Imbolo Mbue launched her debut novel Behold the Dreamers at Powerhouse Books with a discussion with Cameroonian author Patrice Ngangang. The novel explores immigration and class as it follows the lives of a Ghanaian immigrant in Harlem, New York working for a wealthy family during the great banking crisis.
Mbue first declares she is honored to be sitting alongside Patrice Ngangang calling him the most famous writer from Camaroon.
Mbue began writing stories in 2002 thinking she would enjoy doing it. She focused on narratives about African political issues. She didn’t know about MFA programs, and so she lacks formal training. She just wrote stories.
When she started writing the novel that became Behold the Dreamers, it wasn’t the story she thought she would write. She expected to write something like One Hundred Years of Solitude but with an African setting. She spent nine years trying to write that book but it never materialized. One day she was out for a walk and watched the chauffeurs waiting to pick up their clients. Suddenly she knew what she wanted to write about.
Mbue was born in Cameroon and as a teenager came to the United States. She grew up in an English-speaking portion of Cameroon and though the country is also French-speaking, she never learned French. (Ngangang, by contrast, speaks and writes in French.) Mbue’s education was British-centric, and he grew up reading Dickens and Bronte. When she arrived in the States, was surprised at the poverty she encountered. Her expectations were that life was like The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-air.
“It’s a long difficult journey to a better life in this country,” she says.
Chauffeurs represent an interesting and somewhat unique component of the American class system. While in Africa plenty of people have drivers, Mbue says many fewer Americans have chauffeurs. The class divide between those who have drivers is different in the United States. She knows there are people who have them, but isn’t friends with those people. She says the first time she met an American with a chauffeur was in New York.
New York City plays a major role in the novel and Ngangang describes the city as an important character. Mbue has lived in the city eleven years. “I do love New York!” It is the place she says that she really thought she belonged.
“I struggle with the whole idea of home,” she says, in part because she has memories of the country and the city she left when she came to the United States, but those places are always changing. She says as an immigrant, you are always looking back.
“Many people flee many towns all over the world,” she says, and there are as many reasons as there are people. She says life in Cameroon was a simple one, but wanting more often means having to leave.
The novel does confront issues of class and capitalism as well. She admits that there are flaws within the capitalist system and often there are things done to keep capitalism functioning which are unfair. It is the price to be paid.
As a writer on the cusp of great success, many different groups are now trying to claim Mbue. She tries to clarify: “I am Cameroon. I am American. They are two different things.”