In the aftermath of the great economic collapse of 2008, a newly unemployed immigrant from Cameroon was walking through New York's financial district. With her job gone, she wondered what to do next.
She saw a line of limos waiting outside an office building. Many had an immigrant chauffeur behind the wheel.
"I got this inspiration to write a story about this chauffeur and the executive he works for, and how the financial crisis affected their lives," said Imbolo Mbue. "And that is how I ended up writing this novel called 'Behold the Dreamers.'"
It's now a best-seller. Mbue will read from the novel Tuesday evening in Edina.
When she was a teenager, relatives in Cameroon paid for Mbue to leave West Africa to go to Rutgers University in New Jersey. After graduation, she began to build a life and career in the United States.
She ended up working as a media consultant in a Manhattan office, not far from Lehman Brothers. So she was present in 2008 to witness at close hand the ruin of that institution and the great financial collapse of 2008.
In the novel, which has become a best-seller, the life of a Cameroonian man called Jende changes when he gets an interview to be a driver for a Lehman Brothers executive. As he rides the subway to the appointment, wearing his only suit and carrying his first-ever résumé, he frets.
"Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry."
Jende's on shaky ground with his immigration status, having claimed asylum because he faces life-threatening violence in Cameroon. Mbue says Jende knows it's a weak claim, as it involves a now-resolved dispute with his father-in-law. But his lawyer believes he can make the case. So Jende tells his prospective boss he's legal, and he gets the job.
As Mbue's tale spins out, Jende and his wife Neni become close with Clark Edwards and his high-pressure life. They also become intertwined with Edwards' family when his wife hires Neni as a summer housekeeper. It turns out Edwards is on shaky ground too. He's a workaholic, who knows the depths of Lehman's problems, but can't tell anyone. His wife, who has secrets of her own, believes he is having affairs. Their adult son is disillusioned with his parents, and wants to move to India. There younger son feels the tension around him, and while he doesn't understand it, it makes him unhappy too.
And then comes the crash, making everything worse.
Mbue said she wasn't trying to compare the families. "I wanted to know how it was like for both of them during this particular time in American history," Mbue said.
She also says she wasn't trying to write about immigration. Yet when "Behold the Dreamers" was finished, Mbue found she had a novel about both the crash and immigration, the complexities of family and the American Dream.
"I am an immigrant. I am from West Africa. I still have this accent, and when I go out people are kind to me," she said. "And I think that, ultimately, America loves immigrants."
Like many immigrants, she said, she had long heard about the opportunities available in the United States. "But I don't think that we are really that aware of the challenges of living in this country, and how there are so many issues with class divide, and race, and how hard it is to climb from the bottom to achieve this American Dream," she said.
But Mbue is certainly living the dream. Her book was a New York Times Notable Book of the year, and it made a host of best-books-of-the-year lists. Now out in paperback, it is a 2017 Oprah Book Club selection. She will read at a special event at the Barnes and Noble concept store in Edina Tuesday night. The event features food and wine and a copy of the book for ticket-holders.
She hopes the book will pique the interest of readers about Cameroon.
"It is a small country which you don't exactly hear about," she said. "So I think it is good for us that Americans get to hear a story about people from our country."
That said, Mbue doesn't think her book will be published in Cameroon.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.