Rebeea Saleem reviews Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, a story of an immigrant family’s complex relationship with the American Dream.
Since xenophobia and racism have become pressing issues after Brexit and Trump’s election, it is all the more crucial now to highlight narratives of immigrants and people with minority backgrounds. In Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue tells the engaging story of a young Cameroonian couple and is poised to be a significant debut of 2017. Jende and Neni, with little Limbo in tow, come to New York to build a new life amidst the chaotic financial climate of early 2008, right before the global recession.
Jende is lucky enough to snag a more than satisfactory job as a chauffeur for Clark, a senior partner at the Lehman Brothers bank. As his work consists of driving him, his wife Cindy and their sons, Mighty and Vince around town, he quickly gets to know them closely. Jende’s family gradually gets pulled into the orbit of the financial elites.
Jende’s job as a chauffeur makes him the perfect sounding board for Clark and his image-conscious family, but it also puts him in a precarious position. Slowly and inadvertently, Jende and his family become embroiled in the problems of the elite– substance abuse, shady business dealings, and secret liaisons. They soon find out how Jende’s fortunate employment has its drawbacks.
Jende’s hopes of achieving his dreams in America are inextricably linked to Clark’s job. When recession hits, Lehman Brothers Bank is one of the first notorious casualties after claiming bankruptcy. As Clark’s job lands in hot waters, Jende is made redundant. Thus begin his trials and tribulations as he scrambles to find a decent job to support his family while stuck in limbo waiting for his asylum application to be approved.
Imbolo Mbue shrewdly observes the fundamental disparities between the problems of well-heeled White Americans and poor immigrants. What I liked was her measured approach while dealing with characters from diametrically opposite social classes. She is equally sympathetic to what I would call the ‘first world problems’ of Cindy, a quintessential trophy wife, with probably too much time on her hands, as she is to the struggles of Neni as she juggles being a new mother and a student. The narration is not without a sprinkling of deadpan humour though. In one interaction, Cindy tells Neni she grew up poor and Neni tells her she knows how that feels. Cindy then snaps that the shame for her was greater and Neni can’t possibly relate because in Africa, everyone is poor so it’s not that bad for them.
Mbue portrays the daily struggles of immigrants with pathos. It makes one realise just how difficult straddling two worlds can be. This Catch-22 situation is realistically captured in Jende’s case. Living in America, he is able to send over money frequently back home whenever one of his family members becomes ill or is facing financial constraints. On the other hand, every call he receives from home is preceded by a moment of helpless dread as he knows if things get out of hands, he cannot, living a whole other continent, physically do anything to help ease their sufferings.
Similarly, the academic woes of immigrants are brilliantly rendered in Nene’s struggles to fulfil her ambition of being a pharmacist. The college’s dean tells the outraged Nene to think about pursuing another career as being an international student makes it harder for her to get student loans. He patronisingly advises her to pursue “achievable goals” because of her vulnerable status a a temporary citizen.
Behold the Dreamers provides some timely insight into the juggernaut of work visa applications, endless hearings of asylum courts and job difficulties that expatriates have to face.
Last year’s breakout hit The Wangs vs The World shares many common themes with this book. While the Wangs took caustic jabs in America’s capitalist society, Imbolo Mbue is more coy in her critique. In her story, America is still a dreamland despite the racial disparity and economic struggles for minorities. This rose-tinted depiction of the US perhaps mirrors that of Jende and his family. Mbue vividly depicts Cameroonian culture with the help of frequent flashbacks which is refreshing to read. Ultimately, the book contemplates the trade-off between pursuing the American Dream and living a less than perfect, but secure life, back home. There are no easy answers in this book, much like in real life. Behold The Dreamers is a poignantly written story about the quest for happiness and ambition in times of economic crisis and is an extremely relevant book for our times.
“It had just dawned on him how tightly his fate was linked to another man’s. What if something ever happened to Mr. Edwards? His work permit was set to expire in March and he might not be able to renew it again, depending on how his court case went. Without working papers, he would never be able to get another job that paid as much. How would he take care of a wife and two children? How many restaurant dishwashing jobs would he have to do for cash?”