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When it comes to big books, it is often easy to guess what inspired them. His work as a journalist inspired Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel. The stories her parents told inspired Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun after her nostalgia while studying in the U.S. inspired Purple Hibiscus. A visit to a former slave castle inspired Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Among other things, an obsession with Ugandan history outside colonial narratives inspired Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu. While inspirations can be guessed from a book’s subject, it is not always so as the subject takes shape only afterwards. This is what happened with Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers.

At the University of Dayton Campus Symposium back in January, Mbue revealed hers. It came at a time she had lost her job. She was taking a walk when it happened:

“I saw chauffeurs parked outside one of the buildings where high-ranking businessmen live. I had seen chauffeurs in Cameroon, my home country, but I did not expect that in America. I was curious about the relationship between the people in these two very different worlds.”

Behold the Dreamers focuses on Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant in the U.S. who works as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, around the 2008 collapse of the financial institution. It took her five years to write, then became the first novel by an African to attract a million dollar advance, then got picked for Oprah’s Book Club, then won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Read Brittle Paper‘s interview with Imbolo Mbue last year.

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Otosirieze is deputy editor of Brittle Paper. He is a judge for the 2018/19 Gerald Kraak Prize and the 2019 Miles Morland Writing Scholarships. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective, which has published volumes including We Are Flowers (2017) and The Inward Gaze (2018). He is the curator of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies of writing and visual art focusing on different aspects of Nigerianness, including Enter Naija: The Book of Places (2016), which explores cities, and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (2017), which explores professions. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, is working on a novel, and is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. He combined English and History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is completing a postgraduate degree in African Studies, and taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him at otosirieze.com, where he accepts writing and editing offers, or on Instagram or Twitter: @otosirieze. When bored, he Googles Rihanna.

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