Cameroonian writer Imbolo Mbue has lived in New York City for more than a decade. Her experiences in the city and the stories she’s gathered from other immigrants have given her plenty of material for her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers. An ambitious effort, the novel tells the tale of two Cameroonians living in New York City while taking baby steps to achieve the holy grail--American citizenship--on their way towards the American Dream.
The novel starts in 2007, as the economy is gearing up to collapse, and follows Jende Jonga, a cab driver working illegally, and his wife Neni, a community college student who dreams of a future as a pharmacist. Jende is in the process of becoming a full citizen but in the meantime he is elated when he gets a new job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive and his family, who enjoy extravagant, if troubled, Upper East Side lives. Jende can’t imagine a better life or a better job.
As the 2008 economic crisis descends, Jende loses the chauffeur job that supported his family’s lifestyle while anxiously awaiting news on his request for political asylum. With her husband threatening to take her home to Cameroon, Neni goes to drastic, marriage-altering measures to ensure the family’s continued success in the States.
Through these difficulties, Mbue is able to address many topical issues, including class division, the American Dream and the value of American citizenship. While not an uplifting read, Behold the Dreamers is important literature that contributes to recent conversations through an empathetic look at the modern plight of immigrants to the U.S. while also portraying the vibrancy of modern-day New York City .