Sometimes, a book’s meaning depends on its readers, and the time period in which they read it.
Imbolo Mbue, who is slated to visit SUNY Schenectady on Thursday, is perhaps even more aware of this than other authors.
Her debut novel “Behold the Dreamers,” deals with timely topics of immigration, socio economic issues and, of course, the idea of the American Dream.
“This is a very well-written book. It’s a beautiful read, an inspiring read. . . It is so relevant to what we are going through at a national level. The divisions that are being created, the tensions that exist and this book is written for a time such as this,” said Steady H. Moono, president of SUNY Schenectady.
However, when Mbue set out to write it shortly after the financial crisis, writing a timely book was the last thing on her mind. She was more interested in telling the story of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant and taxi driver for Clark Edwards, a top executive at Lehman Brothers, the famed investment banking company.
“People analyze this book from many different angles, [they say] ‘It’s about the American dream or it’s about immigration, it’s about class.’ I was not interested in that; I wasn’t out to write a book about immigration or class, I was out tell the story of people and how these people’s lives were affected by this huge socioeconomic event. It was just important to me that I tell their story,” Mbue said.
And tell their story she did.
“Behold the Dreamers” won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2017 and was named by The New York Times and The Washington Post as one of the most notable books of 2016.
In strikingly convincing prose, Mbue captures Jende’s struggle to come to and stay in America and to make a life in Harlem with his wife Neni and their son, Liomi. While Jende drives Clark and the entire Edwards family around the city, forming something akin to a friendship with them, Neni goes to college and works part time. She dreams of becoming a pharmacist and becoming financially stable.
Every time something goes well for the Jongas, their luck seems to reverse in the ensuing chapters.
As it does for the Edwards. Although they are wealthy, their family is in disarray. Cindy, Clark’s wife, struggles with substance abuse, and Clark seems to be continually drifting away from her and their children. Their problems worsen with the fall of the Lehman Brothers company.
Each family has different experiences with this idea of the American Dream and each was shaken by the financial crisis.
Mbue herself shared that experience. She lost her marketing job in 2009, and while she was job hunting, she focused on writing. However, wasn’t until 2011 that she had the initial idea for “Behold the Dreamers.” While out for a walk in Manhattan, she noticed all these chauffeurs picking people up.
“I was very intrigued by the idea of people who have chauffeurs and what it’s like to be a chauffeur, the relationship between the chauffeur and the family they work for. Being that I had lost my job during the financial crisis, I decided to write about a chauffeur and the man he works for and how both of them [are] affected by the financial crisis,” Mbue said.
Though she didn’t study writing in college (she received a bachelor's degree in business management from Rutgers a masters degree in psychology from Columbia) she had been writing for several years, inspired by one of her favorite novels.
“I read a book by Toni Morrison, ‘Song of Solomon,’ not long after I finished college . . . I loved the book so much that I started writing,” Mbue said.
She’d been writing for nine years before starting “Behold the Dreamers,” and some of the experiences of the Jonga family echo her own experiences in coming to America from Cameroon.
“I came [to the United States] for college. So I [came] at a time when it was a very different country. But I noticed that the country that I came into was very different from the country I’d imagined,” Mbue said.
Much of what she’d learned of America had been gleaned from television and from the experiences of people who had gone and returned to Limbe, Cameroon, where she grew up.
“[They] returned home and they had this sense of success, this air of achievement around them.
So I always thought that America was a place that you go and achieve great things. It was a rude awakening to come here and see such poverty and hopelessness and homelessness and things that I didn’t exactly see as much on television in Cameroon. So part of the novel was about that. The idea of America versus the reality that a lot of us encounter,” Mbue said.
Jende, one of the protagonists from Cameroon, certainly experiences that as does his wife, Neni. Throughout the novel, they are always striving for better opportunities, for jobs and financial freedom and are disappointed more often than they are rewarded. On top of this, Jende has to deal with the stress of the immigration system. The threat of deportation hangs over all his successes, even when he lands a job as Clark Edward’s chauffeur.
Edward is a top executive at Lehman Brothers and is dealing with certain stresses of his own; namely the threat of his company going under and of a dissolving family. While writing Neni’s and Jende’s characters was relatively easy, bringing Clark’s character, and the rest of the Edward family to life on the page was tougher.
“I’m from Cameroon. So I used people I know [as inspiration for the Jonga family]. I built a collage from many different stories that I’ve been told. It was much harder for the American character because I didn’t know people like that very well. I don’t live in that world so I had to gather any little bit of information I could. Whenever I met anybody who seemed wealthy I noted the way they talked and the way they vacation. I asked people who work for them, I asked their nannies and their housekeeper. So it was mostly a lot of nosing around and just using my own imagination,” Mbue said.
But nothing was as challenging as the revisions and keeping the spark of the story alive amidst criticism and rejection.
“The toughest part was writing and rewriting and rewriting. Of course, trying to get it published and getting rejected over and over [was tough too]. . . For all I knew no one was going to read it, but I didn’t focus so much on that I focused more on the fact that I have this story, I’ve been inspired to tell it and I’m going to tell it,” Mbue said.
“To write that well with no degree in [writing] it’s amazing,” Moono said.
It’s one of the reasons SUNY Schenectady partnered with Schenectady County Public Library’s One County, One Book program to bring Mbue to the college. Last year, “Behold the Dreamers” was nominated for the program, along with “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which ultimately won out. However, the community still seemed to be very interested in Mbue’s book, prompting SCPL and the Friends of SCPL to organize a visit.
“By hosting Imbolo Mbue in partnership with SUNY Schenectady, we feel that we are extending OCOB to the wider community learning about her journey, her writing, and her current projects,” said Friends of SCPL members Christine Witkowski and Cheryl Cufari in a statement.
This semester, students and faculty in SUNY Schenectady’s humanities department are using the novel as a textbook, and Moono believes Mbue’s visit will be inspiring to the students.
“Think of what that means, students having this as their text book and in about four weeks they’re going to meet the author. This is the person who wrote the textbook and if you look at her life [she] in some ways lived this life that is chronicled in this novel. A chance to just interact with her, that is an inspiration for our students to dream,” Moono said.
The author will be speaking to classes during the day, sharing stories about her personal experiences and giving writing advice.
“I think a lot of writers are very [concerned] about publishing and what people are going to like, especially when you’re young and trying to get published. But I think it’s more important to focus on your writing and your story and your craft. Not to think about what readers might like or what might be published because what people want to read really is what is true to you. So it’s important to discover who you are and tell that story,” Mbue said, adding, “[While] writing ‘Behold the Dreamers’ I didn’t have an audience. I wrote it because it mattered to me. You tell the story you have to tell and do a good job.”
She also recommends reading as much as possible. Her own tastes range from authors like Zadie Smith to George Saunders and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“There’s no substitute for being a great reader. That was my education as a writer, being a good reader,” Mbue said.
At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the public is invited to hear Mbue speak in the Carl B. Taylor Auditorium. She’ll discuss “Behold the Dreamers,” and connect it to themes that we see in the news consistently today, from immigration to the American Dream.
The talk will be followed by a Q&A session, when someone will most likely ask about the book’s surprising conclusion, which hinges on the immigration system.
“I mean, people ask me all the time, ‘How would the book be any different if you wrote it today?’ and I say I don’t know if it would be different. When I was writing this book in 2011, immigration was not even in the news. Even then they had a half chance, so imagine what it’s like today.
It’s really sad in the way immigrants [have to] struggle just to stay in this country,” Mbue said.
Moono hopes that Mbue’s visit will provide a space for the community to discuss polarizing topics.
“I think bringing the author to campus and being a [center] of education and being in the community, I think the author becomes a catalyst to have a conversation about the tenor of what is happening right now in our country. I think she provides a safe place to have that conversation because she comes initially from a fictional point of view,” Moono said, adding,
“She writes about the issues in a way that regardless of where you’re stationed in life, regardless of where you come from, where you live, what you do for a living, what kind of family you have, you can relate to it.”
Imbolo Mbue visit and book signing
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thur.
WHERE: Carl B. Taylor Auditorium, Begley Building, SUNY Schenectady
NOTE: Seating is on a first come, first served basis
MORE INFO: 518-388-4511