Is there an objective standard against which to measure the success of a literary work? Of course, no two critics ever think the same. Readers, critics and reviewers are like carpenters; each has their own method of working. To every assignment, metaphorically speaking, each brings their own hammer. Some readers’ hammers have been trained to nail social-political commentary in the books they read. Others find cultural clashes, tradition versus modernity dichotomies. Then there are those who find gender disparities in every story, while others spend time fawning over the finely wrought prose and dismiss books with lines that do not bring pleasure to the mind. When creative writers read and review work by other writers, they bring their various anxieties to the books they read.
A case in point is 2013 Caine Prize-winner Tope Folarin’s much-talked about essay, ‘Against Accessibility: On Robert Irwin, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. The essay was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In his reading of Behold the Dreamers, Folarin takes the opportunity to make an important point about the ‘accessibility’ of African and black writing to white audiences in Europe and North America. In Folarin’s observation, Behold the Dreamers belongs to the staple of African immigrant novels, backed by white-run publishing houses, which do not offend the tastes of white readers.
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Folarin argues, follows in the footsteps of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, because Adichie’s voice has become the ‘accessible’ African way to write. There can only be one black or African writer at a time, and while for the earlier generations that writer was Achebe, for the contemporary generation it is Adichie, Folarin argues. To achieve literary success as Folarin defines it, one will need to ‘Adichiefy’ their work.
The American critic Aaron Bady responded to Folarin’s essay, revealing that the latter’s focus limits itself to African novels published by the ‘Big Five’ New York-based publishing conglomerates. He adds that Adichie joined the immigrant African Literature train too late to be considered its driver. Her Americanah came in the same year that NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go were published. Okey Ndibe (Foreign Gods Inc.), Dinaw Mengistu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air), Brian Chikwava (Harare North) and Chika Unigwe (On Black Sisters’ Street) were already driving the immigrant-African literature train, Bady informs us. When Bady got his chance to review the novel, he put it in conversation with Jonathan Franzen and announced to the world that Behold the Dreamers is an American novel.
For a reader with other dominant lenses through which he sees literature, reading the conversation around the book before my own reading meant that I came to Behold the Dreamers with more biases than my default ones.
Jende and Neni, the couple around which the story rotates, the lovers whose fortunes and misfortunes drive the story, are Cameroonian immigrants to the United States of America. Unlike Ifemelu, the heroine of Americanah, who comes from a middle-class family in Nigeria and occupies middle-class spaces in America, Jende and Neni belong to the lower classes in both their African and American homes. Jende drives a cab for a living before landing a job as a chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a senior executive at the infamous investment bank Lehman Brothers.
From the point Jende meets Clark, class contrast overwhelms the novel’s thematic concerns;likewise, when Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni employment as a domestic helper. The questions that arise are plenty: Can people from vastly different class backgrounds relate as human beings? Can they trust each other?
Bubbling underneath all this are also questions of love and marriage. The trials and tribulations that Jende and Neni encounter in their relationship, the challenges in the Edwards’ marriage and the comparable but understated patriarchal domination of male partners of their female counterparts in both relationships stand too tall to ignore.
Imbolo Mbue has written a magnificently textured work that interrogates several different themes and one of her more admirable traits as a writer is how she manages to keep the thematic threads tied together, making disentangling them into an impossible task. At no point does the reader forget the ways in which the 2008 economic meltdown affected those who lived in the United States and elsewhere, neither is there room to ignore the fact that the lives of Jende and Neni and their immigrant friends in the US are often glossed over in many a debate on migration.
Love, class, immigration and the economic crisis are the novel’s four big themes and Behold the Dreamers will satisfy any reader for its ability to cover as much ground as possible in only 382 pages, without being all over the place. There is something for everyone, depending on the hammer they carry. Those keen on religion will find Neni in church, and those who want to explore child-parent relationships have a feast ready for them, too. To read it only as Immigrant African Literature is to do the book a disservice. But then again, we are all allowed to carry our hammers and to find the nails they need to be useful.