I have finished reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and it has left me with a myriad of unresolved issues at the back of my mind. Why should we suffer so much in life? Are the things we yearn for worth the sacrifices we make in life? Probably, I should not have listened to the varied voices of friends and colleagues who saw me reading the text and commented on the same. A good number said it was a good read, a good number said they disliked it! What does one do in such a conflicted situation?
You read! That is it! Just read.
Despite the many years of involvement in the reading of literary works and many warnings not to judge a book by its cover, I just did that with Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. Though, I don’t mind since it probably behoves the beautiful story within since I liked the narrative despite having some misgivings about a few standpoints the author takes. For starters, I loved Mbue’s choice of migrants as her main characters and delving into their day to day struggles to highlight the predicament that most migrants find themselves in when they arrive in America. On the contrary, I disliked the marital conflict between Jende and Neni, it appears undeveloped.
Jende Jonga is due for an interview with a Wall Street Executive, Clark Edwards who works for the Lehman Brothers and requires a chauffeur. The economic disparity is at once visible as Jende feels uncomfortable in a cheap suit when he encounters his future to be boss. The reader is immediately aware of Clark’s busy schedules when he hurriedly takes Jende through the interview. We are also able to take note that if it was not for a good recommendation Jende would probably not have had this opportunity in the first place. This is especially so owing to his lack of valid papers to be in the USA.
Like other stories most of us hear about the USA, Behold the Dreamers satiates our hunger for juicy stories about how migrants survive in America and how they are treated by those who wield power and are in control of the means of production. Jende is a Cameroonian migrant married to Neni and living with their son Liomi. Much later in the story they are lucky to have a daughter, Timba. What the reader discovers is that neither the citizens nor the migrants have an easy time in America. The American dream appears elusive for everyone even those we would assume have everything like the Edwards family.
Jende is plagued by the fear of deportation. The power play in the American society has usurped his African machismo and as he answers sir to his boss, Jende comes across as socially conflicted. His African socialisation would have him comfortably provide for his family but the geographical displacement positions him in a precarious situation where he has to forfeit traditional authoritarianism if he has to fit within the new world order fate has placed him into. Although Neni, his wife, is supportive, the reader can attest to the tension, the frustration and the fear many migrants have to live with. When the Lehman empire collapses and people begin losing their jobs because of the economic recession, the tension in the story becomes palpable.
As a reader, I started fearing for Jende especially because it does not look like he would get permit to stay in the USA and also because his lawyer comes across as unreliable. However, the most important aspect that becomes his turning point is the death of his father. It comes at a time when Jende is at the end of his wits. He has despaired obtaining a better paying job since the Edwards relieved him from his chauffeur job. Juggling between two poorly paying jobs of washing dishes, suffering from excruciating pain owed to fatigue, stress, and staring at imminent deportation is enough to break Jende’s will.
Although Jende and his family have tried their best to sustain relationships with friends and some relatives both in America and back home, the void of being away from home – Africa – cannot be filled by quick visits to or by friends, occasional parties or telephone conversations. When Jende receives the sad news of the demise of his father, he resolutely decides to end his struggle to obtain papers to legally stay in America. He makes up his mind abut going back to Limbe, his home town in Cameroon. This is the one time that Jende comes across as being sure of where his destiny lies.
Neni’s pursuit for education hits a dead end since she cannot get a good recommendation for a scholarship opportunity. Unlike Jende, she appears determined to stay in America irrespective of the odds against them. It is in her passion for America and the dream it beholds that she badly clashes with Jende. Their different opinions threaten to break their marriage and for the first-time gender issues play out when Jende violently beats Neni and almost gets into trouble when a concerned neighbour comes to check in on them. Also, the church is unable to sooth Neni’s disturbed spirit but at least she discovers some respite from sharing with Natasha the pastor in the church.
One can argue that Mbue falls victim of stereotypes and retelling a story that is overtold. But the ability to enable the reader to connect with the emotional turmoil of the characters makes it possible to read the story from a different perspective and to appreciate it for what it is: a story of unfulfilled dreams. These dreams need not necessarily be unfulfilled in the American context; it could be a metaphor of the tenuous things in life that we endlessly chase only to be crushed and destroyed in the process. Jende is ‘lucky’ to realise that: “I don’t like what my life has become in this country. I don’t know how long I can continue living like this, Neni. The suffering in Limbe was bad, but this one here, right now…it’s more than I can take.” (306) A few lines further Jende argues that there is only so much suffering that a man can take and for that he throws in the towel to the greatest dismay of his wife.
In this story, the reader perceives a balanced view of the characters. The Edwardses have their own set of problems since Clark is sucked up into the cutthroat business thereby neglecting his family. Indeed, his wife Cindy ends up dying presumably because of alcohol abuse and the frustration of trying too much to belong. Mbue seems to suggest that the grass might not necessarily be greener on the other side. It is with mixed emotions that the reader witnesses Jende’s sojourn back to his home country and hopefully yearns for the family to rediscover its roots and be able to settle and re-establish a different set of rhythm with which to enjoy life in Africa as opposed to one in America.
Please read Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers: you might just discover what all the fuss about America is!!