More than a week after I finished my first novel of 2018, I’m sitting down to gather my thoughts. There is so much good to say about “Behold the Dreamers,” the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian immigrant with some serious writing chops. And there are so many ways to begin this post.
Do I reference President Trump’s ugly remarks last week about people from “shithole countries”?
Do I reference the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech? (After all, I am writing this on the national holiday named for him.)
Or do I frame this in the context of the universal American Dream, the one to which generations of native-born and foreign-born Americans have aspired?
Maybe it’s best to keep all three in mind, for Mbue’s novel touches on the sentiments of all of them — from crass ignorance and resentment of outsiders to the amazing work ethic and striving for a better life embodied by so many newcomers to the United States.
Let’s start with the author. Imbolo Mbue is in her mid-30s. She hails from Limbe, a beach town of about 85,000 residents (a little smaller than Salem, Oregon) in southwestern Cameroon, a California-sized country in central Africa that borders Nigeria, and a former colony of Germany, France and England.
Mbue has degrees from Rutgers University in New Jersey and Columbia University in New York City, where she now lives. She became a U.S. citizen in 2014.
“Behold the Dreamers,” published in 2016, won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian and several other news outlets.
The awards are richly deserved. Mbue has written a book rich with insight into both American and Cameroonian culture, laced it with diction from her native country (a place where more than 200 languages are spoken, by the way), and delved into the minds and attitudes of people at both extremes of the socioeconomic scale.
The story is a familiar one. Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant, has come to New York City with his wife Neni and their 6-year-old son, hoping to provide a better life for his family. Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a workaholic executive at Lehman Brothers, but he also has the responsibility of driving Clark’s wife, Cindy, and their two sons on assorted trips across the city. Cindy at one point offers Neni temporary employment at the couple’s summer home in the Hamptons.
With these dual sources of income, and with Neni taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a pharmacist, the young immigrants make do in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment in Harlem but are nevertheless optimistic about their future in America.
But there are two complications: Jende lied to Cameroonian authorities about his intentions in the U.S., so now he must rely on a sketchy legal adviser to help him gain permanent resident status or risk deportation, along with his wife and son. The other issue is that the story begins in the fall of 2007, a year before Barack Obama was elected president and the country was relatively stable. And timing is everything.
As the story progresses, the Great Recession takes hold and Mbue presents the perspectives of both couples.
From Cindy and Clark, we get the view from Wall Street and Manhattan; their affluence is beyond imaginable and the privileges that money brings seem to have no end.
From Jende and Neni, we get the view of constant struggle; nothing comes easily, whether it’s navigating the immigration system, trying to understand the ways of their new country, or conducting themselves in ways that will impress white Americans, or at least not threaten them.
With an extraordinary display of empathy, Mbue does not pass judgment on any of the four characters, She depicts their contrasting worlds — of the 1 percenters and of the newly arrived immigrants — not just through descriptive detail but also, more tellingly, through interactions and conversations between the husbands and the wives.
The lives of all four characters are inevitably affected by the tanking economy, and that’s when things get interesting.
Will Clark lose his job at Lehman Brothers? Will Jende lose his? How can Cindy maintain the appearance of a perfect life marked by material possessions and social outings with her equally rich friends? How can Neni stay on track toward her academic and career goals?
The beauty of the book is that it raises fundamental questions about the American Dream for both couples. Just what defines happiness? Is it money? Is it a feeling of belonging? Does professional success guarantee contentment? Does making a new life in America mean forsaking the previous one you had in the country when you were born?
To her credit, Mbue presents the humanity in all her characters, as well as the path of upward mobility traveled by both couples. But it is in portraying the multiple pressures on the Jongas and the excruciating decisions they must face about family, finances and their future that she really shines.
I couldn’t help but read this book with a sense of appreciation for what immigrants have given this country along with a feeling of disgust toward those racist elements of our society that would gleefully slam the door shut on today’s immigrants — and even give the boot to DACA Dreamers.
All of us who are here in the United States aspire to some version of the American Dream, the idea that each generation strives to create a better future for our children. We may differ in the value we place on various material, social and familial markers, but I think it’s fair to say we are all dreamers, aren’t we?
Read more about Imbolo Mbue here.