Imbolo Mbue’s novel title, Behold the Dreamers, drives straight to the heart of her debut, which centers on the pursuit of dreams and the high cost of their maintenance. The novel’s initial focus rests on Jende and Neni Jonga, a young Cameroonian couple attempting to build a new life in New York City. Jende soon finds work as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers—and the fates of these two families quickly become entwined.
During the turbulence of the recession in 2007, both families grapple with ongoing attempts to find fiscal and emotional security. Mbue demonstrates familiar consequences of economic dependency (problems for the Edwards are problems for the Jongas, too) but with a complexity that accounts for how power dynamics vary in different contexts. This novel shows the difficulties in achieving the American Dream, a concept which often ignores the costs that come alongside its opaque definition of achievement. Mbue evokes a particular vision of New York, where the 2007 Lehman Brothers collapse stands as a question: how can we ascertain the truth beneath what we perceive to be stable?
This interview was conducted by telephone from San Francisco to New York, where Mbue is based. She was an utter delight to speak with: humble, honest, quick to laughter, and full of insight.
The Rumpus: Behold The Dreamers is your first novel. Did you know where this book was going to go right from the start?
Imbolo Mbue: No, I didn’t know when I first began writing it. I had lost my job in the recession, and in the spring of 2011 I went for a walk in New York City, where I live. So, as I was walking, I noticed chauffeurs waiting in front of the Time Warner Building. They were waiting for people coming out of the building… executives, apparently. I became very intrigued and interested in the relationship between the chauffeur and the executive—what it might be like for both of them being in that car together, what the dynamic was like between men from two different worlds, and how the recession might have affected them. I thought about writing a story related to that and then it became a bigger story.
Rumpus: Were you always a writer or was this reaction to seeing these chauffeurs something new for you?
Mbue: I’d been writing for nine years before I started writing this story. I’d written lots of stuff before, none of which had been published, or was even ready for publication, for that matter. The stories were set in Africa because I’m from Cameroon—so the stories were set in a fictional African country. It had nothing to do with America, nothing to do with immigration. I’d been writing these stories for years and then after that walk, I thought, I’m going to start writing something new. So, that’s how I started this novel.
I hadn’t taken any classes. I basically had to teach myself how to write a novel. I had to learn dialogue and plot and pacing and character development. Writing this novel taught me a lot about rewriting, also, because I had to do dozens of rewrites.
Rumpus: In terms of teaching yourself to write, do you feel like that happened through the writing, through trial and error?
Mbue: I think it came from being a lifelong reader. I believe the greatest teaching you can get for your writing comes from being a reader. When I started writing fiction, I asked myself: where is this coming from? How am I able to do this? I think it came from most of the books I’d read. It’s because after having read so much, you know what you love in a book, and you know what you love in characters. It’s not automatic, though, because it still took me years to figure it out.
Rumpus: Are you someone who references books as you write?
Mbue: No, I never did that, but I do read while I am writing, simply because I love to read. Great literature is what inspires me—even writers whose books are very different from mine, like Kazuo Ishiguro. All I want is a great book. I don’t really care from where, about what, by whom. I read a really great book, and I think, Wow, this is wonderful. That is just what I need for inspiration, to see what excellence looks like.
Rumpus: I’ve heard that process described as fuel. Like reading something to get a certain type of energy.
Mbue: When I read something good, I think: This is possible; you can do this. I’m not making notes or looking at it and thinking, I want to be writing the same way. No. Not at all. It’s about just enjoying a great book, which then gets me excited about writing.
I admire a lot of writers, including Joan Didion, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I grew up reading Dickens and Shakespeare and several other classic British books. And I read a lot of nonfiction. And stories about immigrants. I didn’t read a lot of it while I was writing this book, but looking back now I do think that Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis and Teacher Man influenced me even though I read them many years ago. I thought the books had so much to do with what it’s like to be working-class and an immigrant living in New York City.
Now that I’m writing, I see how hard it is to write well. It’s so not easy to write a novel, not for me, at least—it’s hard work. I don’t know, maybe for some people it’s easy but writing this novel was a very difficult process. I enjoyed it, and it was a wonderful journey, but it was incredibly difficult in terms of pushing yourself and digging deep to get the story.
I didn’t know a lot about writing a novel of this nature. The story I’d been writing before was about African characters living in a little African village—it wasn’t set in New York City around the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I enjoyed writing this particular novel because I’m a Cameroonian immigrant and a New Yorker, and I’d lost my job in the recession, and I’d seen how the recession had affected the lives of others. But I still had to learn and push myself to develop empathy. I think that was the hardest part, to develop empathy for these characters. There are four main characters… There’s the Jonga family, the Cameroonian immigrant family, with Jende and Neni as the husband and wife. There is the American family, and the father is an executive at Lehman Brothers, Clark Edwards. His wife is Cindy Edwards. These characters all have their flaws. They have dreams, and they make tough choices but their choices aren’t the wisest sometimes. And I had to develop equal empathy for them in spite of not agreeing with them. I don’t believe this story would have worked if I didn’t have empathy for them. People do messed up things sometimes but it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people.
Rumpus: That’s true… When I was reading your novel, it seemed like there was a comparison set up between the two couples in terms of your structure. I was wondering if that comparison was something you set up consciously or not.
Mbue: Not at all! My goal was to tell the story. The symbolism, the compare and contrast… I leave that up to the reader. I generally don’t read reviews of the novel, but some friends said to me, “You have to read this particular review.” I did, and it was this wonderful analysis of the novel and I said, Wow! I would have never developed that kind of analysis of the characters. It’s a joy for me to see someone breaking it down like that. Because I was writing a story about individual characters. I was saying: this is Clark’s story, this is Neni’s story. Of course, their stories are all intertwined and interconnected around Wall Street and their marriages. But I wasn’t focused on saying this is what it’s like to be a wealthy American man, and then this is what it’s like to be an immigrant woman. That wasn’t what I was after.
Rumpus: You mentioned that the story originated from chauffeurs going into the building that you saw earlier. Did you go talk to chauffeurs, or someone at Lehman brothers?
Mbue: I didn’t. I thought about what the lives of the chauffeurs might be like, and I thought they could be African immigrants, like me. I thought about what it would be like for them to work for wealthy families. My first thoughts were, How much money do they get paid; what is their job description? The good thing about living in this age is that this kind of information is on the Internet. I went on the Internet and I looked for an ad for a chauffeur job. It said: A chauffeur needed for such-and-such a family, and this is the job description, driving them around, and this is the pay. That was as much research as I did on that matter. I know people like the Jongas living in New York, I’d had opportunities to meet people like the Edwards, not exactly with their level of wealth, but I met people who had a good deal of money, and so I got some insight into their lives. I could see the kind of clothes they wore, the way they talk about their vacations, and the kind of restaurants they go to. I got a sense of all of that. Jende and Neni’s stories came mostly from people I’d known in Cameroon and immigrants whose personalities and stories had intrigued me.
Rumpus: That makes sense. I think that one part of the book that will resonate for many readers is the inclusion of how difficult it is to obtain legal status to live in America. Someone not born here.
Mbue: It’s a tough, long battle. We can see from the Jonga family’s experience how challenging it can be. The immigration system is complex and it often helps to have an excellent lawyer.
Rumpus: Initially, the Jongas seem so positive and feel a lot of gratitude towards the Edwards family. This changes throughout the book. I was wondering if you could talk about the “American Dream” and how that myth engages with both couples.
Mbue: I think there should be more emphasis on the price of the American dream. There’s so much emphasis on, you know, you work hard and you’ll have this great life and this great job. You’ll have a house, and a car and a white picket fence. But there’s a price for that. Dreams tend to come at a price. And you can work really hard but if you make around minimum wage, how can you afford those things? And you can see for Jende and for Neni, they had to pay a lot of prices for their dreams. For example, Jende, when he tries to get asylum: he has to compromise himself to go get that dream. For the Edwards, there is a price to pay to hold onto the dream. On the surface, it looks like the Edwards have a dream life, right? What could be better it seems? Upper East Side apartment, Hamptons summer house… All that, but then look at what they have to go through. Look at how many hours Clark Edwards has to work, and Cindy’s personal struggles which are heightened by the world in which she lives. I think that’s why I could develop empathy for them. And their story and struggles are far from unique. Before, I said to myself, they’re rich people with fancy lives, but it’s much more than that. They aren’t bad people, they have their virtues, they want what many of us want: a happy life with their family and loved ones. And for them that includes material success, which comes at a price because their family starts to crumble little by little.
Rumpus: I was curious about Vince, and how you developed him. It was interesting to me how he considers moving to India, and his parents do not react well. I was wondering if you were you mocking him, since he seems a little out of touch with the reality the Jongas face?
Mbue: I feel for Vince and the Vinces of the world. Vince was inspired by young people I’d met who were born into a certain amount of wealth which gave them privileges and yet they’re able to step outside of it and question their families’ values. They can see that there is a lot of injustice and social inequalities and they feel compelled to reject their privileges. When I met these kinds of young people, I was very intrigued because I thought, What is it like to have all of these privileges and opportunities and reject them? Because many of us would love to have the opportunities and advantages that Vince has! But taking full advantage isn’t exactly who Vince is. He has a lot of questions and he doesn’t know how to balance his upper-class status and his consciousness. And interestingly, he’s asking all these questions even though he’s never had to worry about money. Even if he goes to India, his parents are going to give him money to go to India. With Vince, I see a young man searching to be at peace with his world. Jende and Neni don’t have that kind of privilege, and they’ll do everything they can to offer it to their son but Vince has it and he’s uncomfortable with it.
I went to graduate school at Columbia and I met people so passionate about a fairer world. They were against Wall Street excesses and inequality and some of them came from money which had clearly benefitted them, but that that didn’t stop them from wanting to change the status quo.
Rumpus: I was interested in the relationships between Neni and Jende, and Cindy and Clark. How did you develop relationships between characters? Neni and Jende’s relationship changes throughout the book in so many big ways.
Mbue: When we meet Jende and Neni, they are fairly young and recently married. They are in love. When we meet Cindy and Clark, their marriage is already crumbling. But the truth is that when Cindy and Clark first met each other, they were probably in love, like Jende and Neni. Then, without giving too much of the story away, we see how both of their stories end. This novel isn’t saying, Look at how happy these poor Africans are and look at how unhappy these rich white people are in their marriage. No, they each have their joys and sorrows. Both families want the best future for their children, but it is challenging for the Jongas as working-class immigrants and the Edwards’ marriage is cracking, and Vince is doing his own thing, questioning everything.
Then the class differences between both families open up issues—there’s a lot of tension between Cindy and Neni because Neni wants the kind of life that Cindy has. I think she’s intrigued by all that. There’s a moment where Cindy gives Neni her old designer clothes, and Neni is over the moon. And Jende is just in awe of Clark—he wants his son to grow up to be a big man like Clark. But Neni is willing to challenge authority and challenge the power the Edwards have over them. The Edwards are their “bread and tea,” in Jende’s words, but over the course of the story, the power dynamics shift. At some point, Neni has more power than Cindy, and Jende has more power than Clark. Even in the Jongas’ marriage, at points Neni has more power over Jende and in others, Jende has more power over Neni. There is always a shift in power dynamics, which happens in real life also. Just because you have more money, or more status, doesn’t mean you’ll be the powerful person—you can lose that power one way or another.
Rumpus: That was part of Jende’s and Neni’s relationship that I thought was portrayed in a really interesting way. The two of them have a unified goal, but it’s not like they don’t disagree on how that goal should be achieved. There are moments when the dynamic tips in a certain direction and Neni doesn’t challenge it. For example, when Jende decides Neni’s not going to study for the spring and summer semesters, she says she has no choice but to obey. Is that something connected to how this specific couple works, or is that a cultural thing related to Cameroon?
Mbue: I think part of it is a cultural thing. Neni is her own woman, she is tough and outspoken, but she’s still her husband’s wife. And Jende is the man of the house and even though he’s a good guy, he wears the pants. I think for many women, their marriage gives them so much, but they also lose so much because of it.
Rumpus: What about the Lehman Brothers, and using the collapse and this company specifically?
Mbue: Interestingly, when I first thought of the idea, I thought, I’m going to come up with a fictional Wall Street firm that collapses in the fall of 2008. I thought, there’ll be some shady accounting going on there and the executive character in this story is going to work there, and then it’s going to collapse. I wrote it and sent early draft to agents and it got rejected for various reasons and some of them said, “It’s obvious this company is Lehman Brothers. Just go ahead and say it.”
I was intrigued by the Lehman Brothers story. It was shocking and sad. This bank that we thought was a great bank, it’s been there for ages, we thought it would be there for a very long time… Then one day we wake up, and it’s gone. Because I lost my job in the recession, I was very curious how the whole thing began. Enron happened not long after I arrived in America. I didn’t grow up in a country where there were lots of private corporations, so it was fascinating to see how the collapse of such a corporation played out. When Lehman Brothers happened I was curious about how such a thing was possible. There was a big report written by a court-appointed examiner and I read excerpts of it to get a sense of what had happened in the period leading up to the collapse. Then I asked myself, What if there was someone there who had great foresight, someone who said we need to change our business model? And that’s how I came up with the character of Clark Edwards.
Rumpus: Do you feel that this book could have only been set in America? Is it uniquely American for you?
Mbue: The part about leaving home and having dreams is very universal. It could be about leaving Ghana and going to Holland. Even if you’re not an immigrant, you’re simply moving from one part of America to the other, you have a dream and make sacrifices… that’s all very universal.
The American Dream, on the other hand, is obviously all American. And you don’t hear about the Irish dream or French dream. All over the world, you hear about the American Dream, and even if we don’t know it by name before we come here, many of us arrive believing in it and start working towards it once we get here. Then we learn that it’s not only hard work that matters in the equation—we encounter socioeconomic challenges.
Rumpus: In some of your reviews I noticed that some people were saying this is a topical book given the xenophobic language during this election cycle, particularly related to immigration. Is that something that you thought about since this book has come out? I’m guessing that you wrote this long before the election cycle.
Mbue: I never thought about it before I started writing in 2011, long before this election cycle—I’m not that good. [Laughs] But I do think America is very different from when I first came here. I came here in 1998, and this was before 9/11 and before the recession, and before terrorist attacks started happening more often. It was a different country, and I feel as if people were more welcoming. Now we’re more aware of certain dangers and there are some sentiments that immigrants are taking away jobs and bringing terrorism into the country, and it all seems to be coming from a place of fear. But I don’t think the American Dream is about fear. This is a country where people make brave choices to build a stronger country.
Rumpus: Well, it’s nice that the book is out now.
Mbue: It is. The book was sold two years ago. It felt like forever. It’s like being pregnant. I was thinking—when is this baby coming out? And writing can be very isolating. So when you get to the point where you’re finally done writing and you’re no longer sitting alone at your desk, it can be quite enjoyable. Of course, I find something new to write because I can’t help myself.
Rumpus: Are you going to Cameroon at all to discuss the book?
Mbue: I hope to go sometime in the near future, but I’m not sure when it’s going to be published there. It’ll be interesting hearing what Cameroonian readers think of the story. They know Neni and Jende, so I imagine for them Cindy and Clark will be the new characters. A lot of Americans say, Neni and Jende are so new to me. In Cameroon, it could be the opposite.
Author photograph © Kiriko Sano.