Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Behold the Dreamers is a 2016 novel by African American novelist Imbolo Mbue. The novel is autobiographical in nature, insofar as it tells the story of an American immigrant from Camaroon (Mbue's own home country). Jende Jonga is a chauffeur for a man who is an investor for Lehman Brothers. His wife, Neni, is studying to be a pharmacist. Jende's cousin, Winston, helps him procure the position.
In the first half of the novel, Neni becomes pregnant, but Jende learns that his application for asylum citizenship has been denied. The wife of Jende's boss, Cindy, becomes a confidante of the family, and offers Jende money when she overhears his brother call to request some on behalf of his son. Cindy takes Neni in as a friend and maid, and Neni soon learns of her drug problem.
Jende's world begins to fall apart when Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy, Cindy and her husband Clark argue over his extramarital affairs, and the couple lets him go. He works as a dishwasher, having taken a major pay cut. Neni, however, has done well in her classes, and is desperate to stay in the United States. Neni takes $10,000 from Cindy by blackmailing her with photos of Cindy passed out from drug use. Cindy later dies of a drug overdose, and Jende, Neni and Liomi return to Camaroon.
Author: Imbolo Mbue (b. 1982)
Publisher: Random House (New York). 382 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Locales: New York, New York; Limbe, Cameroon
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, introduces a family of Cameroonian immigrants into the lives of a wealthy white American family and then observes their reactions as they become victims of a major national financial crisis: the recession of 2008.
Jende Dikaki Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant who is trying to obtain a green card so he can stay permanently in the United StatesCourtsy of Penguin Random House
Neni Jonga, his wife, who is studying to become a pharmacist
Liomi “Lio” Jonga, their six-year-old son
Winston, his cousin, a corporate lawyer
Bubakar, a Nigerian lawyer hired to help him achieve asylum in the United States
Clark Edwards, a workaholic Wall Street investment banker at Lehman Brothers
Cindy Eliza Edwards, Clark’s wife, who works as a talent agent
Vince Edwards, Clark and Cindy’s college-aged son, who is attending law school
Mighty Edwards, Clark and Cindy’s ten-year-old son
Leah, Clark’s longtime secretary
Timing is everything. This principle applies both to Cameroonian American author Imbolo Mbue, who landed a large advance for her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, and for the characters in her story who, echoing Mbue’s own experiences, are deeply and adversely affected by the global financial crisis and subsequent recession of 2008.
The story’s protagonist Jende Jonga is trying to follow his dream and improve his family’s prospects. An immigrant who came from Cameroon to the United States several years before the novel opens, he has been working as street cleaner, dishwasher, and livery driver while hoping to obtain the necessary documentation to remain permanently in the United States. Although he is uneducated, Jende is proud, polite, and hard-working. Contrary to the advice of his lawyer, Bubakar, whom Jende has hired to guide him through immigration process and who recommended his client seek political asylum, Jende prefers to tell the truth, which will not increase his chances with the immigration authorities. He did not flee persecution in Cameroon; he is actually escaping from the wrath of his father-in-law, who had Jende imprisoned for impregnating his then fifteen-year-old daughter Neni. Although...
(This entire section contains 1958 words.)
Neni’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage, she bore Jende’s son, Liomi, in 2001. Several years later, Neni and Liomi moved to the United States to join Jende; Neni and Jende were finally married in 2006. Now the little family is living in a small, roach-infested apartment in Harlem and interacting with other Cameroonians who have lived many years in New York. To supplement their income, Neni works as a home health aide while attending classes on a student visa, hoping to someday become a pharmacist.
Meanwhile, Jende is handed an opportunity for a better job by his cousin Winston, an upscale lawyer, who recommends Jende as a potential chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a wealthy middle-aged investment banker at Lehman Brothers. At the interview, Jende reveals he has the bare essentials for the job: a work permit and a temporary driver’s license. Edwards is more concerned about the character of his driver: He demands loyalty, dependability, punctuality, obedience, and confidentiality. In short order, Jende is hired, at an annual salary of $35,000—considerably more than he was previously earning. Jende and Neni begin dreaming of owning a home, perhaps in Mount Vernon or Yonkers.
Soon, Jende becomes almost like an extended member of the Edwards family. Not only does he drive Clark to business meetings, he also drives Clark’s wife, Cindy, and the Edwards sons, Mighty and Vince, to destinations around town. In the course of his work, Jende meets Clark’s secretary, Leah, who hints that Lehman Brothers may be in financial trouble. As time passes, clouds loom on the horizon, moving toward both the Jonga and Edwards families.
Jende’s father in Africa has fallen seriously ill from malaria and needs care in a private hospital, so Jende sends money to provide the necessary medical services. Bubakar informs Jende his asylum application was not approved, so he will have to appear in court to answer the government’s removal proceedings against him; the legal battle will be protracted and costly. As their dreams begin to crumble, the Jongas vow to make sacrifices—to give up television and the Internet, to take on additional jobs or skip meals—in order to win the fight and remain in the United States. Neni suffers tension headaches, nausea, and loss of appetite due to the enormous stress she is under. Jende receives calls from individuals back in Cameroon that elevate his own level of stress. His brother’s children need money to pay fees to attend school. A friend whose wife is suffering physical problems needs funds to obtain health care.
The Edwards’s privileged life also begins to unravel. While driving Clark, Jende overhears (although does not fully understand the implications) his employer talking on the phone about Lehman Brothers: the company’s long-term strategy is flawed, hidden leverage ratios will be exposed, congressional hearings are in the offing. Vince Edwards mentions to Jende that he is rebelling against the family plan for him to become a lawyer: he wants to drop out and move to India.
During the summer, Neni, pregnant again, fills in as substitute housekeeper at the large, luxurious Edwards summer home in the Hamptons, where Clark is seldom seen. Neni cleans, grocery shops, cooks, acts as servant when guests are present, and babysits Mighty when needed, entertaining the cheerful boy with tales of Africa. While working at the summer house one day, Neni finds Cindy passed out from a combination of alcohol and drugs but manages to wake her. Cindy later thanks Neni for helping her, and while intoxicated she narrates her own personal history of growing up poor and never knowing her own father. Cindy makes Neni promise not to tell anyone of her substance abuse problem. As a reward for her cooperation, Cindy offers Neni a wardrobe’s worth of out-of-fashion designer clothing intended for a thrift store, Mighty’s old clothes and toys for Liomi, and a cash bonus so that Neni can better provide for her unborn child.
The reasons for Cindy’s deterioration become more apparent when Neni and Jende compare notes. The problems at Lehman Brothers are escalating and the pressure is getting to Clark, who sometimes sleeps at the office rather than return home. Many evenings Jende is asked to drive his employer to the Chelsea Hotel, where Clark unwinds in the company of high-priced escorts.
Before the economy comes crashing down, there is a momentary uplifting lull in the downward-trending narrative. The Jongas invite Vince to their shabby apartment for a farewell dinner, and he brings Mighty along with him to Harlem. The small group dines in Cameroonian style: sitting on the floor and eating with their hands while Jende entertains with humorous stories of Africa.
The reprieve is all too brief. Lehman Brothers collapses. Clark Edwards now works at Barclays, the firm that absorbed Lehman following the company’s declaration of bankruptcy. Jende continues to drive Clark and Cindy separately. He overhears Clark on his mobile phone telling a friend he feels guilty about the Lehman situation although he feels he did nothing wrong. Jende eavesdrops on Cindy telling a friend she may have to fly economy rather than first-class. Clark visits the Chelsea Hotel more frequently, and one time he returns to the car having forgotten his distinctive tie—an oversight Cindy notices.
One day, just after Barack Obama is elected president (an event that for the Jongas validates the idea that in the United States anyone can become anything), Cindy invites Jende to come into their city home. She gives the chauffeur a notebook and asks Jende to write down everywhere he drives Clark and to note everyone he sees with Clark. Jende objects, fearing he will lose his job. Cindy asks him if Clark is seeing another woman. When Jende denies this, Cindy accuses him of lying and threatens to fire him if he does not do as she orders.
Jende consults with Neni and Winston about what to do. They both advise him to do as Cindy asks, but he cannot, because he made a pact with Clark. Jende ultimately informs Clark what Cindy has demanded, and Clark tells him to write the truth but to omit his visits to the Chelsea Hotel. Jende does as he bids, substituting trips to a gymnasium for each sexual rendezvous. Cindy seems happy—until an article appears in a local tabloid featuring an escort talking about being paid for her services with bailout money, which exposes Clark as a serial adulterer and compromises Jende. The event serves as the final catalyst in the inevitable dissolution of the dreams of both the Edwards and Jonga families, although their separate fates follow vastly different trajectories.
Behold the Dreamers was released in timely fashion in 2016, a volatile year for immigrants both domestically (particularly for undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation from the United States) and abroad (especially for refugees from war-torn Syria who risked their lives searching for safe havens in Europe). Told in the third person, always from the point of view of either Jende or Neni, the novel presents a sympathetic, often humorous, and genuinely sincere look at the difficulties immigrants encounter when moving to the United States—a land, after all, comprised almost entirely of immigrants and the children of immigrants who have contributed in myriad ways to the national ideals and identity throughout the country’s history. The Jongas have assimilated well to their new country: they speak English, they don Western-style clothing (Jende always wears a suit and tie, and he carries a briefcase like his high-powered employer), and they adhere to old-fashioned standards of honesty, hard work, and planning and saving for the future. Neni even begins attending a church, intending to become baptized as a Christian. Both Neni and Jende learn and apply devious American methods of manipulation to get what they desire in the course of the story. While the Edwards children pick up certain attitudes from the Jongas, the adult Edwards remain largely unchanged.
Both the Edwards and the Jonga families qualify as dreamers, and both groups are subtly compared (they are similarly patriarchal, for example) and contrasted throughout the story. The Edwards clan has achieved the American dream, gaining power, prestige, prosperity, and possession before circumstances beyond their control strip them of some acquisitions and prominence. The Jongas have more modest aspirations and manage to achieve some of their goals before their drive for advancement is blunted by the unmovable bulwark of government bureaucracy and economic happenstance and is shunted in a new, freshly hopeful direction.
- Al-Shawaf, Rayyan. Review of Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. San Francisco Chronicle, 29 Aug. 2016, www.sfgate.com/books/article/Behold-the-Dreamers-by-Imbolo-Mbue-9186799.php. Accessed 6 Jan. 2017.
- Cha, Steph. “Immigrant Family’s American Dream Shatters in Mbue’s Novel.” Review of Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. USA Today, 27 Aug. 2016, www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2016/08/27/behold-the-dreamers-imbolo-mbue-book-review/88949462. Accessed 6 Jan. 2017.
- Charles, Ron. “‘Behold the Dreamers’: The One Novel Donald Trump Should Read Now.” Review of Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. The Washington Post, 17 Aug. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/behold-the-dreamers-the-one-novel-donald-trump-should-read-now/2016/08/17/3980ff44-648d-11e6-be4e-23fc4d4d12b4_story.html. Accessed 6 Jan. 2017.
- Greenblatt, Leah. “‘Behold the Dreamers’ by Imbolo Mbue: EW Review.” Review of Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. Entertainment Weekly, 26 Aug. 2016, ew.com/article/2016/08/26/behold-dreamers-imbolo-mbue-ew-review. Accessed 6 Jan. 2017.
- Henríquez, Cristina. “An Immigrant Family Encounter the 1 Percent in a Debut Novel.” Review of Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. The New York Times, 1 Sept. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/books/review/imbolo-mbue-behold-the-dreamers.html. Accessed 6 Jan. 2017.