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In ‘Behold the Dreamers,’ the American dream and immigrant reality collide

May 5, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Imbolo Mbue, author of "Behold the Dreamers" and winner of the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss her first novel, the story of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Cameroon to confront the reality behind the American Dream.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Tomorrow night here in Washington, the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction will be given.

Jeffrey Brown talks with the winning author, the latest in our NewsHour Bookshelf series.

JEFFREY BROWN: An immigrant couple from West Africa working for a wealthy New York family as the great recession is about to hit in 2008.

The novel “Behold the Dreamers” is a story of the contemporary American dream through the lens of class, race and immigration.

Author Imbolo Mbue came to the U.S. from Cameroon in 1998 and became a citizen in 2014. This is first nurse novel.

And because of that, even more congratulations to you.

IMBOLO MBUE, Author, “Behold the Dreamers”: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re working here in a great American fiction tradition about immigration. What did you want to bring to that story? What did you want to tell?

IMBOLO MBUE: Well, when I start writing this novel, it wasn’t very much about immigration. It was about the financial crisis.

I was very interested in how the financial crisis affected the lives of New Yorkers from different economic statutes. So I wanted to write about an immigrant from my country who gets a job as a chauffeur (INAUDIBLE) executive, but, of course, an immigrant coming here for the American dream and facing the financial crisis, I wanted to write about how that affected him and how — and also explore like the dreams and hopes he has himself when he came to America.

So, I ended up writing about the immigrant experience, coming here, realizing what America really is like, and also deciding whether it is really worth staying here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, these characters, the main characters, Jende and Neni, from Cameroon, they’re experiencing both sides of the American dream.

They tell us that they see it as both wonderful and awful at the same time.

IMBOLO MBUE: Yes.

It’s very complex, this idea of the American dream, because, on one hand, when we’re back in our countries, we especially, when I was growing up in Cameroon, we had this image of American being the sort of promised land, and this country where you go to and you work hard and you get to achieve this life, a lot of material success, a house and nice cars and (INAUDIBLE) accounts.

And that is what they came for, Jende and Neni. And then they got here, and they see the realities of social — a lot of social issues, economic inequity, and racism and sexism, and all of those issues.

And they have to deal with it. And they also have — see what it’s like for people who achieve the dream.

JEFFREY BROWN: But by doing that and by setting it in that period, you’re also raising question of class, right?

IMBOLO MBUE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, as a writer, you have to see this couple — you have to see everybody with some sympathy.

IMBOLO MBUE: Right, right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right?

So, the Edwards family, which is wealthy …

IMBOLO MBUE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and the immigrant family, they get along. They don’t get along. There are all kinds of clashes.

But for you, what? What are they?

IMBOLO MBUE: Well, for me, it was, I had a lot of empathy for the immigrants, because I am an immigrant. I am from the same town where Jende and Neni come from.

So I know those struggles. The struggles of the Edwards, the 1 percent, people who have that amount of privilege, is not something that I have dealt with during my life. So I had to push myself to think about, what are their struggles, and what does it take to hold this dream life together? Because they do have the dream life.

They have a house in the Hamptons. They live on the Upper East Side. They have so many privileges. And yet they have their own struggles. So, on one hand, I had one family that was living the dream and that family growing after the dream. And when the recession happened, both families had to deal with the consequences.

JEFFREY BROWN: You referred to your own background. How much is this your story?

IMBOLO MBUE: In many ways, you know, I was like Jende and Neni, in the fact that, when I came here, I thought America would be a sort of promised land.

And I do believe that it is a wonderful country. I think it’s a country that offers a lot of immigrants. But, at the same time, this American dream, what I have seen is that it’s not accessible, and that somebody like Jende, a black man without a good education, and he’s also dealing with not having papers, that somebody like that, the odds of moving out of poverty is very difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also dealing in this very difficult and divisive issue over illegal immigration, because they overstay what they’re allowed to.

IMBOLO MBUE: Right, right, the visa.

JEFFREY BROWN: They want to stay in the country. They’re facing deportation.

So, you know there’s a great debate in the country over this.

IMBOLO MBUE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you portray them as sympathetic characters who want to work hard.

IMBOLO MBUE: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you know that there are plenty of people who would say, well, I’m sorry, you’re not playing by the rules.

IMBOLO MBUE: Right. Right.

And it is a very, very complex issue. I think that, for me, as a writer, that my job is to tell the story and let the reader decide: Should I empathize with people like Jende who don’t have papers, or I should vilify them?

I don’t — this is not a moralizing story. I think people can read my book and use it as pro-immigration or use it as anti-immigration argument. My place is to tell the story honestly and completely.

But I think that it is important to understand each other’s stories. It’s so easy to put people in a box and say, oh, people without any papers, but who are these people, what are their stories?

And I also am a citizen, right? So, I also understand the citizen perspective. I am an immigrant and I’m a citizen, and I know what it’s like to be both and to understand that desire to come here and work hard, but also that desire to, like, think about America’s future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally, as I said, this is your first novel. And you won a big award. That’s got to be a bit of a surprise, a welcome surprise, right, for a young writer.

IMBOLO MBUE: Yes. Yes, it is a good privilege.

I started writing this book when I was unemployed. I had lost my job at the end of the financial crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this hit — that hit you personally?

IMBOLO MBUE: Yes. Yes. Yes.

And I thought that writing a story about people from my hometown and other New Yorkers who I have met in some ways and talk about their own struggles. And then I got a novel, and it got published. And to win an award like the PEN/Faulkner, it is a great honor.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, the award-winning book is “Behold the Dreamers.”

Imbolo Mbue, thank you very much.

IMBOLO MBUE: Thank you, Jeffrey.

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