I didn’t particularly want to read this book. I wouldn’t have gone looking for it myself, but my auntie gave it to me for free, and rarely will I refuse a free book. Before she’d given it to me, though, she’d warned me that it wasn’t as good as Americanah. I became apprehensive at that comment because I believe I (and the world in general) have no need of another Americanah – and it’s not because I think Americanah wasn’t good (quite the contrary), but because I think it was enough. In addition to that, I had read Siyanda Mohitsuwa’s article on OkayAfrica called “I’m Done With African Immigrant Literature” and agreed with the sentiment of it. So, honestly, I expected to hate Behold the Dreamers, or at least find it tiring. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t. I kept waiting for the moment when I would think, “Yeah bro, I’m done with this,” and it never came. In fact, I was quite engrossed.
I suppose at the end of the day, as long as a story is well-written and feels genuine – as in, not pretentious – I’m going to be able to deal with what appears to be my lack of exposure to modern novels by African writers set geographically in Africa. I choose to apply this disposition towards my own present and future writings as well.
Especially lately, I’ve been exposed to several stories of ex-France colony Africans idolizing France. This story was the first I’d ever read about the main characters being from an ex-French colony and finding themselves in America. But also, I’ve never read a Cameroonian writer’s work before this one.
I think what this book did best for me was how much it highlighted – whether intentionally or otherwise – the irony and mental discord between the idolization of America (by Africans) and the simultaneous radical clinging to (what Africans assume to be) traditional African values. It’s kind of like an America is the best place in the world with the most successful people in the world, but we must all refrain from becoming Americanized because these people don’t have values thought.
Jende came to America to work. He brought his wife, Neni and their son, Liomi, with him. Jende was a dreamer – both politically and ideologically. He had an irrational reverence for the United States of America, where both he and his wife believed that everything was possible, for them to gain the best possible lives for themselves and their son. Jende became a chauffeur for a fascinatingly dysfunctional rich white family even while he was, unbeknownst to his employers, in a limbo state, surviving on a temporary work permit as he appealed for asylum with the assistance of a wasteman of a Nigerian immigrant lawyer and one of the wackest fabricated asylum stories ever to play into the tribal, primitive African stereotype surely destined to fail. His wife was trying to study to become a pharmacist, but her dreams, too, were frequently shot down. Their son, Liomi, remained in trouble as long as his parents were unstable – but Americanized as he’d already begun to grow up, they tried to keep him as oblivious as possible to their troubles.
In some conversation with Jende’s employer, Mr. Edwards, Jende said,
“I believe anything is possible for anyone who is American. Truly do, sir.”
It was an incredible statement, I thought, for someone who was forced to fit and feed his family in a very small living space in a ghetto, and one must have been willfully blind not to notice the poverty in New York, or even recognize that he was a chauffeur himself (was this what he had always had the ambition to become? A white man’s driver?). But he had very high hopes – or shall I say expectations, or both – for his son, Liomi:
“And my son will grow up to be somebody, whatever he wants to be.”
The unspoken irony there, of course, is that as it is with many African parents, “whatever (s)he wants to be” = “whatever I deem is an acceptable profession for my child.”
Jende even continued,
“And, in fact, sir, I hope that one day my son will grow up to be a great man like you.”
This great man of an employer he was talking to was a rich man so busy he didn’t have time to live life, with a depressed, suicidal wife, an older son who wanted to go off into self-exile (and I admit I would too, if I’d grown up like him), and a little son who just wasn’t too happy a kid. But Jende wasn’t thinking about any of that. He wanted his son to be a rich, busy, important guy with a secretary in New York City, who could afford a chauffeur, or something of the sort, n’est-ce pas? That’s how being a Dreamer works; you dream on behalf of your kids too.
I remember how both ridiculous and hilarious Neni and Jende thought it was when Liomi said he wanted to grow up and be a driver like his father. LOL. Also, I believe it was one of the peaks of the mental discord when Neni delivered the classic African parent lecture to Liomi as a result of a situation blown way out of proportion:
“Open your ears and listen to me, because I will say this once and then I’ll never say it again. You do not go to school to make friends. You go to sit quietly in class and open your ears like gongo leaf and listen to your teacher. Are you hearing me?”
All Liomi had done was laugh at jokes his classmate told. I was so amused.
Neni was a complex character with a lot of interesting surface thoughts that didn’t get very critical. Nevertheless, I thought the very fact that her thoughts didn’t get very critical was authentic. After all, she was still fresh off the boat of illusion, partly counter-cultural, but not quite “there” yet, although some circumstances of life might push her more strongly in that direction. In her questioning and assessment of inter-cultural (i.e. African and/vs. American) situations, she was either very shrewd, very archaically biased, or both. For example, on the topic of Jende’s Cameroonian cousin dating a white woman who seemed to expect that relationship to progress into marriage, Neni thought:
“He would marry his kind because a man like him needed a woman who understood his heart, shared his values and interests, knew how to give him the things he needed, accepted that his children must be raised in the same manner in which his parents had raised him, and only a woman from his homeland could do that.”
And then, there were her very intriguing sentiments about the behavior of black people among white people:
“Nothing shamed her more than black people embarrassing themselves in front of white people by behaving the way white people expect them to behave. That was the one reason why she had such a hard time understanding African-Americans – they embarrassed themselves in front of white people left and right and didn’t seem to care.”
I shall offer no judgment on this excerpt except to say that I think I laughed when I read it.
My favorite character, I think, might have been Vince, the son of Jende’s employers. It’s especially funny to me because I know that people like Vince in real life irritate me to my wit’s end. Any American boy who thinks the solution to his life is to run away to India to practice any kind of religion just because it’s not an American-adopted one is questionable to me. Maybe I liked him for his rebellious, anti-capitalist streak. He seemed very intelligent and very clueless about life at the same time…kind of like me. In many respects, he was smarter than both his parents and the Jongas (Jende’s family). I particularly liked it when he said,
“That’s exactly the problem! People don’t want to open their eyes and see the Truth because the illusion suits them. As long as they’re feed whatever lies they want to hear they’re happy, because the Truth means nothing to them.”
Now, praise for Mbue in general: I think it’s phenomenal, how this woman just got up and wrote a book. It’s not like she’d been formally trained, or had been writing for several years. I watched an interview of hers, and she said after reading some interesting books, she legit just had a story to write and wrote it. I would say “#goals” but it’s both too late and too early for that, and everyone’s path in life is different, you barb?
But I was rather astounded by the implicit complexity of being able to embody so many different, even contrasting characters in one book. It’s quite an achievement, to be able to write a Vince against a Jende or a Mrs. Edwards against a Neni, have them interacting with each other, and yet preserve the integrity of each character through subtle perspective changes within omniscient narration. Now that’s #goals.
Also, I really liked the ending. Especially how it was happy, sad and satisfactory at the same time. I want to know what happens after the book ends, how life goes on when dreamers finally wake up. Because, you know, the dream is and always has been a scam. =)