A short piece on the theme of Belonging, read by the author at the 29th Annual PEN Faulkner Celebration in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 2017.
-When I die, do not take me back home, Papa said. Bury me right here.
I sat up on my bed and rubbed my eyes, briefly looking at my phone.
-Papa, I whispered. What’s going on? It’s two o’clock in the morning.
-I needed you to know this right now, he said. I can’t sleep. Whatever you do, do not take my body back to Cameroon.
I looked through the darkness of my bedroom, the light of a passing ambulance briefly illuminating it. I reached for the lamp but dropped my hand, deciding the darkness would be best for a conversation such as this.
-What did the doctor say at your check up yesterday? I asked. Your blood pressure medicine stopped working again?
-No, nothing like that. I’m fine. He says the way I’m going I may live to see the day when people go over to Mars just to have dinner.
I did not laugh. Neither did he, though he’d clearly made the joke for his own benefit.
-Papa, I have to be at work at 6am, so please tell me right now why you’re calling me in the middle of the night to give me this strange instruction.
He didn’t immediately respond.
-Are you going to tell me now, or do you want me to drive to Brooklyn tomorrow…
I continued waiting.
-I want to remain here with you and your sister. I have nothing left for me in Cameroon.
-There’s nothing left for any of us in Cameroon, Papa. Except Mama’s grave. And the graves of Mammi and Big Papa. Are you telling me you do not want to be buried next to them?
– Please do not try to shame me. I do not need any of that.
-I’m not trying to shame you! When Mama died we travelled for three days and drove on that horrible road so we could bury her in the village of your birth. And I’ll do the same for you, because if there’s one thing you’ve told me over and over, it’s that a man should be buried in his village, among his people—
-I go to your mother’s grave every night. I sit there and tell her goodnight before I close my eyes. Every single night I do that.
He sniffed, and for a few seconds he said nothing.
I remained silent too, imagining him sitting alone on his bed, lights turned off, talking to the air, hoping that somehow his words would fly over bodies of water and hills and plains and valleys and arrive at Mama’s grave. None of us had been to the grave since we buried her ten years ago. None of us had visited Cameroon since then.
-I promise you, Papa, I’ll take you back home and bury you right next to Mama. If you’re saying this to me because you don’t want me to go through all this for you—
-I’m saying it because it’s what I want. I want you to bury me right here in Brooklyn.
-You’re telling me you want to be buried next to strangers when there’s a place all set for you right between your wife and your mother?
-Yes, he said softly. I’m telling you that you and your sister are all I have left. And until the day you both get married and have children, and even after then, I don’t want you to be without me. Your mother is all the way in the village. I don’t want to leave you here by yourselves, in another man’s country.
Imbolo Mbue is a native of the seaside town of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a BS from Rutgers University and an MA from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for more than a decade, she lives in New York City. Behold The Dreamers, her critically acclaimed debut novel, won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named by The New York Times and The Washington Post as one of their Notable Books of 2016. It was also named as a Best Book of 2016 by NPR, Amazon, Kirkus Reviews, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and The St. Louis Dispatch. The novel also won the 2017 Blue Metropolis Words to Change Award and in June of 2017 Oprah Winfrey announced that she had chosen it as the 2017 Oprah’s Book Club selection.
Illustration by Taha Yeasin.