Imbolo Mbue's debut novel depicts contemporary American life from the perspective of an African family seeking refuge. Behold the Dreamers is entertaining, instructive, thought provoking and not easily forgotten. A book sure to provoke much thought and discussion.
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North Melbourne Books talks to Imbolo Mbue
North Melbourne Books: Behold the Dreamers tells the story of two very different families. Jende Jonga, his wife Neni and their son Liomi have left their native Cameroon to come to America. They hope to live the American Dream. Jende finds work as a driver for Clark Edwards, a senior partner with Lehman Brothers bank. Soon the Jonga family’s fortunes are tied inextricably to those of the Edwardses. But when the 2007 crash hits, all hopes and dreams are thrown into disarray. The novel reads as being very much based on personal experience. Did you use much of your own life as material for the book?
Imbolo Mbue: I did use a few elements from my life in the novel. Like Jende and Neni Jonga, I am a native of Limbe, Cameroon who migrated to America. I also lived in Harlem like them, and my life was also impacted by the recession (I lost my job about a year after Lehman Brothers collapsed). That, however, is where the similarities between us ends—most of their story was inspired by stories other immigrants had told me about their experiences in America. Being that the recession had affected my life, I was very much interested in exploring how it had affected the lives of other New Yorkers—families like the Jongas who were striving to achieve the American Dream, and families like the Edwardses, who were seemingly living the Dream.
NMB: While Behold the Dreamers tackles issues such as race, immigration and social status, one of the main themes seems to be about money: not having enough of it and when you do, still not being happy. Why did you want to write about money problems?
IB: I wasn’t exactly aiming to write about money but it is very much at the center of the American Dream, and because of this I ended up writing about how money, or its lack thereof, can make or break families. For the Edwardses, money isn’t in short supply, but the price they had to pay to acquire that money has created fractures in the family. The Jongas on the other hand have very little money, and that comes with its own share of problems. To borrow from Tolstoy, both of these families are unhappy in their own way.
NMB: Your novel is in many ways about the failings of the American Dream. It has a moral element as it speculates on the fairness of the American economic and class system. Yet it’s not a moralising book. What does the book mean to you?
IB: I wanted to tell a story about people like myself living in the America that I had experienced—a wonderful country, and yet flawed in its own way. While the novel certainly highlights issues of class and income inequality, my goal wasn’t to moralize but to tell the story, as truthfully and completely as I could.
NMB: The writing style of Behold the Dreamers is refreshingly direct and accessible, concentrating on telling a great story, with many shrewd and subtle observations about race, class and money along the way. Who are some of the writers that really inspired you?
IB: I was inspired to start writing after reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which awed me with its beauty and power. I was also inspired by the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jonathan Franzen, Junot Diaz, Pablo Neruda, Chinua Achebe, Ha Jin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhumpa Lahiri, amongst many others. In reading the works of these writers, I saw what excellence looked like.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
IB: I just finished reading Lily King’s Euphoria which I loved, and I’m currently enjoying Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time about the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: 29.99