Thirty years ago, in a review of Cities of Salt and The Trench, two novels by the Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif, Amitav Ghosh lamented the dearth of American fiction on what he dubbed the Oil Encounter—the coming together of oil-producing companies (mostly Western multinationals like Exxon or Chevron) and the communities from whose land the oil is extracted. Considering the importance of oil to American life, why should it be so little imagined and written about? One reason, Ghosh suggested, is that the encounter is not well understood by Americans—it happens far away from the Western countries where most of the oil is consumed, and is often shrouded in corporate secrecy. Another is that, well, American fiction writers are more interested in talking about issues within their nation’s borders—“as though,” Ghosh wrote,
in precise counterpoint to the increasing geographical elasticity of the country’s involvements, its fictional gaze has turned inward, becoming ever more introspective, ever more concentrated upon its own self-definition.
And finally, oil is just too smelly, ethically and environmentally, for the dainty noses of American readers.
But the Oil Encounter is coming closer to home. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought images of burning oil wells, and the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 beamed indelible shots of dead fish and birds covered in oil slick to American televisions. One can now find US college courses devoted to “petrofiction,” where students read books like the Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi’s Love in the Kingdom of Oil or Chris Abani’s GraceLand, a coming-of-age story set in postcolonial Lagos. The latest entrant in the genre is How Beautiful We Were, the second novel by the Cameroonian American writer Imbolo Mbue.
Mbue’s first book, Behold the Dreamers (2016), dealt with the lives of an immigrant couple from Cameroon, Jende and Neni Jonga, seeking a better life in New York. They find work as a driver and a maid, respectively, for a Lehman Brothers executive and his wife, whose illusions of security come crashing down with the economic crisis of 2008. The Jongas become increasingly entangled in their bosses’ messy family affairs in the fallout of the collapse, while trying to navigate their own marital, financial, and immigration problems.
Mbue grew up in Limbe, Cameroon, a town with an oil refinery. She came to the United States in 1998 to attend college and has herself lived out the precarity and possibility of America. She lost her job as a market researcher in the economic crash and was unemployed for over a year, during which time she wrote Behold the Dreamers in secret, never telling her family or friends she was working on anything until it was published. The book won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was selected by the Oprah Winfrey book club. A page-turner with moments of comedy, Behold the Dreamers successfully goes beyond the familiar, uplifting tropes of the immigrant narrative to show how life in America is for many a constant struggle for survival, and to show the effect of that struggle on personal relationships.
There are no comedic moments in How Beautiful We Were. Set in a fictional West African country, it is filled with the messiness and the violence that always accompany Ghosh’s Oil Encounter. There are oil spills on farmlands and in rivers. Gas flares burn daily, emitting black smoke that wafts over people’s homes. Acid rain burns the crops and grass and renders the fields sterile and useless for generations. This, Mbue shows, is the crude reality: this is how we get the oil that drives our fancy cars and the gas that heats our homes.
In these oil-producing communities, the oil corporations are all-powerful. To challenge them is futile, even suicidal. Africa’s largest producer of oil is Nigeria, and in 1995, the Nigerian author and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested on trumped-up murder charges and hanged along with eight other activists, when their campaigning against Shell and Chevron became too troublesome. In a lawsuit brought by four of the men’s widows, at least two witnesses whose testimony had been used in the conviction admitted to having been bribed by Shell. Mbue has described this execution as politically radicalizing, and an influence on the novel.
In How Beautiful We Were, which depicts a village’s epic fight against an oil company, it takes a madman, literally, to throw the first punch against the American corporation, Pexton. For decades Pexton’s activities have been degrading the environment of Kosawa, an idyllic fishing, farming, and hunting community. After a new well is opened, children begin falling sick and dying from mysterious illnesses at a terrifying rate. The herbs and traditional medicines from the local shaman have lost their potency against these new infections.
Inspired to respond, six village elders travel to the capital, Bézam, to beg the government and the oil company for help. They promise the other villagers that they will not return until they are assured that the land will be restored to health. One of the elders is the father of a young girl named Thula Nangi, who is the novel’s rather idealized heroine. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, some of them recurring. Thula herself takes turns telling the story, as do her mother, Sahel; her younger brother, Juba; her grandmother Yaya; and her age cohort, presented simply as the Children. “Day after day, we waited alongside our friend Thula for the return of her father and the other men, all of whom were our neighbors and relatives, three of whom had sick children,” the Children say. “When they did not return after ten days, we began fearing that they’d been imprisoned. Or worse.”
As it turns out, it is worse. The six elders are never seen or heard from again. The village madman, Konga, considered an untouchable because of his mental condition, decides to take hostage three local Pexton representatives and their driver during their regular visit to Kosawa. The entire village goes along with Konga’s spontaneous and desperate action.
The story ultimately spans decades and continents. The use of multiple narrators not only underlines the complexity of the story being told, but also captures the fragmentations and conflicts that are gradually consuming Kosawa. Juba, at eleven years old, shows his trauma by making mysterious drawings showing “a man’s face with features scattered all over…fishes and trees in the sky, standing in the place of clouds; the sun and the stars falling down.” This hitherto well-ordered and peaceful traditional community has been thrust into what historians and scholars of the environmental humanities have described as “oil modernity”—a culture in which oil shapes every facet of life.
Mbue likens the oil companies to past colonial powers: she shows that both are actors in one continuous story of the ruthless search for resources, as brutal now as it was then. The American oil companies even use the same system of physical and demographic separation used by the European colonialists: their workers live in a community called Gardens, far away from Kosawa. As in many exploited oil-producing countries, in league with the corporations is a puppet ruler who occupies the government mansions vacated by the colonial rulers—in this novel’s imaginary country he is called His Excellency. An archetypal dictator, he is comical yet greedy; he is often invoked, but never appears in the novel. As one narrator observes, the whole country is His Excellency’s personal estate:
From it he harvests whatever pleases him and destroys whoever displeases him. With our sweat and blood paid as taxes, he has built houses in Europe grander than we can fathom. He has hired European men to paint pictures of him dressed like one of their kings. He has bought boats on which he dines with Americans. They say his shoes alone cost more money than a hundred men make in a year.
The village sends a second delegation to the capital with another list of demands, which includes the release of their six elders, the cleanup of the oil spills, and the ultimate withdrawal of the oil company from the village. However, this time the villagers decide to go directly to the press to make their case—they have been advised by one of their captives to do so because, as he tells them, “No one in Bézam cares about villagers like you, okay? Absolutely no one in the government. No one at Pexton. No one whatsoever.” The man tells them that his nephew is a journalist and something of an activist. Most importantly, he is half American. The journalist, Austin, turns out to be a very sympathetic and pivotal ally of the villagers, although introducing him via a family connection feels clunky and unnecessary, given that Mbue doesn’t develop the relationship between him and his uncle or examine its significance.
Austin publishes a report about Kosawa in a major newspaper. The villagers hope that his article about their plight will be read in America and that the Americans will come and save them. It is the madman, Konga, who points out to the villagers the fallacy in their reasoning. “You’re young,” he tells them.
Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same. No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.
Will the “white savior” arrive, or not? Mbue raises the critique but doesn’t fully follow through: Austin writes an article after witnessing the brutal invasion of the village by soldiers—one of the most horrific scenes in the book, in which thirteen people, including children, are massacred. Contrary to Konga’s expectations, the good American public answers.
Demonstrations begin in front of Pexton’s corporate offices in faraway New York. Soon, an NGO with the rather pompous name Movement for the Restoration of the Dignity of Subjugated Peoples, abbreviated as the Restoration Movement, comes to the village. Working with Pexton’s PR department, it offers scholarships to the children of Kosawa. More promises, of which the villagers are understandably suspicious. But Thula and a few of her peers, arguably the generation that has borne more of the trauma of the village’s destruction than any other, take up the chance. They are bused to a secondary school in a nearby city. Instead of challenging the idea that Western institutions are needed to protect the villagers, Mbue almost seems to be endorsing it here—or perhaps she is saying that the villagers are so powerless they cannot afford to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Thula eventually goes to America. As her world opens up, so does the story, to connect Kosawa’s trials to those of other communities facing environmental injustice. Thula is shocked to learn of Native Americans penned up in reservations, their tribal lands taken away from them, or of the people of Flint, Michigan, drinking poisonous water. “Listening to this, I thought I was in some bizarre dream in which America had revealed itself to be Kosawa,” Thula writes in a letter home. She is becoming radicalized and, through her letters and remittances, radicalizes others her age in Kosawa. Here, the novel becomes more about Thula’s sacrifice and her quest. She works to make alliances with like-minded people and even starts a political party.
The novel strains to contain all of this material, and gradually this part begins to feel like a coda tacked on to the central story. Thula, almost a messianic figure, becomes distant and less convincing as a character. Part of the reason for this is that we learn of her experiences in America only secondhand, through the perspective of others and through her letters. Partly, it is because she is almost without flaws. Juba articulates this best: “Her resolve never wavered. She never stopped believing that Kosawa would one day be whole.”
One cannot help but notice the similar trajectories of Thula’s story and that of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who also possessed an absolute sense of duty to his community, a commitment that set him on a collision course with the oil companies and his own government. In Mbue’s novel, the violence escalates, and in the unequal fight between the mighty corporation and the poor villagers there can only be one winner. All possible avenues for change are fruitless—Juba, not a revolutionary like his sister, joins the government hoping to reform it, but soon becomes a corrupt official himself.
In the end the village disappears and the people with it, scattering to other towns and cities. Their children become wealthy, thanks to more scholarships from Pexton, and drive big cars. The surviving villagers wonder, “Do they think about it, about the children who will suffer as we once did just so they can have all the oil they want?… They chuckle at our questions.” Kosawa is replaced by more and more oil wells—an ominous but realistic commentary on our continued dependence on fossil fuel, and on how one-sided in favor of the corporations the Oil Encounter continues to be.
How Beautiful We Were is an important addition to the growing body of petrofiction. Most Americans don’t want to expose the ugliness of their dependence on oil and seem disinclined to dwell in this murk, which leaves the task of documentation to immigrant writers. Mbue has witnessed the dependence herself. Her novel can be almost shocking in its hopelessness, though perhaps that is the most honest way to describe the Oil Encounter.