Imbolo Mbue on Andre Agassi, ‘The Friend,’ and the Book She'd Like to See As a Netflix Series

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Photo credit: Portrait by Kiriko Sano / Illustration by Yousra Attia
Photo credit: Portrait by Kiriko Sano / Illustration by Yousra Attia


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Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

If you’ve read anything about Imbolo Mbue, you probably already know that she was inspired to start writing after plucking Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon from an Oprah’s Book Club picks shelf at a public library in Virginia. (She thought it would be a Biblical story.)

As a kid in Cameroon, she fell in love with books reading Shakespeare, Dickens, and Achebe, and public libraries were a haven when she moved to America at 17. She first arrived in Chicago (“too cold, too windy”), then attended Rutgers University in New Jersey and Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, where she earned a master’s degree in education and psychology.

There were jobs to make ends meet (door to door vacuum salesperson, performing admin duties at a mental health clinic) and aspirations that faded (going to law school, becoming a college professor). After losing a marketing job during the recession, she devoted herself to writing 2016’s Behold the Dreamers, which became a New York Times bestseller optioned for film, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner, and yes, an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Her latest is How Beautiful We Were (Random House), a novel 17 years in the making about an African village battling an American oil company polluting the environment. Dislikes: debt so doesn’t own a credit card; likes: classical music and tennis. Here, she serves up some of her favorite titles.

The book that:

…I recommend over and over again:

Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I am fascinated by cultures, and this classic about a Hmong refugee family and their experience with California’s health care system is a celebration of a beautiful and sadly misunderstood culture.

…made me rethink a long-held belief:

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. I grew up afraid of dogs (not uncommon in my town of Limbe, Cameroon), but this exquisite novel, which has a dog at its center, made me almost want to adopt a dog.

…I swear I'll finish one day:

Nadine Gordimer’s Life Times, which is a selection of her short stories. I read one of the stories before bed one night, and it knocked me off my sleep game, which was a warning to me that I’d better take it easy with the rest of the stories.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

I recently read Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation, a retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. So much measured anger in this book, it was inspiring.

…I’d pass onto my kids:

My collection of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o novels, which includes Devil on the Cross, in the hopes that they will also enjoy the kind of literature that helped shape my mind.

…I’d gift to a new graduate:

Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. I had dinner with my late publisher one evening in the midst of a rough patch in my writing. She took out a copy of this book and handed it to me, telling me she was confident it would help me. It did. So I’d hope it would do the same to a graduate finding their way.

…made me laugh out loud:

Yasmina Reza’s Happy are the Happy. I didn’t exactly laugh out loud since I was reading it in public, but it gave me a case of the giggles. Unhappy marriages are not supposed to be this funny but Yasmina Reza is too good.

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:

Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water. Somebody please make this masterpiece into a show so more Americans will understand what happened at Attica Prison in 1971.

...fills me with hope:

Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. As brutal a read as it was, it was a reminder that people will tell their stories, and the truth will come out.

…has the best title:

Among my many favorites, Neel Patel’s short story collection, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi. Okay then, I won’t. But if you read the collection, you’d want to say hi to and thank the author.

…has the best opening line:

I am a fan of Pajtim Statovci, so I’ll go with the opening line of his brilliant novel, Crossing: “When I think about my own death, the moment it happens is always the same.” Tell me more, tell me more.

…should be on every college syllabus:

Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. After both reading it, a friend and I spent a great deal of time trying to understand the whats and whys of this heartbreaking story. I can picture similar conversations happening in college classrooms.

…I brought:

On the very first beach vacation of my life, I read Andre Agassi’s Open, which helped usher me into a life of tennis super-fandom.

…surprised me:

Evan Fallenberg’s The Parting Gift. I was quite uneasy with what I considered to be a vicious act by one of the characters. I sent the author an email letting him know how much I loved the book and my perplexity with the character’s choice, and he sent me a lovely response back.

…I’d want signed by the author for my library:

Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The only time I’ve ever been starstruck was when I met this great historian at a literary festival.

…shaped my worldview:

The Bible. As if one copy is not enough, I now have three copies—in English, French, and Spanish, because sometimes I need to be reminded in three different languages to not judge, just love.

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