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Get to Know the Cameroonian Author Behind a Million-Dollar Book Deal

Imbolo Mbue first captured our attention when she inked an exceptional million-dollar deal with Penguin Random House in 2014 for her eagerly awaited debut work 'Behold the Dreamers.'

Cameroonian-American novelist Imbolo Mbue joins ranks with authors Chimamanda Adichie of Americanah, Yaa Gyasi of Homegoing and Igoni Barrett of Blackass creating a new canon of African literature.


Mbue first captured our attention when she inked an exceptional million-dollar deal with Penguin Random House in 2014 for her eagerly awaited debut work Behold the Dreamers, released in March, that tells the story of a Cameroonian couple and their son who settle in Harlem hoping to capture their piece of the American dream amidst the 2008 financial and housing market crisis.

The ‘90s music and tennis-lover, who flashes her winning “million-dollar smile” in Glamour magazine's September issue, tells Essence magazine  her big idea arrived while she was taking a stroll through NYC's Columbus Circle in the spring of 2011 when she noticed chauffeurs waiting for executives in front of the Time Warner building.

Photo credit: Kiriko Sano

“I started thinking about the relationship between the chauffeurs and the executives and the ways in which the recession might have affected the men and their families,” Mbue says.

That moment in time would inform the main conflict of protagonist Jende Jonga whose job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive along with his ability to provide for his family becomes threatened when the financial services firm implodes, and difficult decisions must be made.

Inspired by Toni Morrison’s book Song of Solomon, and the Heinemann African Writers Series and British classics that she read growing up, Mbue began the hard work of fiction-writing at 21-years-old. In the case of Behold the Dreamers, which she began writing after that pivotal flash of genius in 2011, Mbue decided it best to write about what she knows best—the Cameroonian immigrant experience. The 35-year-old author, herself, hails from Limbe, resides in NYC with her husband and children, and has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.

“I wrote about people like myself—Americans, non-Americans, people pursuing dreams, people questioning which direction they should go with their lives, immigrants in search of a better life, people striving to get out of poverty, get an education, and so on. In many ways I see myself in the characters even though it’s not my life story,” she shares.

And of course, no come up story is complete without rejection, and Mbue has had her fair share of it, shopping Behold the Dreamers around.

“I kept on rewriting the book and resubmitting to agents, including Susan Golomb, who was one of my dream agents," she explains. "It was a long ride, and in the Summer of 2014, Susan Golomb agreed to represent me. A few months later, she sold the book."

Mbue’s success along with those of her contemporaries signals the world is finally ready to embrace a new generation of African and diasporic authors who own their personal truths and deftly weave it into their storytelling. We can’t wait for what lies ahead for her.

Interview
Photo: Jolaoso Adebayo.

Crayon Is Nigeria's Prince of Bright Pop Melodies

Since emerging on the scene over two years ago, Crayon has carved a unique path with his catchy songs.

During the 2010s, the young musician Charles Chibuezechukwu made several failed attempts to get into a Nigerian university. On the day of his fifth attempt, while waiting for the exam's commencement, he thought of what he really wanted out of life. To the surprise of the thousands present, he stood up and left the centre, having chosen music. "Nobody knew I didn't write the exam," Charles, who's now known to afro pop lovers as Crayon, tells OkayAfrica over a Zoom call from a Lagos studio. "I had to lie to my parents that I wrote it and didn't pass. But before then, I had already met Don Jazzy and Baby Fresh [my label superiors], so I knew I was headed somewhere."

His assessment is spot on. Over the past two years Crayon's high-powered records have earned him a unique space within Nigeria's pop market. On his 2019 debut EP, the cheekily-titled Cray Cray, the musician shines over cohesive, bright production where he revels in finding pockets of joy in seemingly everyday material. His breakout record "So Fine" is built around the adorable promises of a lover to his woman. It's a fairly trite theme, but the 21-year-old musician's endearing voice strikes the beat in perfect form, and when the hook "call my number, I go respond, oh eh" rolls in, the mastery of space and time is at a level usually attributed to the icons of Afropop: Wizkid, P-Square, Wande Coal.

"My dad used to sell CDs back in the day, in Victoria Island [in Lagos]," reveals Crayon. "I had access to a lot of music: afrobeat, hip-hop, Westlife, 2Face Idibia, Wizkid, and many others." Crayon also learnt stage craft from his father's side hustle as an MC, who was always "so bold and confident," even in the midst of so much activity. His mother, then a fruit seller, loved Igbo gospel songs; few mornings passed when loud, worship songs weren't blasting from their home. All of these, Crayon says, "are a mix of different sounds and different cultures that shaped my artistry."

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