Is America a lure because of opportunity or money? Or are these the same thing in the immigrant’s eyes?
Behold the Dreamers, the first novel by Imbolo Mbue, an immigrant from Cameroon who arrived in the United States in 1998, raises these questions in looking at the struggles of Jende and Neni Jonga, a young couple from the author’s hometown of Limbe. Now living in Harlem with their young son, the Jongas are hopeful of prospering in America through hard work and study. Jende has been in the country three years—Neni for just half that time. As the novel opens, Jende is hired as a chauffeur by a top Lehman Brothers executive. The lie he tells his boss, Clark Edwards, about being in America legally is a relatively small deceit in the novel’s grand scheme of falsehoods.
Overstaying a tourist visa, Jende has applied for asylum on the bogus grounds that Neni’s family, hostile to their relationship, would kill him were he to return to Cameroon. This tall tale was concocted by his huckster Nigerian lawyer in Brooklyn, who specializes in advising illegal African immigrants on gaming the US immigration system. While men of little means like Jende claim a foothold in America through fraud, the real danger to society is posed by white titans like Clark and his cronies, whose financial shenanigans at Lehman are intimated through conversations Jende overhears in the car.
Mbue is a newcomer in the growing constellation of celebrated writers from the African diaspora, including the Nigerians Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi and Teju Cole, the Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo, and the Ethiopian Dinaw Mengestu, among many others, who write about characters of many different backgrounds in their home countries and America. In Mbue’s case, her immigrant success story frames the marketing of her novel. “Imbolo’s personal story is incredible in its own right,” states the Random House publicity material. “Born to a single mother in a small village in Cameroon, Imbolo spent most of her childhood in houses without electricity or running water.” Relatives paid for the author to attend university in America, but her promising career ended with the 2008 financial crisis. By channeling her ambition, she wrote the novel we hold in our hands. What isn’t stated is that she sold the book for seven figures. Money and opportunity are inextricably twined here.
Until the point when Lehman Brothers plummets into the black hole of bankruptcy, we follow the Jongas as they become enmeshed in their employers’ lives. Jende builds a friendly rapport with Clark in the intimate space of the car; Neni fills in as a temporary housekeeper for Clark’s socially competitive wife Cindy at their Hamptons summer home. In fusing the poor black Jongas and their tentative grip on America with the wealthy white Edwardses who have the world on a platter, Mbue strives for a drama fueled by race, class, gender politics, and love. It’s a great resume for a contemporary novel, especially given the fiery national debate around immigration just now, but the execution of this complex story goes astray. A great twist at its conclusion, the big surprise the author is leading us to, seems to be the reason she misdirects our attention for much of the narrative from what the Jongas really think and feel.
For too long, nothing much happens. Jende amiably ferries members of the Edwards family around the city; Neni diligently applies herself to her community college courses with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. The ambivalence of committing to a new culture—which I’m familiar with, as a first-generation immigrant from India who came to America as a child—does not appear to afflict the Jongas. Nothing about home is longed for or held onto; nothing about the new culture is rejected or recoiled from. Nor are the profound gaps between the two worlds addressed in the characters’ inner lives.
What did ring true for me was Jende and Neni’s great desire to anchor themselves to a home, like many immigrants who can’t afford to buy property in their own countries. The Jongas set a long-term goal to purchase a house in a working-class suburb through constant work and disciplined saving. Money is the difference between thriving in the new country and not; between dignity and indignity; between the past and the future.
Poverty is the real dread that drives the Jongas, one surmises from later events. But Mbue seems reluctant to show us the true thinking of her characters at the start. Jende was a garbage collector in Limbe, Neni an unwed mother trapped in her father’s house—they didn’t marry until she arrived in the States—so the escape from terrible poverty could have been a propulsive engine for the story. But instead of being pulled into the characters’ minds we’re offered a masquerade of stock dreams. When the setbacks intensify and the couple, particularly Neni, suddenly display ignoble and even merciless qualities, it is evidence of an inadequate construction of character.
Part of the problem is that the story seems to begin with a false narrative, presenting the Western reader with a textbook version of the good African immigrant—hardworking, ambitious and endlessly grateful to America. Nene thinks to herself: “How she loved New York City. She still couldn’t believe she was here.” Jende chats with his boss in the car: “‘Everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To be in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world, Mr. Edwards.’”
From a vulnerable, likeable, almost servile man, Jende turns into a domineering traditionalist, controlling his wife’s moves. His geniality slips away like a mask. Neni attributes his behavior to the stress of facing possible deportation when his asylum application is denied. As things come apart, his real feelings seem to emerge. He cries out against the humiliations of his chauffeuring job two-thirds of the way through the story. If Mbue intended Jende’s feelings towards his white employers to be conflicted, we should have seen opposing sentiments woven throughout the narrative.
The men in the story are both responsible for fraud of an impersonal type—against the government, against the market—while the women’s treachery is more pointed and seems all the more devastating. Cindy Edwards, fretting over her marriage and sinking into substance abuse, does an unconscionable thing by putting Jende between herself and her husband, jeopardizing his job. More shocking is when Neni, consistently portrayed as a pragmatic, conscientious worker, takes cold revenge upon Cindy, whose life seems irretrievably broken, with an act both criminal and morally repugnant. That Jende ultimately calls his wife a “strong woman” for extorting money is stunning.
The money-hungry versions of Jende and Neni might not have repelled so sharply if Mbue had portrayed their contradictions from the start, if they had evolved as complicated characters over the course of the story. Instead, she has them spew clichés about dreams and opportunities, she puts masks on them to make them likeable, then strips them off to show the desperate man and woman underneath. By withholding our access to the real identities of Jende and Neni for so long, Mbue disguises the truth about them—how poverty, or the dread of it, can warp people—denying us the very reason for which we read.