Do Savannnah

Savannah Book Festival: An immigrant family rekindles the American dream in Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel

  • Imbolo Mbue (Photo by Kiriko Sano)

Savannah Book Festival: An immigrant family rekindles the American dream in Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel

15 Feb 2017

For most people, losing one’s job during the “Great Recession” would have been a tragic occurrence. But Imbolo Mbue used it to her advantage. She began writing what would eventually become the critically acclaimed novel “Behold the Dreamers.”

“The recession for me was such a great opportunity,” she says. “The crisis allowed me to look at these characters not just as immigrants coming to America, but going through the crisis, as well.”

The story follows an immigrant family from Mbue’s native Cameroon. Jende, husband and father, lands a job as chauffer for Clark, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, just before the company’s collapse.

While the novel depicts struggles on almost every front, the most striking thing is the story’s warmth. Jende is in the middle of a long battle to earn his right to stay in America, encountering obstacles every step along the way. But Jende and his family flinch only briefly, viewing the American dream without the cynicism of many who have lived here all their lives.

“That’s just how my culture is,” says Mbue. “There’s a sense of warmth and optimism, maybe because we don’t have so many material things. We don’t have much to lean on besides our happiness and being delighted by the little things in life. I think that shaped my voice.”

“Behold the Dreamers” uplifts the reader, not necessarily because it moves toward a happy ending, but because it reveals an alternative to the usual American mindset when facing difficulties. It offers perspective.

“Writing is very much a spiritual endeavor for me, and I was trying to find a sense of peace about many things in life. Finding acceptance. Not looking at the darkness, but finding lightness. I think those were all things that helped me shape how the story was told.”

It would be a mistake to dismiss this perspective as quaint or naive. The American mindset can be peculiar in that it so often views otherness as a novelty, or worse yet, inferior. Mbue’s keen insights into American life, however, should dispel any such assumptions.

Chapter 11 starts with a line that might very well be directed at potential critics: “Around him tourists and New Yorkers chatted or ignored each other, everyone enfolded in their joys and sorrows and apathies.”

Mbue, through her characters, does not refuse the darker realities of contemporary life. Blind optimism would be naive, indeed. Instead, she demonstrates the virtues of hope. In that way, “Behold the Dreamers” is as much a part of America as any novel published in the last year.

“I’ve been asked over and over, is this book American or is it Cameroonian? They want me to choose a side. But I’m both. I’m very much a Cameroonian and very much an American. And they’re two very separate identities. I don’t think I’m Cameroonian American. I don’t even know what that means. They’re two separate things.”

But these two separate elements, in Mbue’s capable hands, shape into something singular and unified, a contemporary take on the centuries-old American dream.


Book: “Behold the Dreamers”

When: 10:10 a.m. Feb. 18

Where: Lutheran Church Sanctuary, Wright Square