Is The American Dream A Fantasy? Our Q&A With Author Imbolo Mbue

Photo: Courtesy of Kiriko Sano; Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
In Cameroonian-born author Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, an immigrant family struggles to claim their own iteration of the American Dream. Ultimately, they are forced to reckon with whether or not the dream is worth the struggle.

Behold the Dreamers
is the story of Jende and Neni Jonga, who move with their young son to the United States from their native Ghana in search of new opportunities. They love New York City but struggle to make ends meet — and to secure the government documents that would allow them to stay in the country. When Jende is to be the private chauffeur to a Wall Street exec named Clark Edwards, it seems like the answer to the Jonga's problems. But as Jende and Neni increasingly entrenched in the Edwards family's world, the more they both realize they might be in over their heads.

Mbue's book feels especially relevant in our present moment, as xenophobia dominates the news cycle and meritocracy can often feel like a fading promise. We spoke to the author about her own immigration journey — and about what it takes to make it in America.

Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind Behold the Dreamers?
Imbolo Mbue: "I had a corporate job after I got my masters degree. I lost that job in 2009, after the recession. I was looking for a new job, and one day I went out for a walk and I noticed the chauffeurs waiting in front of Time Warner Building. I also noticed men who looked like executives coming out of the building, entering the cars and being driven away. It was the very first time I noticed chauffeurs and the people they drive around — particularly because some of the chauffeurs I saw looked like they could be African immigrants.

"I became very curious about what that relationship could be like, and also the way the recession might have affected each of the men and their families, being that the recession had affected my life, I’d lost my job. I was thinking along those lines when I started writing this story.”

There's definitely a closeness there, between Mr. Edwards and Jendi Jonga.
"From Jende’s perspective, there is a sense of awe and respect; this is an accomplished rich man who has all these things. I think [Jendi] dreams of someday being that successful himself. From Clark’s perspective, I think he is fair to Jende. You know he wants to be a good employer — he is nice to him, and there’s a mutual respect, and a sense of honor because they are helping each other."

The relationship between Jende and his wife, Neni, often seems more respectful than the one between Clark Edwards and his wife.
"Jende is a man with a really beautiful sense of pride. One of the things this book demonstrates is that, in terms of power structures, men are the ones who get to make decisions. Women are sort of going along with them — and that’s a cross-cultural facet.

"In the Edwards’ marriage, it’s a little bit confusing because he looks like he has so much power because he’s this big Wall Street guy. But at home, Mrs. Edwards she gets to get her way. Whereas with Jende and Neni: That marriage is inspired by marriages I grew up around in my culture, where even when the woman is strong and she’s powerful, the man still owns the show. He is giving her the dream; he’s paying for her education; he brought her to America. But the price is her dreams are no longer her dreams. She doesn’t own her dreams anymore. Her dreams are her husband’s dreams."

The thing I want people to understand is that the American Dream — you need a lot of weapons to achieve it.

Imbolo Mbue
The Jongas, like so many people who immigrate to the states, face a lot of adversity in the U.S. Why do you think that so many immigrants fight so hard to stay?
"I think the reasons are many. First, Neni believes in the American dream. Like many of us, I’m an immigrant myself. You get on that plane or boat or whatever, you picture this wonderful country that is going to give you so much, so much. And even when you come here and it’s so difficult and you switch your language, you still think that there’s still a chance.

"I think that the other reason that a lot of us stay — for me — I stayed [because] there’s a lot of shame in going back home... You went somewhere and you couldn’t achieve the dream. I think it’s something a lot of immigrants struggle with: that you come here and you don’t make it. How are you going to show your face back home?

Your book deals deeply with the American Dream. Do you think that, for many, it's become more of an American Fantasy?
"Because I’m an immigrant — and because I’ve lived here for 20 years — I’ve seen what it takes. The thing I want people to understand about the American Dream [is that] you need a lot of weapons to achieve it.

"Maybe it’s because I watch tennis a lot, and in tennis you talk about weapons: You have a big serve, or your quickness or your forehand or your backhand. To me, education is a big weapon. Education is a weapon. Your age is a weapon. If you’re white, if you’re Black, if you have a good education. The people that have made it and can say, ‘Oh this is an immigrant success’ — they had those weapons. The idea that ‘Oh, American Dream for everyone,' everyone that can get it, it’s there for the taking — it’s like a mountain, right? Can we all climb that mountain? No. Some of us can only get one mile up the mountain. It’s a very difficult climb. Yes, you can get there. But do you have what it takes to get there?”

Is there any one thing you want readers to take from your book?
"I don’t know if it’s one thing. Pretty much everybody in my life who has read it thinks the book is about somethings else: about marriage, about how America is hard. From an immigrant perspective, I think for too many of us immigrants struggle with the idea of whether or not we made it in America — like, 'Did I achieve the American dream? Did I get where I wanted to get in America?' Sometimes people feel bad. But there is no shame in the fact that America has been hard for you or — for anybody, even American citizens.

"This country gives you tremendous opportunity. But America can be very very rough... I think that’s the one thing I’ll say: There’s no shame in the fact that the journey is difficult. Because it’s not meant to be an easy journey."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue, debuted on August 23, 2016.

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