The year 2007 was one of no return for me. Having previously visited it every year and a half, the last time I went to Cameroon was that Christmas, as the first shockwaves of the financial crisis were emerging. It’s this time frame that serves as the nexus of Cameroonian newcomer Imbolo Mbue’s much-awaited novel Behold the Dreamers.
Originally entitled The Longings of Jende Jonga, Mbue’s first title deftly explores themes of migration, family, social mobility, and success through the lens of the eponymous cab driver who moves from Cameroon’s Limbe to New York City on a travel visa, in search of a better life. His employer, Clark Edwards, is a Lehman Brothers senior executive with a troubled socialite wife Cindy and two boys. Jende becomes embroiled in the Edwardses’ family drama as they fall from grace. The book asks: what’s the cost of “making it,” and ultimately, its value?
Having recently returned from my first trip to Brooklyn, I see myself reflected in Jende’s tyro rose-tinted binoculars. Cameroon, born 1960, was under the double jeopardy of France and Britain’s rule after Germany lost its share post-World War I, hence French and English as official languages and a lack of official Cameroonian dialect out of hundreds. It’s a beautiful oxymoron: although travel agents may refer to it as “Africa in miniature,” it is an African country you rarely hear about in global popular culture (football excluded)—its influence pervasive but unspoken.
CAMEROON IN POP CULTURE
What Shakira sang as “Waka Waka,” the hymn for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is in fact a popular Cameroonian song called “Zamina mina (Zangalewa)” by Golden Sounds from the eighties celebrating Cameroonian World War II veterans. The admittedly catchy “mama-se, mama-sa, mama-kossa” line used by Michael Jackson in “Want to Be Startin’ Something” and later Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music” is something we have jazz makossa sensation Manu Dibango to thank for. With such instances of even people of colour utilizing but never acknowledging Cameroon’s contributions, representations of my heritage can feel invisible. But as I hold onto the materialized apogee of my literary hunger for Cameroonian representation, my left hand roots for the livery driver while the other cheers on for the Ivy League-educated New York novelist. I am an in-betweener, my parents’ daughter, pondering those success stories and the expectations that come with them.
Indeed, the most memorable aspect of this novel is its unravelling of succeeding within capitalism. (There is a noteworthy parallel between Jonga’s race for success and the novel’s own 2014 $1 million advance.) The oft-fatal capitalist anxiety that ultimately consumes working class-born Cindy Edwards is central to the very idea of the American Dream and is exemplified in iconic works like Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart serves as a West African counterweight, illustrating the price of (forced) assimilation. So much of Jende and his shrewd wife Neni’s decision to move to New York rests on the idea of “making it.” Not just for their own sake and the opportunity of a better life, but also for the relatives back home counting on them for regular money transfers and the confirmation that, if not back home, social mobility is a reality somewhere. The performative pressure of falling short of anything great is significant and toxic.
Neni arrives to America with dreams of becoming a pharmacist. Hers and Jende’s “success” is arguable. They leave with a fortune by Cameroonian standards, but initially feel they are letting their son Liomi and American-born baby daughter Timba down. Yet, the symbolism of celebrating their departure to the backdrop of Ivorian music (“blazo, blazo, zoblazo, on a gagné!”, or “we have won!”) with their African friends suggests a belated shifting notion of success being synonymous with being in the West. But there is no doubt Mbue does delivers on readers’ demands of greatness. If at least on an emotional, cultural level, by providing girls like me with complex cultural reflections previously excluded.
FINDING MYSELF ON THE PAGE
While I was born and bred in Brussels, Belgium, where Dutch (Flemish) and French coexist, Maman is a local from the Cameroonian coast who grew up in Edea, a few hours from Mbue and Jende’s Limbe. I can viscerally recall the rickety house in Edea way past the markets where we would visit my now late grandma, its one broken aluminum tile and kaleidoscopic lizards crawling up the walls coolly. We would sit and drink multicolored TOP sodas, served in icy pint-sized bottles with likely three times the recommended daily sugar intake. When I went to Brooklyn this summer, I was struck by the reality of the proverbial brownstones and the perennial wealth disparities synonymous with America. Albeit predominantly Anglophone, Limbe is a place where I have family and grew up hearing about, like Edea, but could not gossip about with friends like with Antwerp, London, Paris, or New York. So to have Mbue conflate Limbe’s “money doublers” [fraudulent gamblers] from the market with Wall Street bankers came as a revelation.
Until recent years, things from Cameroon were something I could only really discuss with my relatives. My discourse was mostly embedded in anecdotes or oral history. Le pays spoke in dark sedan five-seaters where singers like Nguea La Route, Dora Decca, Francis Bebey, Manu Dibango and friends taught my stubborn limbs rhythm after I was begged to discontinue my ballet and jazz dance class efforts. It lived on cherry tree tables for twelve where my mother would lay out the very fried ripe plantains, poulet DG, ndole, and puff puffs [beignets] that Mbue describes; foods that are both my parents’ madeleines, and half of mine.
Talking about Papa’s homestead of Bafou, a village on the outskirts of the town of Dschang in the mountainous West, has always felt like an in-joke that only existed on my relatives’ lips. On occasions where I tried to discuss traditions like burials ceremonies of ancestors from Bamileke communities with friends in Belgium, I was met with the same reaction as Wednesday Addams trading stories with the straight suburban kids. Yet, I have always dressed like a Rubik’s cube; like a Kaba dress pattern.
My African identity was, for the most part, something nurtured at home, whereas my European-self reigned in my 95 percent white school and at indie gigs. And while my parents each speak about three Cameroonian dialects, their common one being French facilitated the maintenance of this subtle yet noteworthy compartmentalization of cultural markers. The micro is reflected on the macro through the fragmented state of Cameroonian literature, divided between Francophone and Anglophone like the country itself. It’s not so much that I did not exist before (too solipsistic), as much as that my existence on the page previously was a map pinned to a wall but now is shaping up into a globe. Something tangible.
TAKING “THE WEST” OUT OF WEST AFRICA (AND VICE VERSA)
There are arguments about an overload of immigrant stories, some of them valid. It has been done, many times. But while Nigerians or Ghanean may share some of our traditions, Africa is synonymous with cultural vastness, as are humans, as is Cameroon. Just as one would not argue there are too many novels about “love,” or “family,” in a world as globalized as ours how can we say there are too many about immigration? I now feel if I can at least gift Behold the Dreamers, some of my cultural markers may emerge, like a mesmerizing yet previously shaded quarter of the moon.
But ultimately, Jende is not me: the conclusion of this novel illustrates the importance of curbing brain drain in a definitive way I cannot yet adopt as my own. Unlike Jende, I grew up—as Vampire Weekend would put it—“A Diplomat’s Son.” My father was headhunted to Europe to work as an expat. My origin story overlaps with a Californian university best friend with whom I studied film and for whom I flew across the Atlantic this summer. Our fathers studied engineering together at a university in the Midwest, unwittingly graduating in the same cohort back when people who looked like my dad or me could not vote, or even kiss white people. Forty years later, she and I graduated together in London, where we now both reside. I had a white significant other; she married a Sikh British doctor. Each migration story is different. Many of us are in-betweeners, European and African, or African and American at once. Why deny these complex identities? With Behold the Dreamers, Mbue illuminates an unsung cultural influencer. A 1962 letter from JFK to Ahmadou Ahidjo, Cameroon’s first president (out of two to date) reads: “We welcome you as the second youngest president in the world of a very young country.” Fast forward to a modern America whose Republican presidential candidate is advocating mass deportations. Through the ultimate rejection of the West as a benchmark for success, this tale stands as a much-needed critique of the price of assimilation, but also an ode to Cameroon, Africa’s forgotten nation. If you don’t know us yet, here we are: behold.