Book Review: Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers and Our Imagined Justice


Imbolo Mbue (Kiriko Sano/Penguin Random House)

Imbolo Mbue lost her job during the financial crisis that began in 2008, symbolically with the collapse of the fourth largest investment bank in America, Lehman Brothers. It is during this time, Imbolo Mbue is forced to reconsider what the "American Dream" truly means, her debut novel Behold the Dreamers, is a culmination of all her reflections.


Behold the Dreamers, is the story of a Cameroonian immigrant couple, Jende and Neni Jonga who live in New York City with their son Liomi. Jende secures a job as the chauffeur of a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. Imbolo Mbue juxtaposes the life of the wealthy Edwards family with Jende's, which is filled with financial strife. Throughout the novel, Jende works hard to pay for his wife Neni's education, while working with a Nigerian immigration lawyer to secure asylum in America. The Edwards' lives are filled with a different kind of strife, despite being wealthy, this workaholic father and husband, an attention-starved wife and family struggle to find meaning and happiness in their lives.


I could not find the original author of this quote, but, a while ago, I came across a tweet that said, "poor people only find comfort in their 'poverty' by imagining the rich are miserable."


This is a popular movie trope, the poor are always unintentionally teaching the rich that money isn't everything. This book focuses heavily on this imagined justice, that majority of us, use to make peace with the vast inequality that plagues us. This is frustratingly unrealistic to me. Even if all rich people were miserable, the misery of the rich and the innate joy of the poor is not a fair trade-off. Imagined justice can also get in the way of the possibility of real justice if we are not careful.


The novel is not entirely unrealistic, there are many parts of the immigrant experience are accurately depicted. I particularly enjoyed Neni's interactions with the immigrant community. I briefly researched refugee resilience, and, indeed, immigrant and refugee women are often the bearers of culture that make it possible for immigrant communities to thrive. The changing dynamics and roles within the Jende and Neni's marriage are also supported by the current immigrant studies.


I also have to consider who the intended audience is. I have a strong bias against immigrant stories because I am an immigrant, I know these stories intimately even before reading them, they are painful and triggering. I can only liken the experience to watching movies on police brutality as a black person. Black pain is never entertaining or enlightening for black people. I have little purpose for it, but I do believe that there is a group of people who would benefit from reading Behold the Dreamers, the children of immigrants (whose parents are too reserved and African to share the pain and trauma of their journey with their children), and the citizens of the countries we inhabit, so they can understand that, "you broke the ocean in half to be here. Only to meet nothing that wants you" - Nayyirah Waheed (immigrant).


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