Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
I read this book over the summer of 2017 after I picked it up on a whim during one of my family’s many Sunday afternoon, post-church Costco trips. I always like to peruse the book section looking for interesting titles and cover art that stands out to me. (Don’t sleep on Costco yal! They have some hidden gems!) Imbolo Mbue was an author I had never heard of before, but the story here is one that I immediately dropped in the buggy. My dad gave me a look that said, “There you go again, spending money you don’t have.” He gives me that look a lot. *insert upside down smiley face emoji*
Present day America finds us having many conversations about immigration and a group of childhood arrivals known as the Dreamers. Rarely, do we hear about the stories of African immigrants, albiet fictional ones. Mbue’s novel, follows the story of a Cameroonian immigrant family in Harlem. Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni, find their lives linked to a white family, Clark and Cindy Edwards, which they are both employed by, and we watch as the world around both families begins to crumble leaving each of them to make difficult decisions about how to deal with the outcomes.
What I love most about this story beyond the intricacies of how each families’ lives begin to unravel, is how unexpectedly it ends. Here in the US, we are socialized to believe that the “American Dream” is worth sacrifiing everything for and struggling until we finally achieve it. *SPOILER ALERT* Jendi says to hell with all of that. There are some things, he decides, that aren’t worth his last shred of peace and happiness. In this way, the book reminds me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The main character in that book, Ifemelu, ultimately decides to return home to Nigeria as well. While we don’t actually get to see how things turn out for the Jonga’s upon their return to Cameroon, we do see how it’s promise restores life and hope to Jendi. Neni is much more skeptical — she stands to lose so much more by leaving America. Neni is in school studying chemistry. She wants to be a pharmacist. She sees more possibility of achieving those dreams in the US than in Cameroon, and she’s torn between being a devoted wife and mother and her hopes for what could be in the US.
I think oftentimes, we like stories that are wrapped up in pretty, neat bows. This is not one of those. It leaves us sitting with questions of the viability of the so-called American Dream, and paths to citizenship and how economic crisis and financial realities force people with big, glowing hopes to make difficult decisions to let them go. It leaves you pondering the perspectives and lives you’ve never considered.
With DACA so much in the spotlight, we often forget about the other folks who have overstayed visas and green cards to remain in the country and attempt to gain citizenship legally. Jendi and his series of shady, exploitave lawyers brings up another point about the obstacles that folks must overcome to even attempt to begin the process of citizenship. Immigration lawyers are not cheap, and as we see in Jendi’s case, they may not always have their client’s best interest at heart or have the actual expertise to get them what they need.
At a time when the US government is literally sending busloads of Brown people back to their “home” countries south of the US/Mexico border (what is a home if you are left with few other options other than to flee it because of political instability, violence, extreme poverty, or any combination of many other issues?), it is also timely to consider the stories of other immigrants who have been forced to the shadows out of fear for their own safety.
A story like Behold the Dreamers calls us to actually see the millions of folks who have come into America seeking the image of plenty and success that we have sold to the world as actual humans not as aliens seeking to do us harm.