Behold the Dreamers

Behold the Dreamers: The American Dream Under Duress

This month, Snotty Literati read Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers. Though Oprah deemed it worthy for her 2017 Summer Book Club, we’d like to assert that we chose it first. On the basis, mostly, of the cover—which is lovely. The novel is a New York novel, an immigrant story, an African tale, an inverted Gatsby with its American Dream under duress. Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni (along with their son), have left Cameroon for New York. Jende secures a chauffeur job for a Lehman Brothers’ exec (Clark Edwards) and Neni goes to school to become a pharmacist and a sometime-help to Cindy Edwards, and Clark and Cindy’s son, Mighty. With the birth of a new American-born baby and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jonga’s future is thrown into question, as is the validity of their dreaming.


Jennifer: Well, I think I’ll start with a basic one. What did you think? I would say that it’s a good read, from beginning to end, despite a fairly subdued tone. Subdued? There were few surprises. It went where one expected it to go. So, perhaps, this is a familiar and well-done tale. I think I might want a bit more “flipping” or “defamiliarizing” (I just read an essay by Charles Baxter, in which he discusses this). The scenarios were a bit too familiar, maybe.

Lara: I thought there were enough twists and turns, some expected, while others were not. For example, we knew that the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and Clark’s loss of employment would impact his marriage with Cindy. And that, in turn, would mean to the loss of Jende’s employment—a must for his impending immigration status. Cindy’s downward spiral wasn’t anything new or shocking to me; however, the lengths Neni would go to protect her family surprised me. Her boldness shocked me and I thought it added great depth to the story. Do you think Neni’s actions contributed to Cindy’s choices? Or do you think Cindy was bound to end up as she did?

Jennifer: I think Cindy was bound to go down that path. I do agree that that was an interesting aspect of the novel. There’s this idea, really, that America is corrupting. I think these immigrants and their responses to the American Dream are intriguing. Jende seems less seduced by the Dream. He sees the dead end. Neni is captivated. She’ll fight for it, even if it means making moral sacrifices. Perhaps there’s this implication that America corrupts the soul?

Lara: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think the Jongas came at the wrong time and had their wagon hitched to the wrong star. To say that America corrupts the soul is brushing with a super broad stroke and I am not willing to say that’s the message of this book. That’s not to say that immigrants—and honest, hard-working ones, willing to go through the process for citizenship don’t sometimes get screwed. I’d like to think this story is more about adjusting dreams when life doesn’t work out as you expect it to. And does it ever really?

Jennifer: No, it doesn’t. So, we have read other novels that can be said to be in this “tradition”—I’m not sure how to appropriately define it. Stories that deal with African expatriates in America, stories that deal with Africans in pursuit of the American Dream. I’m really not sure how to put it. We’ve read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I am, personally, very interested in the thematic treatment of race in contemporary lit. This book might be fairly compared to Americanah (not so much Homegoing), I think, in that both are about Africans from relatively stable countries who move to America and then return to their country of origin after some time—throwing the validity of the American Dream into question. Behold the Dreamers was just not as strong. A good book. Just not dynamic?

Lara: I am going to disagree with you here. Well, wait. I would say that of the others you mention… Homegoing is the most literary of the group.  But I tend to think that Americanah and Behold the Dreamers are more accessible to American audiences and, ultimately, the audiences who need to be exposed to these stories. There’s more in them for American audiences to connect with. I think a lot of readers need to see something that resembles them or their lives before they can read something so foreign or different. Clearly, that’s not the case for everyone, but more than I would like.

I loved all three, but I wouldn’t say that Behold the Dreamers is weaker – just different. And, like her or not, Oprah will bring a massive audience to Mbolo—that likely never would have picked up this book—based on the sheer fact that her logo is now on all of the book’s covers. We can hope it leads these same readers to explore more of these important stories.

Jennifer: I like Oprah, by the way. She’s flawed—but I admire her.

Well, I thought the best part of the story was the questioning of the American Dream. This is a lovely passage:

“In Limbe [in Cameroon], Liomi and Timbe would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers. . .[T]here was a certain kind of pleasure, a certain type of adventurous and audacious childhood, that only New York City could offer a child.”

I’m charmed by the use of audacious. While America has uninhibited dreamers, New York offers audacious childhood.

It does make me wonder about the intrinsic value of the dream. Dreaming is a feature of hoping. The American Dream, real or not, is all about hope. Is the choice to stay in America or leave really a choice between having hope or being hopeless? If that’s the case, that’s horribly sad.

Lara: It is tragic choice. But I think Jende undergoes an interesting transformation. He comes to America confident in the dream we offer—the dream that with hard work you can become something—and it doesn’t matter where you came from. In his hometown of Limbe, his poor lineage is a deal breaker to becoming anything. However, after he and Neni come into some money in the States, while experiencing devastating setbacks to citizenship, Jende realizes he can make something of himself back home. It’s bittersweet.

Jennifer: I thought it was also interesting when Natasha asks Neni, “Are you happy with who you’re becoming?” Neni, especially, changes in America. Again, the suggestion that Americanization involves internal corruption. Notice that the Americans for whom they work are not exactly great people. Their son, in his search for betterment, leaves the United States for India.

We also get a very strong picture of a harsh immigrant life.

Lara: This was the most heartbreaking part of the book for me. It was clear that Jende was a good, hardworking man who was a pawn in the U.S. system, one that his friend/attorney Winston kept trying to manipulate in Jende’s favor:

“I think the story is our best chance for asylum. We claim persecution based on belonging to a particular social group, We weave a story about how you’re afraid of going back home because you’re afraid your girlfriend’s family wants to kill you so you two don’t get married.’

‘That sounds like something that would happen in India,” Winston said, “No one does anything like that in Cameroon.”

And these stories only stall the inevitable. That Jende and Neni are going to have to spend thousands of dollars fighting to legally reside in the States. It’s a choice that they ultimately decide not to make.

Jennifer: What did you think about the end?

Lara: When the book started, I was optimistic. Yes, even knowing that this book involved the start of the most recent recession, I had hope. Hope that Jende and Neni would realize their American Dream. And then, I followed them through the story and saw their dreams change. Going back to Limbe made more sense than becoming cogs in a system that would only manipulate and ultimately break them. It was bittersweet and reminded me of the same feelings I had when hearing Mia (Emma Stone) sing “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” at the end of the almost Academy Award winning Lalaland:

“Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make”

It was a mess they made. All of them.

That said, I really enjoyed it and I found the ending, and the very last line, perfect for this story. We won’t disclose it here. Read it for yourself and let us know if you agree.

Next Up!

In August we are discussing Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. We hope you will join us!

Until then… happy reading Snotties!


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