F "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon) - Beyond Achebe: Reading the Continent

"Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon)

No Room at the Inn

Ghanaian poet Atukwei Okai has a lengthy poem entitled “Kperterkple Serenade” that perfectly captures much of the sentiment in Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. The third section concludes its opening admonition of “make room in your inn for me –” with the following wry observation:

america

you are a funny girl…

everybody dreams of kissing you.



Early in the novel, Cameroonian immigrant Jende Jonga takes his newly arrived wife Neni on a walk in New York and as they sit on a bench, he gushes to her: “Columbus Circle is the center of Manhattan. Manhattan is the center of New York. New York is the center of America, and America is the center of the world. So we are sitting in the center of the world, right?”

It’s this tension between the idealized and the realized that the author masterfully explores in the novel as he begins with Jende and Neni on opposite ends of this spectrum. Neni pushes back against her husband’s doe-eyed admiration for a country which she claims undeservedly expects everyone to believe it has the best of everything. Jende’s enthusiasm appears unflappable, though, as he revels in his good fortune as a driver for a Lehman Brothers’ executive named Clark. During an early conversation with his boss, he explains that “Everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To be in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world.” In Cameroon, Jende notes, there is no chance for upward mobility--if you are born poor, you will stay poor. He goes on, citing the rising star of Barack Obama as proof of his assertion.

The novel’s power comes in Imbue’s ability to capture both the strengths and the hollowness of the promise of America. The reader sees the rise and good fortune of Jende as his chauffeur position gives him relative wealth and burgeoning opportunities for his family. As his wife enjoys the fruit of this labor her attitude toward America slowly shifts as does her resolve to stay in the country. But her relationship with America is a more nuanced one as she becomes privy to the inner world of the rich when she works for Clark’s wife Cindy during the family’s holiday vacation. 

Imbue expertly illustrates the tension and the distance between the intimacy and the hierarchy that exists between household help and the family to which they serve. Neni finds herself psychologically balancing a wide range of interactions: caring for Cindy after a near overdose, playing with her young son, receiving incredible gifts of designer clothing--all against a careful line which she must walk in order to keep Cindy “happy” so she keeps this well paying job. As Neni and her friend Betty discuss Cindy’s closet laden with designer shoes and clothing, Betty observes: “And she’s still so unhappy. Money truly is nothing.” While money may be nothing when it comes to finding happiness, the novel makes clear that the immigrant experience is not one centered on finding personal happiness--instead it is one bent on survival for the present life and sacrifice for the future generations--money may be nothing but it’s also the only thing.

When Lehman Brothers collapses, Betty’s glancing observation on money ends up a ringing indictment for an American economic system built on...nothing. The collateral damage from Lehman brothers is catastrophic for Jende as he struggles with job loss and a diminished immigrant status that means likely deportation is on the horizon. The weight of it all eventually mentally and physically shatters the soul and body of his dream as he laments to his wife: “This country no longer has room for people like us...I won’t live my life in the hope that someday I will magically become happy.”

It is here that the psychic paths of Jende and Neni cross as she becomes desperate for a way to remain in the United States while he becomes more resolute in his drive to return to Cameroon where his savings will place him in the society’s upper strata. Faced with crushing stress-related bodily ailments, Jende gives up and chooses for his family to return to Cameroon.

With Neni lamenting that their children (Americans by birth) will lose the “opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers.”

Unfortunately, it is a land in which there is no room at the inn for them.

*This is of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.

See our 202020192018201720162015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

For more Cameroonian fiction see my review of Miano's lyrical Season of the Shadow here or check out Oyono's tragic 1956 novel Houseboy here

For more Cameroonian poetry, see Dipoko's A Poem of Villeneuve St. Georges here

Key Quotes


96 “Columbus Circle is the center of Manhattan. Manhattan is the center of New York. New York is the center of America, and America is the center of the world.” Jende Jonga to his wife Neni as they sit on a bench there early on when she first came to the U.S.

140 “And she’s still so unhappy. Money truly is nothing.” Betty’s comment to Neni on Cindy’s unhappiness despite her closet full of designer shoes and clothing in the Hamptons.

280 “I’m tired of people wanting me to care about them more than I care about myself and my family.” Neni finally stands up for herself and realizes her own self-worth after she extorts Cindy Edwards for a sizable sum.


Key Takeaways

39-40 Convo between Clark and Jende where Jende comments: “Everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To be in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world.” He goes on the comment on the opportunity for upward mobility that doesn’t exist in his country. He further notes the case of Obama, man without a father or mother becoming President.


44 Jende argues that paying a “bride-price” is what makes a marriage legit because its a way to bestow honor upon the bride’s family.


74 Jende’s immigrant lawyer cautions him to stay away from police in this country since he’s black. “The police is for the protection of white people...maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men.”

89 Neni comments on the assumed idea by many that everything is better in America.

93 prevailing notion that successful Cameroonian men in the USA may date plenty of non-africans but that they always marry a Cameroonian woman in the end.

185 For a long time Jende lives in a kind of blind ignorance as to the riches and goodness of America even when the 2008 Lehman brothers scandal/collapse occurs

272 idea of people with money believe they are entitled to power over everyone else’s life to the point where they don’t value others

332-4 The stress of his diminished immigrant status and likely deportation physically breaks Jende first and then mentally shatters his love affairs with the United States--he comes to believe that “This country no longer has room for people like us...I won’t live my life in the hope that someday I will magically become happy.”

358 The children of Neni’s friend Fatou are reluctant to even acknowledge their African identity since they are american citizens by birth. Fatou wonders if they think less of their own mother since she is not American.

361 Neni laments the things about America here children will lose when they return to Cameroon namely the loss of “the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers.”




http://fuuo.blogspot.com/2010/10/poet-of-week-from-ghana-atukwei-okai.html

Kperterkple Serenade



III

make room in your inn for me –

I know:

when karl marx grabbed his bibliography

and ballpen and pocketed his toothbrush

and his shaving stick

he went and bought a ticket to london

when ghandi girded his loin cloth, it

was london he had in mind.

when lenin fled his beloved motherland

his final haven-crashpad was london.

but america

your address book too has memories that yield

the names

of von braun and charles dickens and

marcus garvey and amerigo vespucci and

christopher columbus who boarded the wrong bus

and maxim gorky and mayakovsky and uncle

einstein and mr. carnegie and rockefeller

even your ports

recalling

report how

the mayflower moved in to deflower at night

the virgin land

of the red indians –

jesus christ it seems and judas did not make it

america

you are a funny girl…

everybody dreams of kissing you


Key Quotes

96 “Columbus Circle is the center of Manhattan. Manhattan is the center of New York. New York is the center of America, and America is the center of the world.” Jende Jonga to his wife Neni as they sit on a bench there early on when she first came to the U.S.

140 “And she’s still so unhappy. Money truly is nothing.” Betty’s comment to Neni on Cindy’s unhappiness despite her closet full of designer shoes and clothing in the Hamptons.

280 “I’m tired of people wanting me to care about them more than I care about myself and my family.” Neni finally stands up for herself and realizes her own self-worth after she extorts Cindy Edwards for a sizable sum.


Key Takeaways

39-40 Convo between Clark and Jende where Jende comments: “Everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To be in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world.” He goes on the comment on the opportunity for upward mobility that doesn’t exist in his country. He further notes the case of Obama, man without a father or mother becoming President.


44 Jende argues that paying a “bride-price” is what makes a marriage legit because its a way to bestow honor upon the bride’s family.


74 Jende’s immigrant lawyer cautions him to stay away from police in this country since he’s black. “The police is for the protection of white people...maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men.”

89 Neni comments on the assumed idea by many that everything is better in America.

93 prevailing notion that successful Cameroonian men in the USA may date plenty of non-africans but that they always marry a Cameroonian woman in the end.

185 For a long time Jende lives in a kind of blind ignorance as to the riches and goodness of America even when the 2008 Lehman brothers scandal/collapse occurs

272 idea of people with money believe they are entitled to power over everyone else’s life to the point where they don’t value others

332-4 The stress of his diminished immigrant status and likely deportation physically breaks Jende first and then mentally shatters his love affairs with the United States--he comes to believe that “This country no longer has room for people like us...I won’t live my life in the hope that someday I will magically become happy.”

358 The children of Neni’s friend Fatou are reluctant to even acknowledge their African identity since they are american citizens by birth. Fatou wonders if they think less of their own mother since she is not American.

361 Neni laments the things about America here children will lose when they return to Cameroon namely the loss of “the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers.”

CONVERSATION

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