Chethana Dinesh writes that 'Behold the Dreamers' by Imbolo Mbue captures the plight of African immigrants in America skillfully.
Young Camaroonian Jende Jonga has landed in the US with dreams in his eyes and a fire in his belly. Dreams of making a better life for himself, his wife Neni, and their six-year-old son Liomi, and the determination to work hard for it. As far as he's concerned, America is the land of dreamers, of achievers. "America has something for everyone" is his belief. His joy knows no bounds when he lands a job as a personal chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. A job that is almost like a passport to his success with its good pay packet. He makes grand plans for his son's future in the 'land of opportunities'.
Driving the Edwardses - Clark, his wife Cindy, and their two sons Vince and Mighty - around New York, Jende gets a peek into the enchanting lives of the creamy layer of The Big Apple. His resolve to stay on in America only gets stronger. To build a strong case for himself to seek asylum in the land of his dreams, he concocts a story wherein his father-in-law is waiting to kill him as soon as he heads back home. Even as he waits for the result of his asylum application, he dreams on, fuelled by the hopes given by his smooth-talking immigration lawyer.
The Edwardses, with all their quirks, are generous employers. While Clark is amused by Jende's tales of his homeland, Cindy offers Neni a part-time job in the family's vacation house in the Hamptons, and the boys grow fond of both Jende and Neni. But, it doesn't take long for the Jongas to realise that all's not well in the Edwardses seemingly perfect world. They have their own set of problems, and their own ways of dealing with them. Substance abuse, escapism, depression, spiritual quest... It leaves the Jongas wondering how people with such wealth could "have so much happiness and unhappiness skillfully wrapped up together."
Moreover, it's 2008. The year that sees the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Jende doesn't understand the implications of this financial crisis till it hits him hard. And he loses his job. His asylum application too gets rejected. His dreams come crashing down, making him bitter. All his talks of America being the land of immense possibilities - "Look at Obama, sir. Who is his mother? Who is his father? They are not big people in the government. ...The man is a black man with no father or mother, trying to be president over a country!" - sound increasingly hollow to himself. The Jongas are forced to make an impossible choice now, before their marriage falls apart...
Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, captures the plight of African immigrants in America skillfully. Especially at a time when the country is about to elect its first black president, and facing the worst financial crisis ever. Jende embodies the dreams and aspirations of millions of immigrants who land in America with the hope of a better life, better prospects. So does Neni, who is in the US on a student visa, with dreams of enrolling herself in a pharmacy college soon, and for whom America is "a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers."
Their love for consumerism and all-things-American reflect the attraction the American dream holds for immigrants. After all, Mbue herself landed in the US as an immigrant in 1998, ended up losing her job during the 2008 financial crisis, and was jobless for almost a year-and-a-half. A captivating storyteller that she is, she has managed to relate her experiences, and that of her fellow African-Americans, through the many characters of her book.
There is a sense of calmness in the book, a calmness that's all-pervasive, waiting to burst out of the pages. The narrative too begins slowly, but quickly picks up steam, enticing the reader to thumb through the pages at a frenetic pace. Proof enough of the author's flair for writing. Simplicity of language and remarkable characterisation further add to the allure of the book. Her characters are quite complex, who cannot easily be labelled as black or white. The prose reveals, on the one hand, a curious, observant mind and a subtle sense of humour, and on the other, hope, that forms the leitmotif around which the myriad stories in this book are woven. In short, it's a book you wouldn't mind reading, over and over again, for the sheer joy of enjoying a story well told.