A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy
New York Times Bestseller • Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award • Longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award • An ALA Notable Book
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
NPR • The New York Times Book Review • San Francisco Chronicle • The Guardian • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Chicago Public Library • BookPage • Refinery29 • Kirkus Reviews
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.
When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
Praise for Behold the Dreamers
“A debut novel by a young woman from Cameroon that illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse . . . Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller.”—The Washington Post
“A capacious, big-hearted novel.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Behold the Dreamers’ heart . . . belongs to the struggles and small triumphs of the Jongas, which Mbue traces in clean, quick-moving paragraphs.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Mbue’s writing is warm and captivating.”—People (book of the week)
“[Mbue’s] book isn’t the first work of fiction to grapple with the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, but it’s surely one of the best. . . . It’s a novel that depicts a country both blessed and doomed, on top of the world, but always at risk of losing its balance. It is, in other words, quintessentially American.”—NPR
“This story is one that needs to be told.”—Bust
“Behold the Dreamers challenges us all to consider what it takes to make us genuinely content, and how long is too long to live with our dreams deferred.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“[A] beautiful, empathetic novel.”—The Boston Globe
“A witty, compassionate, swiftly paced novel that takes on race, immigration, family and the dangers of capitalist excess.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Mbue [is] a deft, often lyrical observer. . . . [Her] meticulous storytelling announces a writer in command of her gifts.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
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About the Author
Imbolo Mbue is a native of the seaside town of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a BS from Rutgers University and an MA from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for more than a decade, she lives in New York City.
Behold the Dreamers, her critically acclaimed debut novel, won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named by The New York Times and The Washington Post as one of the notable books of 2016. It was also named as a best book of 2016 by NPR, Kirkus Reviews, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The novel also won the 2017 Blue Metropolis Words to Change Prize.
Read an Excerpt
He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.
He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.
“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”
The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.
Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”
“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”
This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”
Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.
“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.
“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.
Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: whites’ great hope? barack obama and the dream of a color-blind america. Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.
“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.
“No, sir,” Jende replied.
“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”
“No, Mr. Edwards.”
Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.
“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”
Jende perked up. This was the question he and his wife, Neni, had discussed the previous night; the one they’d read about when they Googled “the one question they ask at every job interview.” They had spent an hour hunched over the cranky desktop, searching for the best answer, reading much-too-similar pieces of advice on the first ten sites Google delivered, before deciding it would be best if Jende spoke of his strong character and dependability, and of how he had everything a busy executive like Mr. Edwards needed in a chauffeur. Neni had suggested he also highlight his wonderful sense of humor, perhaps with a joke. After all, she had said, which Wall Street executive, after spending hours racking his brain on how to make more money, wouldn’t appreciate entering his car to find his chauffeur ready with a good joke? Jende had agreed and prepared an answer, a brief monologue which concluded with a joke about a cow at a supermarket. That should work very well, Neni had said. And he had believed so, too. But when he began to speak, he forgot his prepared answer.
“Okay, sir,” he said instead. “I live in Harlem with my wife and with my six-years-old son. And I am from Cameroon, in Central Africa, or West Africa. Depends on who you ask, sir. I am from a little town on the Atlantic Ocean called Limbe.”
“Thank you, Mr. Edwards,” he said, his voice quivering, unsure of what he was thankful for.
“And what kind of papers do you have in this country?”
“I have papers, sir,” he blurted out, leaning forward and nodding repeatedly, goose bumps shooting up all over his body like black balls out of a cannon.
“I said what kind of papers?”
“Oh, I am sorry, sir. I have EAD. EAD, sir . . . that is what I have right now.”
“What’s that supposed—” The BlackBerry on the desk buzzed. Clark quickly picked it up. “What does that mean?” he asked, looking down at the phone.
“It means Employment Authorization Document, sir,” Jende replied, shifting in his seat. Clark neither responded nor gestured. He kept his head down, his eyes on the smartphone, his soft-looking fingers jumping all over the keypad, lithely and speedily—up, left, right, down.
“It is a work permit, sir,” Jende added. He looked at Clark’s fingers, then his forehead, and his fingers again, uncertain of how else to obey the rules of eye contact when eyes were not available for contact. “It means I am allowed to work, sir. Until I get my green card.”
Clark half-nodded and continued typing.
Jende looked out the window, hoping he wasn’t sweating too profusely.
“And how long will it take for you to get this green card?” Clark asked as he put down the BlackBerry.
“I just really don’t know, sir. Immigration is slow, sir; very funny how they work.”
“But you’re in the country legally for the long term, correct?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” Jende said. He nodded repeatedly again, a pained smile on his face, his eyes unblinking. “I am very legal, sir. I just am still waiting for my green card.”
For a long second Clark stared at Jende, his vacant green eyes giving no clue to his thoughts. Hot sweat was flowing down Jende’s back, soaking the white shirt Neni had bought for him from a street vendor on 125th Street. The desk phone rang.
“Very well, then,” Clark said, picking up the phone. “As long as you’re legal.”
Jende Jonga exhaled.
The terror that had gripped his chest when Clark Edwards mentioned the word “papers” slowly loosened. He closed his eyes and offered thanks to a merciful Being, grateful half the truth had been sufficient. What would he have said if Mr. Edwards had asked more questions? How would he have explained that his work permit and driver’s license were valid only for as long as his asylum application was pending or approved, and that if his application were to be denied, all his documents would become invalid and there would be no green card? How could he have possibly explained his asylum application? Would there have been a way to convince Mr. Edwards that he was an honest man, a very honest man, actually, but one who was now telling a thousand tales to Immigration just so he could one day become an American citizen and live in this great nation forever?
“And you’ve been here for how long?” Clark asked after putting down the receiver.
“Three years, sir. I came in 2004, in the month—”
He paused, startled by Clark’s thunderous sneeze.
“May God bless you, sir,” he said as the executive placed his wrist under his nose and let loose another sneeze, louder than the first. “Ashia, sir,” he added. “May God bless you again.”
Clark leaned forward and picked up a bottle of water on the right side of his desk. Behind him, far beyond the spotless glass window, a red helicopter flew above the park, going from west to east under the cloudless morning sky. Jende returned his gaze to Clark and watched as he took a few sips from the bottle. He yearned for a sip of water, too, to erase the dryness in his throat, but dared not change the trajectory of the interview by asking for some. No, he couldn’t dare. Certainly not right now. His throat could be the driest spot in the Kalahari and it wouldn’t matter right now—he was doing well. Okay, maybe not too well. But he wasn’t doing too badly, either.
“All right,” Clark said, putting down the bottle. “Let me tell you what I want in a driver.” Jende swallowed and nodded. “I demand loyalty. I demand dependability. I demand punctuality, and I demand that you do as I say and ask no questions. Works for you?”
“Yes, sir, of course, Mr. Edwards.”
“You’re going to sign a confidentiality agreement that you’ll never say anything about what you hear me say or see me do. Never. To anyone. Absolutely no one. Do you understand?”
“I understand you very clearly, sir.”
“Good. I’ll treat you right, but you must treat me right first. I’ll be your main priority, and when I don’t need you, you’ll take care of my family. I’m a busy man, so don’t expect me to supervise you. You’ve come to me very highly recommended.”
Reading Group Guide
1. Immigration plays a huge role in this novel. For the Jongas, America is a place of hope and promise, a “place where you can become somebody,” but the machine and policies are anything but welcoming and clear and the road to citizenship is jagged. Discuss the portrayal of the American immigration in this novel. How does this shift the traditional representation of America?
2. In Jende’s job as a driver for the Edwards family, he often transcends the boundaries between their public personas and their private lives. Behind the safety of a closed car door, the Edwards show their truest selves and Jende is often a silent witness to much of what they would not show to the world: marital issues, the crumbling of Lehman Brothers, infidelity, family arguments. How does this impact Jende’s understanding of this family? How does it inform our interpretations?
3. Though both the Edwards and the Jongas have their own individual worries, so much of what concerns both of these couples is the well-being and success of their children. Discuss the parenting styles that the Edwards and the Jongas utilize. How are they similar? How do they differ? Why do we place so much weight on the raising of children? How can our own pathways in life lead the way we direct our children? How do our parents impact our view of the world and futures?
4. On the surface, it would seem that Cindy and Neni are two extremely different women. Cindy, in particular, is a conflicted person: sometimes ignorant, conniving, self-centered. However, it soon becomes clear that, in their own ways, Cindy and Neni are bonded, both women struggling to understand their roles as wives and women, and as the novel progresses, their identities seem to merge. How else are they similar? How are they different? What do they learn from one another?
5. Discuss the character of Vince Edwards. What do you make of his relationship to his family and his thoughts about his country? How do his opinions play a larger role in the novel? What do you think is in store for him in India?
6. Though they moved to America to find better life as a couple and as a family, both Jende and Neni are inevitably impacted by the way America shapes their own personal identities. What are some of the ways in which they change as individuals over the course of the novel? How does their marriage change? Do you feel this is for the better or worse? How does it speak largely to the way America’s ideals impact the members of its society?
7. Discuss the role of dreams in the novel. How do dreams drive the plot of the novel? What kind of dreams do these characters wish to achieve? What dreams are deferred?
8. Though external forces drive the plot of the novel, the marriages of both the Edwards and the Jongas fuel a lot of the drama as well. How do these marriages differ? How are they similar? How do both of these relationships influence the events of the story?
9. Though Jende and Neni are both “outsiders” in American society, they also seem to have the clearest observations and insight into American culture. What are some examples of this? How does the role of an outsider provide a unique vantage point?
10. The Jendes often reflect on their home of Cameroon with both nostalgia and negativity; though they have left their homeland for a better country, Cameroon still remains in their hearts and minds. However, it is clear that even for Clark and Cindy, who are American citizens, it is very difficult to forget where you came from, the history that made you who you are. Discuss the concept of “home” in this novel. How does it impact the central characters?
11. Perhaps one of the saddest moments of the novel is the Jongas’ return to Cameroon. What do you think of this decision? How do you envision their lives if they had tried to stay in America?
12. Consider the theme of power in the novel. How do some of these characters hold power over one another? How do they yield this power?
13. Discuss the choice to place this novel in an America on the brink of recession and the Wall Street collapse. How would this story have looked different without this moment in American history? What would these characters’ journeys have looked like?
14. Discuss the character of Clark Edwards, a man who seems to have many different sides. What is his culpability in the collapse of Lehman Brothers? What type of husband and father is he? Would you consider him a good or a bad man?
15. Consider the role of the American Dream in the novel. How is this ideal defined in this story? In what ways is it manifested in the central men and women of this story? How does it fail them?