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Exploring the Heart of 'How Beautiful We Were': A Tale of Community, Resistance, and Environmental Justice

If you knew that everything you loved was in danger of being lost forever, and you would spend a lifetime fighting for recognition and reform, through every and all means necessary and still lost - would you fight again if given the choice?

This was the lingering question our book club had this month after reading "How Beautiful We Were" by Imbolo Mbue. The sobering but stirring response from one member was, "of course you would, because what other choice is there," maybe in one iteration a tiny particle shifts and things could change.

Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, the story revolves around the villagers' struggle against the environmental destruction and exploitation caused by an American oil company, Pexton. The company's activities have led to severe pollution, devastating health impacts, and the loss of farmland, which plunges the community into poverty and despair.

“They were destroying us, slowly but surely, and they didn't care. They took our land, poisoned our water, and watched us die, all for the sake of their profits.”

The narrative unfolds through multiple perspectives, including the collective voice of the village children and individual characters such as Thula, a young girl who becomes a central figure in the fight for justice. Thula's father dies under mysterious circumstances linked to Pexton's operations, fueling her resolve to seek education and advocacy to protect her village. As she grows up, Thula becomes a leader and symbol of resistance, inspiring others to join the fight against the oppressive forces threatening their home.

Throughout the novel, Mbue explores themes of environmental justice, colonialism, corporate greed, and community resilience. The villagers' battle is not only against the physical destruction of their land but also against the systemic exploitation and indifference of those in power. Despite facing immense challenges, the people of Kosawa demonstrate solidarity, courage, and an unwavering commitment to their heritage and future generations.

"How Beautiful We Were" is a deeply moving and thought-provoking exploration of the human spirit's capacity for resilience and the urgent need for environmental and social justice in a world dominated by corporate interests.

What struck our group the most about this story, is that the struggles, characters, and even the particularities of the poisons the community faced in this African village, could have easily been applied to many other locations including towns in the USA. This searing realization that the corruptive harm of corporate greed is universal, helped tie together many of the concerns we share as a community and as activists. It reinforced the need for fiction to weave climate and environmental issues into narrative landscapes to help bring together people into action rather than retreating into isolated tribes.

Balancing the story to include social activism that can be applied in many different situations: grassroots organizing, legal battles, and efforts to raise international awareness about the plight. While also drawing attention to the global dimensions of these issues and the long shadow of neocolonialism and intergenerational impact of exploitation, really creates a masterclass in the narrative threads needed to showcase the complexity but importance of climate fiction.

Next meeting is Wednesday, May 2nd 7:00-8:30pm

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