Imbolo Mbue’s transfixing debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, details the lives of Jende and Neni, two Cameroonian immigrants who have moved to New York to pursue the American Dream. The story begins in 2007 when Jende takes a chauffeur job with Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. More financial opportunities arise as Neni begins to work for Cindy, Clark’s wife, and the two families’ lives are soon deeply intertwined. When Lehman Brothers collapses, all four characters’ ways of life are threatened and they each begin to buckle under the financial pressure. Mbue’s lush and compassionate prose makes each character come to life and forces the reader to reexamine the notion of the American Dream. The New York Times Book Review hailed Behold the Dreamers as a “capacious, big-hearted novel” while The Washington Post praised Mbue as a “bright and captivating storyteller.” Mbue talked with Brendan Dowling via telephone on August 29, 2016. Photo Credit: Kiriki Sano.
Public Libraries Online: How did you first get inspired to write about the relationship between this Wall Street executive and his chauffeur?
Imbolo Mbue: At the end of 2009, I was working for a media company and I lost my job. I had been unemployed for about a year and a half when I went for a walk one day. I was in front of the Time Warner building in mid-town Manhattan and I noticed the chauffeurs waiting next to black cars. And I also noticed the executives. They come out of the building wearing suits, they get into the cars, and the chauffeurs drive them away. So I was very intrigued by what that relationship would be like between a chauffeur and the executive he worked for.
The chauffeurs looked like African immigrants, like me. I was very curious about two men from very different worlds—the dynamics between them, the ways in which their families might intersect, and the ways in which the recession might affect them. So I started writing a story about a Wall Street Executive and his chauffeur and the way the recession affected their lives.
PLO: What was it like writing the novel in the midst of the recession?
IM: Well, I started writing in 2011, and at that point the recession was officially over. (laughs) It was still very fresh because I remembered the anxieties I had that I might lose my job and then how it felt to actually lose my job. And there was a lot of talk in the media about how people were dealing with the recession. There were stories about people staying married because they didn’t want to get divorced because it would be too expensive to take care of two homes, people looking for new jobs, the high rates of unemployment. That was all still very fresh in my mind.
And also [fresh in my mind was] the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I had read a lot of news stories about Lehman Brothers and what went on behind the scenes. Could it have been prevented? Could the people at Lehman Brothers have had better foresight and been able to avoid this collapse?
PLO: Besides reading the insider account of the financial crash, what other research did you do for the novel?
IM: My main research, as far as what happened at Lehman Brothers, was I read the document that was entered by a court appointed examiner. As far as the Cameroonian characters, they are from my town. I’m from the town of Limbe in Cameroon, so I know that town. I grew up there. And I used to live in the same neighborhood in Harlem [that they do in the novel], so I know that part.
But I didn’t have to deal with what they deal with [regarding citizenship]. I’m a citizen right now and I came here at a younger age. But I had met many immigrants over the course of my time in America and we talked about what it’s like to be an immigrant in America. We talked about the price we have to pay and what it’s like to be far away from home. At the time I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is research,” because these conversations happened years before I started writing the novel. But when I started writing the novel all of those conversations came back. I used them as inspiration to write about the lives of these immigrants.
PLO: You’ve said in a past interview that the idea of the American Dream needs to be redefined. What did you mean by that?
IM: I think there’s a big element of the price that you have to pay for that dream. For me and the characters in this novel, we came to America and thought, “Oh, this promised land. We’re going to have this wonderful life.” The image we have of America back home is nice cars, nice houses, and good looking people. But there is a very high price to pay. The poverty in America is very brutal. People say, “Oh you didn’t grow up with a lot of comfort [in Cameroon].” But I think it’s still easy to have a good life with very little in the community in which I grew up, whereas in America when you’re poor, you have to work longer hours.
And then there is the price you pay to hold on to that dream, which is a challenge for the Edwards family because by all accounts they are living the American Dream. And the novel shows how much they are struggling to hold on to their dream.
PLO: I wanted to talk about the Edwards family. The characters of Clark and Cindy turn out to be much more layered than we first think they are when we meet them. How did they evolve over the writing of the novel?
IM: When I first met them, I think I judged them a little too harshly, which I think is common for many people. When you think of a Wall Street executive you don’t think, “Let me have empathy for this rich man” or “let me have empathy for this woman who on the surface is very materialistic and a bit entitled.” The truth is writing this novel forced me to become empathetic. I had to work on my empathy to say, “This not just a Wall Street executive. This is not just a rich woman.” They are people. They are people who have dreams, who have concerns, and they have virtues also. We want to think they are bad people, but I wanted to explore the wonderful things that they have. Even when I explored the not so wonderful things about them, I wanted to consider them as humans who have dreams and who are trying to hold onto their dreams, who make good choices and bad choices to hold on to their dream life.
PLO: And it seems like you extend the same empathy to Jende and Nene in terms of the good and bad choices they make
IM: People are flawed. I believe I am flawed. We see Jende and Nene going in directions where we think, “Why would you do that?” But the truth is that sometimes when you believe in your dream so strongly you start compromising yourself. Nene especially believes so strongly in the American Dream that she is willing to do anything she can because she wants her children to have the wonderful life that she never had. Which is at the root of the American Dream—we do a lot of work so our children can have this dream life. All four of the main characters, that is what they have to deal with.
PLO: You studied business administration at Rutgers and got a MED in Psychology in Columbia. How did you come to writing?
IM: I never studied writing, I never took any writing class. When I was in school in 2002 I read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I was just so in awe of how wonderful the book was that I started writing. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was so inspired by that book that I wanted to write just to experience the joys of writing. I wrote for nine years before I started writing this novel. Even after I had written Behold The Dreamers I didn’t think very much of publication. It wasn’t until I had a first draft that I thought, “Ooh, I should get an agent.” Then I got an agent, I got many rejections, and I kept on getting better and better.
From when I started writing to when this novel came out is actually a fourteen year journey. Because part of not having studied writing is that I had to teach myself a lot. I had to sit down and master a lot of things because writing is a craft. I had to master the craft of dialogue, plot, pacing and all that. There are a few books I read, like Stephen King’s On Writing. But just having been a lifelong reader and being surrounded by great books was mostly how I learned to write.
PLO: What were some of the books that inspired you?
IM: Toni Morrison’s The Song of Solomon. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a book I love very much. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I’m also a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart. They write about immigrants also. Roberto Bolano, Isabelle Allende, Ha Jin, Kazuo Ishiguro. I know my writing is nothing like those writers. It’s just a matter of reading excellent work and being in awe of what excellence looks like.
PLO: What’s it like to have admired all those writers and then for your first book to be praised by authors like Jaqueline Woodson and Jonathan Franzen?
IM: It’s a great honor. I loved Brown Girl Dreaming and I loved The Corrections. But when you’re sitting in your little corner writing, you don’t think anyone’s going to care about what you write. You write because you love the story and you want to write it. And then one day when it comes out and somebody actually cares, it’s a privilege.
PLO: You talk about writing for the joy of writing, which extends to your characters. Clark has this unexpected love of poetry and Jende uses the journal that Cindy makes him keep almost as a creative writing exercise.
IM: For Clark, it’s a matter of stress relief. For Jende even though what he was writing wasn’t something he would have chosen to write, it was still an opportunity to write, something he doesn’t get to do normally. For me I think that was how I started writing. I had been reading for so many years, but I never thought about the people behind the books or what it’s like to write. I still think of myself as a reader who writes because I came to writing because I loved books so much. It was such a joy to read and I wanted to experience more of the joy of the written word in another way.
PLO: What role has the library played in your life?
IM: The library has been a humongous light in my life. My journey as a writer actually began in a public library. It was in the Falls Church Public Library where I borrowed Song of Solomon and that specifically made me start writing. That was how my writing journey started. When I first came to America I was very homesick and I spent a lot of time in the public library in Chicago, which was where I first lived. When I moved to New York City to go to graduate school, I didn’t have a computer. I spent a lot of time in the public library. I used computers there to look for a job.
Even now I still go to the public library just because the libraries are so special to me. I didn’t grow up around public libraries. I was born in a little village where there wasn’t a public library. So being able to be in these places that just had all these books and being inspired by them was a big part of my life. Every town that I’ve lived in I’ve always had a library card. A lot of the books I’ve read were borrowed from public libraries. Back when I couldn’t afford a book I knew I could go to the library to find it. In many ways my writing journey was shaped by public libraries.
PLO: I have to imagine that public librarians will love the book from the beginning because the first page shows the main character using library services to write his resume.
IM: That is just another thing I would do, I would use their services. You move to a new town, you don’t know your way, but there’s the library! I will still never forget the first time I walked into a library, and that is how I became a writer. That was pretty much how my story started.