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The acclaimed authors use their personal histories to tackle complex global issues in new novels.

By Seija Rankin
March 09, 2021 at 09:00 AM EST
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Imbolo Mbue and Patricia Engel in conversation
Credit: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images; Nina Subin

Imbolo Mbue and Patricia Engel may not be the most obvious author pairing: The former's singular, PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel Behold the Dreamers concerns the collapse of Lehman Brothers; the latter has written three books centered largely on Pan-American communities. But this month, both release highly sought-after, deeply emotional works that meditate on the importance — and meaning — of home. Engel's Infinite Country follows a young Colombian couple, Elena and Mauro, as they journey from a FARC-occupied Bogotá to small-town Texas, where circumstances beyond their control lead to a visa overstay, a deportation for Mauro, and the separation of their family — which now includes three small children.

In Mbue's How Beautiful We Were, a fictional village in an unnamed African country is terrorized by the environmental and political fallout of a crooked oil company's poisonous wells; the book spans decades as the village's children attempt to fight back against the destruction. The two authors meet here for the first time, and compare notes on craft and consequence.

Imbolo Mbue and Patricia Engel in conversation
Credit: Penguin Random House; Avid Reader Press / Simon + Schuster

As you publish and promote your novels, what do you think you'll miss about pre-pandemic times?

PATRICIA ENGEL: This is my fourth book, so I typically publish during periods when you get to go out and share the work with people: You meet with readers in stores and shake hands and sign books. And you can see how your novel reaches different people in different ways. There are moments in my books that [when I'm writing] I think everyone will connect with, but then very often I'm totally wrong. I'll meet audiences who are upset at the characters for making bad choices, and they can't get past that. Other times, people will come to me totally moved by something I didn't expect.

IMBOLO MBUE: I totally agree with that. My first novel was set during the 2008 financial crisis — it was about two families trying to get through the recession. It came out in 2016 and I was amazed that it was seen as a book about immigration. Yes, the book had immigrants as main characters, but I had written it from the perspective of somebody whose life had been affected by the financial crisis. Right away, I learned that people are going to see their own things. I remember one time at an academic conference, a professor said, "The characters are always looking out windows in your book." And I was like, wow, I never realized there were so many windows.

Both of your novels are based in real-life — and highly complex — geopolitical situations. How much did you worry about specific facts or events as opposed to just writing the story you wanted to tell?

MBUE: As a child growing up in Africa in the '80s and '90s, I was in total awe of revolutionaries and dissidents and freedom fighters, so that was the story I was desperate to write: a story about people rising up. But I knew that I would really have to do my research and understand the history, and learn things like how oil pipelines work and what happens when oil spills. It took me a long time, and I worried about letting the book be overwhelmed by that story line. But I think what helped me was the fact that, emotionally, I was very attached to the village.

ENGEL: I've always taken my burden as a writer very seriously: If I'm going to write about something, I want the people who were insiders to that experience to feel like I did it well. Obviously, I've known many people who have experienced the limitations and constraints of immigration law, as well as the law's prejudices, over my lifetime. That's just because of where I'm from and the people I know and care about. But I have to go beyond that and confirm what I think I know. There's also a lot of [Colombian] mythology and folklore in this book. A lot of it I picked up from what I grew up with or my travels, but that's not enough. I can't just rely on my firsthand knowledge, I've got to go deeper.

What do the settings of your books mean to you, personally?

ENGEL: Bogotá is my mother's hometown. It's a place I knew well, but always as a native daughter coming back — I never lived there full-time. One of the things I wanted to convey [in Infinite Country] was the conflict that most immigrants I know have — and that I don't see portrayed much in literature — which is that very often you're not sure you made the right choice. My entire childhood, my mother wanted to go back [to Colombia]. I wrote into the book how the weather sets in this feeling of being away from her land: Bogotá is on the equator, it's a very particular climate, and whenever it was around 60 degrees and a little overcast, my mother would say, "It feels like Bogotá." I'm sure she had a whole other interior experience I wasn't aware of, so I wanted to write about the inner conflict, the profound homesickness, the doubt over a parallel life you left.

MBUE: I think you did a great job. I am an immigrant to this country, and I know I'm in the same position as your mother because I always struggle with whether I should stay or go back. I think what [Infinite Country] captured beautifully was your love for where you're from and how you can never get rid of that.

ENGEL: One thing I loved in Behold the Dreamers was how [protagonist] Jende's idea of Cameroon — and the way he talks about it — is different from the beginning of the novel to the end, when he has to confront going back. He worked so hard to leave that country and he was grateful to be in the U.S., and now going back is a very different experience. That's so common.

MBUE: I think what Infinite Country and How Beautiful We Were both have is these stories that are very much rooted in home and the pull of home. In my novel, the characters give their lives to preserve their home, and in yours, all Mauro and Elena can think about is their love for the land. People don't think about that when they think about immigrants: You give up your home.

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