Imbolo Mbue? Have you read Behold the Dreamers? If yes how did you like it? Do not hesitate to share this post with a friend who might be interested, and click here to subscribe to my newsletter, and receive insights I only share via email. And don’t forget, the next post is episode 2 of our series: 12 invaluable lessons learned as a woman moving back to Africa (for work)
See you soon !