Francisco Goldman, Imbolo Mbue and David Treuer on voice and identity in America

Three prize-winning writers join Eleanor Wachtel on stage at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Festival to reflect on cultural collision in the United States.
From left: David Treuer, Imbolo Mbue, Eleanor Wachtel and Francisco Goldman at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. (Gabriel Safdie)
Listen to the full episode52:10

At the 2017 Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal, three of the festival's prize winners — Imbolo Mbue, David Treuer and Francisco Goldman — joined host Eleanor Wachtel on stage to discuss what it means to live and write in the United States.

Imbolo Mbue, who was born in Cameroon and now lives in New York, has seen remarkable success with her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, which won the Blue Metropolis Words to Change Prize, the PEN Faulkner Award and a more than $1 million advance.

David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer from Minnesota, received the First Peoples Literary Prize. He's written four novels, including Prudence and The Translation of Dr. Apelles​, as well as a mix of memoir and history called "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey through Reservation Life".  

Winner of the Premio Metropolis Azul, Francisco Goldman is the son of a Guatemalan mother and a Jewish-American father.  Both his journalism and fiction — such as his breakout debut The Long Night of White Chickens — explore his engagement with Central American, Mexican and US relations. 

Imbolo Mbue on being an immigrant in troubled times

Behold the Dreamers is Imbolo Mbue's debut novel.

I was born in a small village in Cameroon and now I live in New York City, so my identity is shaped by having lived in two very different countries. During this election, there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. I had just become a citizen, and I wanted to write about how it feels to be in this position. Even though I'm a citizen, I am still an immigrant. I'm not from here, but I've lived here half of my life. I do believe in this country and I give my best to this country. I do feel very American.

We're living in an age when being an immigrant comes with so many challenges. People don't understand this, but leaving home really changes you. You come to a new country, and you look different and talk different. People are so quick to dismiss immigrants. I wanted to explore how I felt being an immigrant but believing strongly that I am also an American. Whether or not you like it, I do represent America.

David Treuer on writing outside the cultural stereotypes

David Treuer won the Blue Metropolis First Peoples Literary Prize.

I think there's a very narrow definition of what makes for American Indian literature. It has all the typical elements and it hasn't evolved a whole lot. They're basically assigning Indian-ness in a shorthand. Do a little chant, maybe evoke a myth, talk about the oral tradition, one character will talk about their ancestors, there'll be a lot of trauma, someone'll drink. Indian novel. Case closed. What happens if I remove those elements? Can I write a fully realized novel with fully realized characters without any reference to ceremonial or religious life? Resisting that shorthand is in itself a political act — I refuse to perform my culture all the time as some sort of cultural show and tell. Refusing to do that feels very important to me.

Francisco Goldman on the moment when fiction wasn't enough

Francisco Goldman's debut novel centres on Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

When I arrived in Guatemala [to work on his MFA project], I was such an innocent American suburban kid. That year, 1979, was the most brutal year in the history of Guatemala City. They were cracking down on university students and labour activists and moderate politicians. It was a slaughter. At a party, I met this medical school student, who told me that every Wednesday she had to go to the morgue for a class in forensics. She said I had to see the condition of the bodies, that some days the bodies were stacked like firewood. This was a crossroads moment for me, because I said, sure, I want to see that.

She disguised me as a doctor and took me into the morgue. On the slab was a young male who had clearly been tortured. It was like falling through a hole. I always wanted to be a fiction writer, but at that moment I became a journalist too. Looking at that body and asking, "Who did this? And why? How did this happen? Who's responsible?" It was transformative. 

The panelists' comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" composed by Harold Arlen, performed by Chet Baker.