Imbolo Mbue on Empathy and the Price of the American Dream
The Behold the Dreamers Author Talks Writing about the Financial Crisis
In 2008, during the middle of the financial crisis, Imbolo Mbue lost her job. As Mbue looked for work, she started the writing project that would eventually become Behold the Dreamers—at least, this is the mythology that surrounds the novel that earned her a seven-figure advance.
On the surface, Mbue’s success story—especially in the age of “MFA vs. NYC”—seems like a fairy tale. In a handful of years, she shot from an unemployed marketer with no background in writing to one of the hottest debut authors in Random House’s catalog. But, she assures me, it wasn’t “as nice and clean” as all that.
“It was a challenge,” Mbue told me over the phone in early May. “I was not sure which way to go, career-wise. I had other options, which didn’t work out well for me. In the end I thought, let me give my writing a bigger focus.”
Still, Mbue, who went to graduate school for education, never considered that she’d have the chance to be a career writer.
“I did not do it because I wanted to one day have a book deal,” Mbue said of her time working on Behold the Dreamers. “I did it because I loved it, and I enjoyed it, and I did not know where it was going to take me. I did it out of love of the art.”
Grounded in the social issues of the financial crisis, Behold the Dreamers is a complex realist novel that weaves the perspectives of an immigrant couple from Cameroon with those of their wealthy, white employers. Many of the high-profile novels that emerged post-recession, including Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days or Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, showcase distinctly white and middle- or upper-class fears about lost income and devalued property. By centering an immigrant story, Mbue complicates this picture of fortunes reversed, showing just how inaccessible the American Dream is for the country’s most vulnerable populations.
In Dreamers, Jende Jonga, an undocumented taxi driver, lands a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a higher-up at the doomed Lehman Brothers. Neni, Jende’s wife, nannies for Clark’s youngest son, developing a complicated relationship with Clark’s beleaguered wife, Cindy, and the entire Edwards family, in the process. As Lehman Brothers—and the financial market—collapses, the two couples’ livelihoods become ever more intertwined.
It took Mbue many years and many attempts to get the novel just right. But her passion for the book’s characters powered her through a steep learning curve—and plenty of rejection.
“I had to teach myself a lot of things,” said Mbue. “The one thing that really helped me was that some agents took the time to tell me [the book] had potential, but I just had to keep on writing. Even when it wasn’t going so well, I still found so much joy in what I was doing.”
“I did not do it because I wanted to one day have a book deal. I did it because I loved it, and I enjoyed it, and I did not know where it was going to take me.”
She points to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon as the book that inspired her to “pick up my pen or open up my computer” right out of college, and she’s been an avid reader since her girlhood in Cameroon.
“I don’t exactly read thinking [a particular] book will help me [with writing],” Mbue explained, “but somehow reading inspires you because you see what excellence looks like.” Writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Franzen, and Junot Díaz top her list of favorites, and it’s easy to see flavors of each—Franzen and Díaz, especially—in her debut.
Franzen’s 2001 blockbuster The Corrections is a sustained meditation on a family thrown into crisis, with the kind of deep character studies that also power Dreamers. By contrast, Díaz is a voice-driven writer, using his powerful first-person narrators to explore everything from geek culture to Dominican history to fraught masculinities. More often than not, you’ll find The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topping best-of lists about second-generation Americans or the immigrant experience, something Mbue said surprised her about the reception of her own novel.
Hailed by The Washington Post as “the one book Donald Trump should read now,” Behold the Dreamers didn’t begin as an exploration of the often terrifying struggles immigrants face in America. When I asked Mbue how she feels about her book’s representation of the immigrant experience, especially given our tenuous political climate, she paused.
“I wasn’t thinking along those lines when I started writing,” she said, rejecting the idea of strategic or thematic organization in her early writing process. “I wanted to write about characters in New York City, dealing with the financial crisis.
“I was very fascinated about these characters from very different worlds coming together,” she added. “But, of course, because Jende is an immigrant, I had to explore what it was like to come to this country, to be so hopeful and faced with the challenges of achieving this American Dream—and doing so at a time when the country wasn’t at its best financially.”
For Mbue, who acutely felt the effects of the financial crisis in her own life and the lives of her friends, Jende’s financial predicament was a scary one worth exploring. What’s more, the struggles of working class employees who depended on the financial industry for their livelihoods were often left out of the scandal’s narrative.
“A lot of people don’t think about the fact that it wasn’t only people who had a significant amount of money who had to deal with [the fallout from the financial crisis], there were the people who worked for them,” said Mbue. “Their housekeepers, their nannies,” she points out, naming a few of the occupations of characters who support Clark, Cindy, and their Upper East Side lifestyle in Dreamers.
The way Mbue’s characters confront the collapse of Lehman Brothers stuck with me, long after I finished reading the novel. In one memorable moment, Jende and Neni watch the news, worrying about their future. Neni attempts to comfort her husband:
Are we not better off today than all those people walking out of Lehman? Look at them. I just feel so sorry for them. But then, we don’t know what’s on the road coming for us, too. We just don’t know. So let’s only be happy that today we were spared.
Neni’s sympathy with the bankers streaming out of Lehman Brothers, careers destroyed, is an incredible display of both naIvete and kindness—sympathy it’s no doubt difficult for most readers to conjure some ten years later, knowing what we do now with the benefit of history.
When I ask Mbue about this moment in the novel, she’s struck instead by Neni’s uncertainty in the face of tragedy.
“The one thing about the financial crisis was the sense that calamity could be coming for anyone at any point,” said Mbue. “Jobs that you thought were secure were no longer secure. A company like Lehman Brothers, which had been there for over a century, had gone. There was so much unemployment. I knew many people who had lost jobs or couldn’t find jobs, there was this sense of anxiety.”
Anxieties, indeed, fuel much of the narrative, bringing characters to their breaking points. Mbue captures perfectly the fears of middle America as the market crashed, that “401(k)s would be cut in half, disappear as if stolen by maleficent aliens.” Retirements postponed, savings for college educations withdrawn, houses unbought, weddings scaled back, vacations deferred. With data about the financial crisis now more widely available, Mbue’s observations in Dreamers bear out: the housing crisis disproportionately affected the U.S.’s poorest homeowners, especially aspiring homeowners of color. Jende even has friends in Arizona who “could afford to get high-interest loans . . . because they were green card holders.” Of course, the predatory loans that caused the crisis in the first place were designed to prey on the vulnerable.
And then there are the Jongas, for whom daily life is even more precarious and homeownership yet another dream. As Jende awaits word on his asylum application—a dishonest tactic suggested by his lawyer to game Immigration—he drives ever so carefully through Manhattan, fearful he might be picked up by the police on the slightest infraction. “[Until] the day you become American citizen,” Jende’s lawyer, Bubakar, tells him, “Immigration will always be right on your ass, every single day, following you everywhere, and you’ll need money to fight them if they decide they hate the way your fart smells.” In the conversations between Jende and Bubakar, it’s clear the characters anticipate being treated unfairly throughout the immigration process and take steps of their own to counteract this perceived imbalance; that system pushes hard-working, law-abiding immigrants like the Jongas into desperation, as they struggle to hold onto their lives—and livelihoods—in America.
Both of the couples in Behold the Dreamers—Jende and Neni, Clark and Cindy—struggle with how their new circumstances push them to adapt. Not only is the process of reconciling their dreams of family, security, and happiness with reality at times too much to bear, but it also pushes each character toward unexpected behavior.
At a certain point, says Mbue, all of her characters must decide if the price of the American Dream, however they might envision it, is too steep to pay. When Cindy refuses to help Jende find another job, for example, Neni seizes an opportunity to blackmail her employer—a decision that at first seems wildly out of character.
“Neni is a good person, but she’s so desperate to have this life that she pushes herself to do something that she ordinarily wouldn’t have done,” said Mbue. “And that was inspired by people I know who made really, really strange choices.”
Neni recognizes this change in herself, mourning her choices which didn’t feel much like choices at all. “Maybe I’m becoming another person,” she tells her pastor.
Jende, too, is pushed toward desperation—and violence.
“In a moment of total misery and anger about his life, [he] does something that Jende would not normally do,” Mbue said. “I have seen that. I wanted to write a realistic story about people I’ve seen and understood and known.
“Because Neni ends up regretting what she did to Cindy, and Jende ends up regretting what he did to Neni. They are not heroes in this book. They’re all flawed human beings. I may not agree with them, but what I wanted to do was to understand them. What happens to you in the process of achieving your dream?” Mbue asked herself. “In your pursuit of your dream, how do you transform?”
“In many books, characters end up having their American Dream coming true. They have a nice house in the suburbs and cars. This is not that story.”
These questions also pertained to the Edwardses, for whom Mbue said she often had to learn a certain empathy.
“Writing about Clark and Cindy was a journey in empathy for me,” Mbue said. “I had to give a lot of empathy to people who are not like me, to people whose stories I might not have given a lot of attention to.
“We could all, as human beings, stand to understand each other’s stories, which is why literature is such a wonderful thing. The same thing goes for the immigration debate [in America]. We could use a lot more empathy in these conversations.”
In the case of the Jongas, transformation occurs as their American experiment comes to an end: a resolution that still catches Mbue off guard when she returns to the novel.
“There was a lot of learning I had to do about the characters and the story, and that ending—it still surprises me sometimes!” Mbue said.
“I did not set out to write a book that ends like that. In many books, characters end up having their American Dream coming true. [They have] a nice house in the suburbs and cars . . . this is not that story. There are other stories about people who came here and saw what it took and said, ‘I don’t know if I have it.’ And there’s no shame to that.
“I think a lot of us come here thinking we will have this better life,” Mbue said, “and then you come and the challenges are so big—and you don’t really come close to the American Dream. And there’s a lot of shame associated with that. But there are so many hurdles to achieving this American Dream! This is a society that has so much social inequality. There’s racism here, there’s sexism here, there are many things that stand in the way, and I think we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves sometimes,” she added.
Given the large success of her first novel, which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book, I asked if she found her way back to a place where she can work on new projects.
For a writer who depends on joy rather than an imagined audience peeking over her shoulder, Mbue acknowledges that it’s no easy task. But she’s up to it.
“I have been blessed with a sense of peace and quiet, and I am also not an internet person. I don’t go on the internet and read anything, so I still have that sense of not thinking about an audience. I have to write what I have to write. I cannot let my writing be determined by anything [else].
“It is different now, of course. I’ve written one book and people come to me with ideas. ‘Imbolo you should write about this,’” she said, laughing. “‘Why don’t you write the sequel?’ Which is such a pleasure to hear. [My writing life] will not be exactly like it was before, when Imbolo Mbue was totally unpublished. But I don’t think it will change anything. Ultimately, I’m going to write whatever it is I’m supposed to write.”
Though she didn’t give out details, Mbue was quick to add she won’t be working on a sequel. “I think that that sequel belongs to the reader. My part in that story is over.”