“Why should a man intentionally live his life with one kind of anxiety followed by another?”
This question pulses throughout Behold the Dreamers, the debut novel by Imbolo Mbue. Mbue tells the story of Jende and Neni, immigrants from Cameroon. The American Dream lures them to New York City and motivates their every decision. At least, that is, at first.
Jende and Neni’s story is chaotic throughout, a sense of disconnect and uncertainty radiating on the page, mirroring the state of the characters’ hearts. Jobs barely pay enough and are often on the line. Neni struggles academically and becomes pregnant with their second child. The Cameroonian culture Jende and Neni carry with them often finds itself at odds with the supposed melting pot of American society. And, far and above all else, Jende’s immigration status is precarious, a work visa soon to expire with no surety of what will happen next.
I confess that the chaos and anxiety of Behold the Dreamers grated against me at first. It often rendered the characters unlikable, or even unknowable. There was just so much going on. I kept wishing for more pages to explore the racism, or classism, or cultural expectations of marriage (Jende and Neni suffered marital conflict resulting in violence more than once).Perhaps Mbue’s purpose was to evoke in me just a tiny bit of the frantic sense of what it is to be an immigrant, to be fixated on a version of a dream that will never come true.
And then there were Jende and Neni’s employers, a wealthy, high society couple, who were so unlike Jende and Neni. . . or were they? They were regularly just as miserable—despite their millions—as Jende and Neni were as they rubbed two pennies together. At times, the two couples seemed like mirror images of each other, the only true difference the resources at their disposal. Any time I read that Jende’s phone was ringing, I felt a surge of apprehension. Each phone call seemed to toss another brick onto the pile that was threatening to crush Jende—his brother back in Cameroon begging for money for their sick father, foreboding news about Jende’s immigration status, a fight with Neni. There was no time to breathe in Behold the Dreamers, no time to absorb.
The tumult of Behold the Dreamers initially led me to question its literary quality. But then, through a book club discussion, I began to wonder if perhaps Mbue’s purpose was to evoke in me just a tiny bit of the frantic sense of what it is to be an immigrant, to be fixated on a version of a dream that will never come true. I considered that she might be painting a world for me in which the deluge of race, class, immigration status, and a host of other factors is simply too much to handle, to package neatly or communicate succinctly.
And then I wondered what it is, exactly, that I come to books for. Why was my instinct upon reading a somewhat chaotic story to assume that it was a lower quality read? There is nothing wrong with reading for comfort, but am I reading only for comfort? In a way, I started to see my own heart’s affair with the American Dream—I’d like life to be easy, please. I want a comforting story that gives me a double sense of satisfaction—both the comfort of the story itself, and the fact that I feel I earned the comfort after a hard day. Stretch my imagination, sure, but only with beauty, only with intellect, only with a story I can keep an arm’s length away if I so desire. Don’t disrupt me on my quest for comfort.
Why should I live my life with one kind of intentional anxiety followed by another?
Jende and Neni ultimately forego the American Dream and return to Cameroon. At least their home country is full of devils they know rather than devils they don’t, they determine, and the intentional anxiety of immigration status will be removed. Family is what matters, the characters decide. Even if they are destitute in Cameroon, they’ll have each other.
We are left to wonder how the family’s story unfolds upon their return to Cameroon, but their decision to come home seems to have the same air of romanticism that their early hopes for America did.
America will bring the comfort of success.
It will be better.
Will it be better?
It is not better.
Cameroon will bring the comfort of the familiar.
It will be better.
Will it be better?
I have the same expectation for books I read. I approach them in hopes that they will bring comfort to me—I ask them for a perfect blend of familiarity and newness. If the equation is off, I rush toward generalizations. “I didn’t like that book.” “It’s not well-written.” “I don’t get it.”
The problem with all of this, of course, is that books read me as much as I read them. Behold the Dreamers asked me if I think life is an equation. It asked me if I’m merely looking for perfectly tied bows on packages or if I am willing to forego comfort for the sake of growth, even in my reading life. It asked me what I think the point of reading is—and if it isn’t to enter a story unlike my own, to see or feel or grieve something I have never before seen, felt, or grieved—what am I doing?
The host of issues Jende and Neni face in their everyday lives—racism, sexism, language barriers, immigration confusion, cultural differences—weave together the tapestry of a family that is frayed at the edges. The threads of their common life are strained by simple survival and the tiny hope of thriving. Sometimes they break apart; sometimes they try to rebind. The threads wear thin with each pull, each break, each attempt at a knot that will hold fast.
Life frayed at the edges is normal for so many people, yet for those of us with familial, social, or economic security, it can be easy to turn our eyes away from that fact, even in our reading lives. In my own family’s seasons of chaos, friends and family have brought dinner, babysat our sons, mowed our lawn, cleaned our home, slipped dollar bills into our hands while looking at us with eyes that said “do not even think about refusing this.” If my husband and I were to lose our jobs, if we were unable to pay our bills or our mortgage, we’d move in with one of two sets of parents who would be happy to welcome us as we got back on our feet.
Our safety net is woven tightly, knots that would hold secure under tremendous pressure. This secure life I live often tempts me to forget, or never discover in the first place, that it is a life full of privileges that few others can claim. It tempts me to cultivate my comforts, even in the form of my reading list, at the expense of people who have no such comforts.
The thing about familiar comforts, about reading only what feels like home, is that it reinforces in us the idea that everyone knows what it’s like to feel at home. Reading centered only on our own pleasure, or even our own education, often keeps us from absorbing stories that disrupt or disquiet us, that make us responsible for what we know, that ask us to empathize when we’d rather, well, not.
Perhaps, though, when it comes to our reading lives, we should be willing to add a few “anxieties,” to stretch our minds and probe our hearts through absorbing the written word. Perhaps the small discomforts we feel as we do so will bring to mind the greater discomforts of so many who live alongside us—the Jendes and Nenis, the rich employers—whose lives want for stillness and compassion but cannot find it.
It could be that the turning of a page leads to the turning of a leaf in our day to day lives—eyes to see those we have not before seen, stories in a book leading us to see the true stories all around us.