In her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” Imbolo Mbue tells the story of West Africans Jende and Neni Jonga, two strivers whose bright hopes for the future are challenged by the Great Recession. The Jongas and their wealthy employers, the Edwardses, meet on the brink of the 2008 financial crisis, but the issues Mbue explores – immigration, income inequality and family separation – are just as timely a decade later. A Cameroonian immigrant herself, Mbue paints a portrait of America that is both magnificent and flawed, holding the American Dream up to the light like a prism to examine the different facets and asking readers to think about how far they would go to secure their families’ futures.
As a preview to February’s One Book, One Community events, Mbue answered our questions by email, sharing her inspiration, how her own background shaped the novel and why she wanted to tell this particular immigration story.
What inspired you to write this novel? I had lost my job during the Great Recession and while I was unemployed, I went out for a walk one day and noticed chauffeurs waiting for executives on a street in Midtown Manhattan. I was intrigued and decided to write a story about an immigrant chauffeur and the Wall Street executive he works for and how they and their families were affected by the recession, specifically how it had affected their dreams.
Like Jende and Neni, you are from Limbe, Cameroon. How much of the story is autobiographical? Not much. Jende and Neni came to America as adults while I arrived as a teenager to attend college, so our experiences were quite different in many ways. I certainly borrowed aspects from my life, like my hometown, and the neighborhood where I once lived in Harlem, but their stories, as well as the stories of the Edwardses, were inspired by many different people I'd met and observed over my years of being an immigrant and a New Yorker.
Why did you choose to set your novel during the Great Recession? Why juxtapose the worlds of striving immigrants and privileged Wall Street bankers? Well, I'd gotten my inspiration for the story at a time when the Great Recession was still raging in many parts of the country and I'd seen its effect in my own life. I was also very interested in the price the characters had to pay to see their dream come true (in the case of the immigrant Jongas) and what they needed to do to hold onto their dream lives (in the case of the wealthy Edwardses). The dream at the center of the story ended up being the American Dream, which the characters embrace or wrestle with in different ways, and I found all of it to be a story worth telling.
Jende thinks of America as a “paradise-for-strivers” but encounters some hard realities that threaten his pursuit of the American Dream. Is America still a land of opportunity for all? America is magnificent and flawed, and I've found it be a land of tremendous opportunity and a land of tremendous hurdles in making the best of those opportunities. This is something both families in the novel have to reckon with.
When Jende comes to the United States, he’s already planning to overstay his visa and he goes to a lawyer who encourages him to game the system to win asylum. That’s exactly what many immigration opponents complain about. Why tell this particular immigration story? I believe we should tell even the stories we're not comfortable telling. It certainly wasn't easy for me to paint people from my hometown in any sort of harsh light, but I was determined to write a realistic story. Jende and Neni, despite making choices we may not condone, are wonderful people in other ways. Clark and Cindy may be rich, white people, and it's certainly easy for many of us to vilify them since they make their share of poor choices, but they're wonderful in their own ways and they show kindness to Jende and Neni. This is all to say that humans are complex. Hardworking immigrants do good and bad things, and rich white people do good and bad things. In the process of writing this novel, I discovered I had no interest in writing a story which painted characters like me as good and people different from me as bad – that's not the world I live in.
How would you like “Behold the Dreamers” to inform the immigration debate? I hope readers take from the novel whatever it is they wish to take away from it. I wrote it to tell a story I’d been inspired to tell, and my goal was to tell the story honestly and completely, hard as it was for me to do so. I didn't spend much time thinking about how the story would be interpreted so it’s always such a thrill for me to meet readers who, in sharing with me their experience of reading the book, end up teaching me a great deal.