THE STORY is set in New York during the great recession that affects the lives of many New Yorkers and their families. Jende and Neni are the bitter casualties of this reverberating earthquake. Will they overcome?
The book begins on a note of hope and promise, with a spiritual verse that sets the tone for the forthcoming journey to paradise. It is a true reflection of the reality that most immigrants hope to achieve in America, the core theme of which is derived from Deuteronomy 8: 7-9. Incessant prayers become a way of life for many immigrants as they wait for the mailman to deliver the much-dreaded letter from USCIS determining one’s status or as fate would have it – a rude return to motherland.
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig-trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.”
The journey of an economic refugee is not an easy one, especially when the visa expires and one has to face the harsh realities of trying to become legal. In many cases hope turns into misery when the asylum is not approved. The most tortuous journey of them all is when asylum is denied and one goes into deportation hearing.
So, does Jende’s journey begin. Jende comes to America on a visitor’s visa, promising to return to Limbe after three months but deliberately overstays his visa. This is the lot of many Diaspora individuals who find themselves relegated to undocumented immigrants or “Illegal Aliens” after running out of status. They spend their lives in a cat and mouse game with the immigration police and ingenuously find ways to survive. Life back home is tortuous to many and they’d rather go through any form of American experience no matter how difficult than return to their motherland. Stories rave among undocumented immigrants of experiences back home where they had to fight with snakes over snake eggs for a meal, fighting with lions, leopards, poisonous snakes and other wild animals in Maasai land and other animal reserves, forced female genital mutilation, childhood marriages, elderly women accused of being witches and burnt to death, trekking long distances for dirty contaminated water and endless war involving rape and sodomy of girls and boys.
Imbolo Mbue pays attention to detail as she describes the tortuous visa process that non-Americans have to go through at the embassy to get their visa approved. Her husband Jende Jonga is one such example.
“And he had submitted evidence to back his claims; his work supervisor’s letter describing him as a diligent employee who loved his job so much he would never abandon it to go roam around aimlessly in America; his son’s birth certificate, to show he would never remain in America and desert his child; the title on a piece of land his father had given him, to show he intended to return and build on the land; a letter from the town planning office, which he’d paid a distance uncle who worked in the office to get for him, stating that he had applied for a permit to build a house, a letter from a friend who swore under oath that Jende wasn’t going to remain in America because they were going to open a drinking spot together when he returned. The consular officer had been convinced.” (Page18,19)
For Jende, like many Africans who get a chance to hold that dear visa, he definitely has no plans to return home soon, until he realizes the American dream. He may review this when he gets a green card or an American citizenship. Jende is lucky to get a job with a senor executive at Lehman brothers.
The characters in this book spend their lives chasing happiness or rather the wind than appreciating the moment and living it. The American dream is always elusive and just when one thinks they are getting there, slips out with incomprehensible twists and turns of event. Illnesses, loss of jobs, family tensions and marriage challenges sit on the dream and fossilize it. The question is, how long will one wait until the American dream actualizes? Bills take over relationships as work and job search become masters of one’s life.
Jende, with best intentions to provide the best life for his family brings his wife Neni to the US. He then applies for asylum with the help of a lawyer Mr. Bubakar, citing fear of being killed by his wife’s family. The immigration judge rejects Jende’s story and he is in shock. The attorney says he is not surprised because the immigration woman asked them to wait for asylum decision in the mail instead of going to pick it up after a couple of weeks. Bubakar, however advises Jendi that there are many ways to keep him in the US before he can be deported. The challenges of working with cunning lawyers who fleece the vulnerable clients and promise them heaven on earth including talking to the judges so that the case may succeed.
Jende’s fear is typical of that of many immigrants – the fear of going back home with nothing to show for it.
The fear of returning to one’s parents’ crumbling house when all along one has been posting pictures of themselves and their posh cars at a beach in Florida, or at a Casino in Las Vegas on Facebook as one’s parents starve back home makes the fear of returning home real. This necessitates some creative juices, of telling a clever lie when one gets back home because as the Jendes imagine, that would be the only way to escape the shame and indignity of landing at the local airport, not knowing your brother or mother’s telephone number.
The author skillfully uses flashbacks and powerful imagery to reflect a rich Cameroonian culture and the different planes of consciousness in which Jende and Neni think while in Limbe as opposed to when they are in the US. The transformation in the couple’s lives is shattering and what would have seemed impossible and unacceptable thoughts and behavior in Limbe become their new normal in America. The ground shifts and the African adage that says “you can remove an African out of the village to the city but you cannot remove the village in him” collapses irrevocably. Jende and Neni become Americanized and grasps opportunities, sometimes with the greed of a hyena. Self preservation becomes a priority and their naïve nature when they arrive in the US is overrode by mature, ruthless, survival tactics.
The desperation of Jende and Neni to succeed in America is so strong that they lead desperate lives trying to survive against many odds. The couple is introduced to the tricky American dream and the lies and survival tactics one has to live with to escape Homeland Security. Jendi works as a personal driver to Mr. Edwards, a corporate Wall Street business man while Neni pursues a degree in Pharmacy. She wants to pass her exam so much that she secretly meets her gay Math Professor to tuition her at a hotel without her husband’s knowledge. She comes across one of the many culture shock of the LGBTQ community and how the American community embraces it. She simply fails to understand how one man can love another man.
Jende works with his rogue lawyer who is known for his expertise in creating stories on false persecutions back home and has long term payment plans for clients who cannot pay him back. He advises Jendi to avoid police like the plague, and not to worry about things that may never happen.
“Listen to me,” Bubakar said, somewhat impatiently. “As far as immigration is concerned, there are many things that are illegal and many that are gray and by ‘gray’ I mean the things that are illegal but which the government doesn’t want to spend time worrying about. You understand me abi? My advice to someone like you is to always stay close to the gray area and keep yourself and your family safe. Stay away from any place where you can run into police – that’s the advice I give to you and to all young black men in this country. The police is for the protection of white people my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh?” (Page 73, 74)
The lawyer advises Jendi that maybe one day, perhaps when Obama or Hillary, if one of them becomes president will give everyone papers. Hillary loves immigrants and Obama must know some Kenyan people without papers he may want to help, the lawyer claims.
As if evading immigration is not enough, Jende and Neni go through other pressures that will simply not grant them the joy and peace they had anticipated to find in the US. The high expectations, demands and burdens from home, family and other relatives send them on guilt trips. Jende has to deal with nightmares and dreams sent by a relative dying from cancer. The dream is triggered by the fact that he did not send money home when asked.
Such dreams often affect immigrants and lead to depression especially for those that do not support people back home – whether by way of paying school fees, supporting relatives in hospital and not traveling home to attend funerals of immediate family members. What is obvious from this story is that many immigrants do not do their research on the realities of American life before applying for that visa. Their vision of America depends on the movies, magazines and stories of celebrities in Hollywood. They arrive with false expectations and no plan B in case they lose their jobs or the dream does not materialize. The book is a good tutorial on how to prepare for the American dream.
Instead of realizing the American dream, Jende’s dreams shift to disturbing nightmares. He dreams of being back in Limbe with his friend Bosco strolling through the market on a market day. The wind pushes against him, and deters him from moving forward. He runs fast like a man being chased by salivating wildcats. He is relieved to get to the beach and jump into the ocean but there is no water _ only a pile of stretches of foul smelling garbage. Jende’s interpretation of the dream is that he has not kept his promise to Bosco.
“Bosco had called him two months earlier, asking for money to take his wife to see a specialist at Bingo Baptist Hospital for pain and swelling in her right breast. The doctor at the government hospital at Mile One hadn’t been able to explain what was wrong with the breast, and Bosco’s wife had been crying incessantly for days, unable to move her right hand. The bobbi dey like say ei don already start rotten for inside, Bosco had said his voice breaking as his wife screamed in the background. Jende had promised to see what he could do. He had done nothing. The night before his dream, he’d spoken to Sapeur, who’d told him that death was coming for Bosco’s wife any day now. The dream was therefore his guilt manifesting, Jende decided. He thought about calling Bosco to see what he could do, but there was no credit on his call card. Besides, he did not think he had any kind of money that could save Bosco’s life. And he had to rush to work.” (Page 169)
The pressures of Jende’s boss losing his job and his wife blackmailing him to snitch about her husband’s escapades with prostitutes causes anxiety and double pressure between Jende and Neni. Besides, Neni has become Americanized and keeps reading Winfrey Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine without paying attention to her husband as he talks to her. She worries about her weight, diet and things she would never worry about in Africa. She has the courage of a lion and is able to blackmail Cindy, Mr. Edwards wife. The pressure cooker in the Jende and Neni kitchen is about to blow off and burn all the food inside. Unless something gives way – hell will break loose. And hell does break loose when Neni surfaces in Mrs. Edward’s living room and blackmails her by showing her photos of herself in a shameful, scandalous drug addiction episode. She threatens to show the pictures to the media if Mrs. Edwards does not give her some handsome cash in exchange for her reputation. Neni succeeds and feels good about it revealing a transformed woman who is ready to do anything to make her family and marriage survive.
Imbolo has mentioned in past interviews how Oprah influenced her writing. She said in an interview;
“Years ago, I went to the library one day in Falls Church, Virginia, to borrow a book and saw a shelf that only had Oprah book club picks,” Mbue, 36, told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview. “And one of the books that caught my eye was Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon.’ And after reading it, I was very much in awe of it (and) thought maybe I would try writing, too.”
Jende reveals the African man tendencies of trying to control his wife especially when he has imported her from Africa. He insists that his wife cannot work or attend classes while expecting their child and cancels her classes without even discussing the matter with her. After a heated argument with him, she surrenders.
“Ultimately, she grew quiet and went to bed defeated, because there was nothing she could do. He had brought her to America. He paid her tuition. He was her protector and advocate. He made decisions for their family. Sometimes he conferred with his decisions. Most times, he did what he deemed best. Always, she had no choice but to obey. That was what he expected of her.” (Page 172)
Neni’s culinary prowess and the sweet smell of Cameroonian food such as cocoyam, smoked fish, cray fish, ripe plantains and puff–puff emanating through the pages introduces us not only to African food but is a powerful connector of Jende and Neni and their six- year-old son with their motherland; America is home away from home.
The book is very strong on characterization and the reader is able to resonate and empathize with these well developed individuals as they reveal their strengths and weaknesses in both challenging and successful situations.
Immigrants of Kenyan descent reading this book will have fits of nostalgia – the urge to advise the characters in this book leaves one helpless as twists and turns of evens change in supersonic speed.
The book raises serious ethical questions on asylum and how the work culture in America is not geared towards building a stable family, but appears as a form of slavery. A family man working three jobs in 24 hours to make ends meet is definitely not conducive to a stable family or parenthood, thus, it is no surprise when Neni and Jende’s love turns sour and hits an all time low. Violence sets in and the fear of Neni calling a 911 on Jende hover in the air. The possibility of Jende being locked up deported, jailed or in a detention camp doing forced labor almost strikes at the heart of this once beautiful marriage. Abusive marriages and violence remain a serious problem among undocumented immigrants in the US, especially imported wives.
About the author
IMBOLO MBUE is the author of the New York Times bestseller, BEHOLD THE DREAMERS, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Blue Metropolis Words to Change Award, and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and the Washington Post and a Best Book of the Year by close to a dozen publications, the novel has been translated into 10 languages, adapted into an opera, and optioned for a movie.
A native of the seaside town of Limbe, Cameroon and a graduate of Rutgers and Columbia universities, Imbolo Mbue currently lives in New York City.
The New African just named Mbue among the 100 most influential persons of the year,
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