A powerful and timely story of marriage, class, race and the pursuit of the American Dream. Behold the Dreamers is a dazzling debut novel about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and of what we’re prepared to sacrifice to hold on to each of them. Here the book’s author Imbolo Mbue discusses her own first impressions of America, and how this influenced her novel.
Growing up in a Cameroonian village, I knew of only one country that existed beyond the oceans, a country called “Over,” short for overseas.
To my childhood friends and I, “Over” was a vast, mysterious yonder land that covered the entire space outside our known world; it was where the white people with straight hair and funny accents who occasionally passed through our village came from. We imagined it was nothing like our village but we couldn’t quite visualize it because our frame of reference was too thin.
It wasn’t till the late eighties, when television arrived in Cameroon, that we were able to get a detailed picture of what “Over” looked like. In those early days of television (I was about seven or eight years old) we sat on the floor in the living room of the only neighbor who owned a TV set and starred in awe at the images—images of people living in cities and countries we’d never heard of; images of a different kind of life in a place in “Over” called America.
Though I left the village to get a better education in a bigger town and, thanks to books, discovered that there was no such thing as a place called “Over,” the images I saw on television played an enormous role in my understanding of America. Sitcoms like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and “The Cosby Show” showed me an America where blacks were seemingly thriving and enjoying the same opportunities as whites. Dramas like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” presented a country of great wealth.
‘Despite my initial stupefaction, I was, and remain, in wonderment of the opportunities America offers immigrants.’
With these notions in mind, I didn’t anticipate the far-from-glamorous side of America I encountered the day I arrived in the fall of 1998 to attend college. Mesmerized as I was by the skyscrapers and expansive highways and people of many colors rushing around speaking many languages, I couldn’t fathom the destitution I saw as I sat in a car passing through an inner-city neighborhood.
I knew virtually nothing about the challenges of being non-white and working-class in America; I’d never heard of homelessness; I’d never considered the long hours some Americans needed to work to pay mortgages and student loans and health insurance premiums and all sorts of bills adults in my hometown didn’t have to deal with because our lives, though nowhere as materially comfortable as the typical American life, was far simpler. Still, despite my initial stupefaction, I was, and remain, in wonderment of the opportunities America offers immigrants.
Jende and Neni Jonga, the Cameroonian immigrants in my novel, Behold the Dreamers arrived in a similar wonderment. They’d come to America hoping the country would give them a chance to live the dream lives they couldn’t live in their homeland. They didn’t expect the road to becoming middle-class citizens with great careers and home ownership would be smooth and hurdles-free, but they also didn’t anticipate the socio-economic challenges they would face alongside the inherent difficulties of being foreigners chasing dreams in a foreign land.
Ultimately, they had to consider that there is often a price to be paid for desires, and the American Dream they so fervently desired came at a high price.
Imbolo Mbue is a native 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 is her first novel.