RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's right before the economy collapses and Barack Obama becomes president. And a young Cameroonian couple is living in Harlem. Jende and Neni are working toward the American lifestyle that they grew up seeing on TV. But it seems far off until Jende gets a job as a driver for an executive at Lehman Brothers. This is where the book "Behold The Dreamers" begins. I asked the author Imbolo Mbue if Jende and Neni agree on what the American dream is.
IMBOLO MBUE: I think - and when they came here, they have this similar idea. That both believed in the American dream. So they had similar ideas, but, like in any marriage, at some point, people start changing and they start having different ideas of what America really means to them.
MARTIN: The financial crisis hits. Lehman Brothers collapses. What is the fallout for these two families?
MBUE: It's not immediate because when it happens it seemed like they are both going to be safe because Clark, at once, was able to move on to Barclays, which, you know, bought some of Lehman Brothers. So his job stayed. And Jende - because Clark still had a job, you know, Clark would afford to keep Jende. But there were other parts of it, and somehow, that ended up getting into Clark's private life. And it had consequences for all four of the main characters.
MARTIN: You are from this town in Cameroon where Jende and Neni are from in the book. Can you describe it for me?
MBUE: Yes. It's a beautiful seaside town. It's in the south of Cameroon. Back when I was growing up, it wasn't a very fancy town. We didn't have a public library. We didn't have, you know, nice - lot of big hotels, probably had, like, one or two hotels. But now it's fairly developed. But it's still a place where, you know, it's very difficult to change your circumstances if you are born poor.
MARTIN: So how did you come to this country?
MBUE: I had relatives who were very generous to sponsor me to come to America to have an education. So I came here to go to college. I went to Rutgers in New Jersey. And then after, I went to - moved to New York City, and I went to Columbia for my master's.
MARTIN: Where do we see you in this story, if anywhere?
MBUE: (Laughter) Well, the part where I came from Limbe - I think, like Jende and Neni - I mean, I came under different circumstances. I came to go to college. But I still left Limbe, you know, having my own ideas of America because what I seen about America on TV was, you know, "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" and "Cosby Show." And everything was so glamorous. And I didn't really see much of, you know, the difficulties and challenges of being in America - the poverty, the racism - I didn't see much of that.
And I think was the same for, like, Jende and Neni. They had this idea of America being this just really, really wonderful place. And it is a wonderful place. It's a beautiful country. But there are challenges to being an immigrant here. And the part where Jende and Neni live in Harlem and they're struggling to get by as immigrants - you know, the poverty, the - you know, deciding, you know, how you're going to improve your life. Even if there are opportunities, it's still a challenge to move out of that poverty. I think I've seen that in my life, too.
MARTIN: You do see some kind of correlation or something interesting about the juxtaposition of the financial crisis and the immigrant experience. How do those connect in your mind and in this story?
MBUE: Interesting (laughter) - I never really thought about that juxtaposition. For me, personally, you know, the financial crisis laid bare a lot about the ways in which the American dream is not that accessible to everybody. And I think, you know, when the financial crisis happened - I know I lost my job. And I was very disillusioned about America, and I had to start from scratch - and - which eventually led to me writing this novel 'cause I was unemployed for over a year and a half. And then one day, I walked down the street, and I got an inspiration to write this story. So in a way, this was me also exploring, you know, how the financial crisis affected my views of America.
MARTIN: Your characters, though, struggle with what it means to be successful in their minds and what would mean realizing their particular American dream. Do they change their opinions of what that means to realize that dream?
MARTIN: Do they change the definition of what it...
MBUE: Yes. Yes. Yes.
MARTIN: ...Means to them?
MBUE: Yes. I think for Jende and Neni, it was very much about the price they had to pay for this dream. And they both had to consider, you know, this is a price I have to pay to have this life I want to have in America. And is this price worth it? And, you know, (unintelligible) think, you know, what you're trying to go about seeing the end is that we see that they start struggling because they had different ideas of, you know, am I willing to pay this price? And is it worth it? And that is, you know, the struggle in most of the last part of the novel that, you know, this is what we have to do if we want to stay in this country and have this life we want. This is a price we have to pay. But do we want to pay that price?
MARTIN: The book is called "Behold The Dreamers." It's the debut novel from Imbolo Mbue.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
MBUE: Thank you so much.
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