📖 🇨🇲 #9: A gripping Cameroonian debut

Imbolo Mbue on the 2008 financial crash

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Imbolo Mbue lost her job during the financial crash of 2008. As the New York-based Cameroonian looked for work, she started to write her debut novel. Eight years later Behold the Dreamers was published, reportedly earning Mbue a seven-figure advance and immediately becoming a New York Times bestseller. It came onto my radar thanks to Dzekashu MacViban, the founding editor of Cameroonian literary magazine Bakwa Magazine and indie publisher Bakwa Books.

If you’re interested in Cameroonian writing, Bakwa Magazine—which publishes in English, Pidgin, and French—is a great place to start. Though the two national languages of Cameroon are English and French, it is a multilingual country with hundreds of languages spoken. Mbue, who moved from Limbe to New York for college, writes in English.

Set in 2007, Behold the Dreamers tells the story of Jende Jonga and his wife Neni, two Cameroonian immigrants living in Harlem with their six-year-old son Liomi. When Jende hears that senior Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards is looking for a chauffeur, he puts on his clip on tie and gets himself an interview.

Clark takes an immediate liking to Jende, who proves himself to be a prompt, discrete, and kind employee. Jende, who is working as a cab driver and frittering away his earnings on an immigration lawyer to help him invent a false asylum request, is delighted to have a job that pays well. Being Clark’s chauffeur allows Jende to support Neni through college—she dreams of becoming a pharmacist—and send money to his relatives in Limbe.

For a while, everything goes smoothly. Jende does as he’s told and tries not to ask too many questions—he’d rather not know why his employer spends so much time at a hotel in the middle of the working day. But things get knotty when Clark’s wife Cindy offers Neni temporary work in the family’s second home in the Hamptons and the Jongas start to notice cracks in the Edwards’s seemingly perfect façade. Not long after, Lehman Brothers collapses and unsurprisingly it’s Jende’s job that’s on the line. 

“Neither of them asked the next question—did it mean Jende would have no job, too? The fear within them could not let loose the words. Similar questions would burrow into the minds of many in New York City in the coming weeks. Many would be convinced that the plague that had descended on the homes of former Lehman employees was only a few blocks from theirs. Restaurateurs, artists, private tutors, magazine publishers, foundation directors, limousine drivers, nannies, housekeepers, employment agencies, virtually everyone who stood along the path where money flowed to and from the Street fretted and panicked that day.”

Mbue is an enormously compassionate writer. Her characters are sympathetic despite their flaws and similar despite their differences. But while Jende and Clark are united by their unrelenting ambition to do better for their families, their core values are poles apart. In a section that stayed with me, Jende plucks up the courage to tell his employer that Cindy is looking worryingly thin. “You should tell her that she lost weight,” Clark replies. “She’ll be glad to hear that.”

Behold the Dreamers is a tough read. Though their suffering is relative, Jende, Neni, Clark, and Cindy all endure extraordinary hardships. While the Jongas love America, it continues to let them down as the threat of deportation looms over them. Meanwhile, the Edwardses struggle to cut back on their privileges and the Lehman Brothers collapse sees Clark retreat even deeper into his work at the expense of his wife’s mental health.

“Jende couldn’t stop wondering why the man was doing this to himself, why, with all the money he’d made, he couldn't pick up and go live a quiet stress-free life somewhere far away from New York City… Why should a man intentionally live his life with one kind of anxiety followed by another? But men like Clark Edwards did not think like that, it appeared. It didn’t seem to be about the money anymore. His life on Wall Street, as suffocating as it was, appeared to be what was giving him air.”

Mbue is a bright storyteller and Behold the Dreamers is an arresting novel that’s filled with fresh, interesting observations about culture and race. I hurtled through its 382-pages in just a couple of days and haven’t stopped recommending it since.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (4th Estate, 2016)

More books by Cameroonian authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:

  • How to Cook Your Husband the African Way by Calixthe Beyala, tr. David Cohen

  • The Amputated Memory by Werewere Liking, tr. Marjolijn de Jager

  • Your Madness Not Mine by Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi

  • Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano, tr. Tamsin Black

  • The Journey’s End by Ba’bila Mutia

  • Mount Pleasant by Patrice Nganang

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Dzekashu MacViban from Bawka for his recommendations for this issue. If you’ve been forwarded this email and you enjoyed it, you can subscribe below.