Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Behold the Dreamers: A Novel
Author: Imbolo Mbue
Ever since Behold the Dreamers landed on my doorstep from Book of the Month in September 2016, I have been trying to recount the story to anyone who would listen, like I’ve stumbled upon some gripping neighborhood gossip. It’s one of those stories that burns a hole in your mind. The characters and their actions are too large and explosive to be contained inside your brain, so they fall out at inopportune moments, random bits and pieces of story spilling all over your family and friends and coworkers. “This reminds me of Neni and Jende,” I’d say, “that time when they’re in the Hamptons because of – wait, I have to tell you about what happened with Mrs. Edwards first, or this bit won’t make sense…”
And that’s the issue. It’s not a simple story to tell, not just because it spans the lives of two families and two countries, but also because I sometimes confuse it with my own.
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel takes place in 2008, right before the Recession shuttered buildings on Wall Street and swallowed the American middle class. Fed up with Draconian social and legal systems in Cameroon, Jende Jonga finagles a refugee visa to enter the United States with the help of a relative. The book starts when he has saved up enough money to bring his pregnant wife Neni and their son over to New York City to live with him. Thanks to another relative (the immigrant story often contains a string of relatives both helpful and unhelpful), Jende scores a job as a private chauffeur for a high-ranking employee at Lehman Brothers. While his wife attends community college, Jende spends his days driving his boss, Mr. Clark Edwards, from his luxurious uptown home to his office on Wall Street. Sometimes picture-perfect Mrs. Cindy Edwards is in the car as well, and sometimes their sons.
Jende is proud of this job. He can now provide for his family in a way that was impossible back in Cameroon, and they can even put money away every month to eventually move out of their dingy, cockroach-infested Harlem apartment with thirdhand furniture. His wife will continue on to pharmacy school and his children will grow up speaking perfect American slang. Maybe, with time, they will even move to the suburbs in Westchester County, like another of his relatives has done. A condo, a car, college for his children. Maybe he will even start his own business. There is hope in a good life.
But for an immigrant who is in the country on perilous terms, hope comes only in brief, shallow breaths. Jende is in the country on a legal loophole. Though he is allowed to work, his refugee visa is still “pending review,” words that make up entire departments in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of Homeland Security. To officially obtain asylum as a refugee, there must be provable threats to his life back in Cameroon, which Jende does not have. The only threat that awaits Jende back home is a life of an impoverished government clerk: No condo, car, or business. His immigration lawyer’s primary recommendation is to wait for the great American bureaucracy to grind its ancient gears, and to enjoy his time while he has it. “So I could still have a few years in this country?” Jende asks. “A few years? Try thirty years!” his lawyer replied. “I know people who’ve been fighting Immigration forever. In that time, they’ve gone to school, married, had children, started businesses, made money, and enjoyed their lives. The only thing they cannot do is go outside the country. But if you’re in America, what is there to see outside America, abi?”
While his case remains in limbo, everything Jende does is overshadowed by knowledge of his temporary status in this big, loud, wonderful, confusing country. Neni struggles in class, her hopes of entering pharmacy school dashed by the realities of being an international student who can never afford full tuition. Few scholarships exist for people like her, and she has no friends who are American citizens willing to co-sign for a private loan. Meanwhile, the sun continues to rise, and Imbolo Mbue’s merciless, poetic narrative beats down on the lives of both the Jongas and the Edwardses. From the backseat of the chauffeur car, Jende watches his boss become embroiled in the increasingly unethical practices of his company. Mrs. Edwards realizes that her husband has been wholly consumed by his work, and her oldest son Vince has abandoned his Ivy League education to find himself in far-off India. With her family both emotionally and physically out of reach, Cindy Edwards finds warmth in drink and opioids, losing her own tether to reality chapter by chapter.
Finally, the Recession hits. For the country and the rest of the world, it’s an earthquake that shatters and buckles entire lives. But for Jende and his family, it’s a distant, thunderous rumble that tolls for their unpredictable future. The two families lives collide like meteors in space; secrets erupt, accusations fly, fists are raised. So many tears shed, for so many tomorrows that may or may not be. Imbolo Mbue gives a deep and raw voice for this process of uprooting oneself from home in order to seek another, not for the greener grass, but for any grass at all.
The New York Times called Behold the Dreamers a “capacious” and “big-hearted” novel, while NPR hailed it as “quintessentially American” despite, or perhaps because of, its unapologetic immigrant-ness. The Washington Post dubbed it as “the one novel Donald Trump should read now,” but I disagree. As someone who has navigated life in the United States for more than a decade as both an international student and a foreign worker, my own story is but a stone’s throw away from Jende and Neni’s. This novel will be yet another brick in Trump’s wall, because the current administration — much like the Jongas — cannot see how the imitated are not so different from the imitators, after all that is said and done.
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Janice Yu Cheng.
Like many Millennials, Janice Yu Cheng has two degrees that she paid too much for, an apartment she can’t afford on her own, and multiple cultures to navigate while on the phone with her mother. She currently writes and designs marketing material for a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, but most of the time she is thinking about her cat and the next travel destination she gets to AirBnB.