The white picket fence with a rose garden out front; a four-bedroom home with 2.5 children and a quarter-acre backyard, including enough room for a swing and a grill; A stable job with a 20-minute commute into town and enough to pay off the mortgage. To many, this is the “American Dream.” To others, like myself, I think of the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. It might seem hunky-dory but there’s something festering and just not right underneath.
I’m not knocking people if they have those aspirations — I’m simply saying they’re imperfect. Imbolo Mbue takes the nature of the American Dream to task in her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August 23 2016). Two families are falling apart: a poor immigrant couple from Cameroon, the other a banking family that employs them. Set during the eve of the Great Recession, Mbue constructs a timely narrative about the impact the economic crisis had on two opposite ends of the American spectrum. I took the opportunity to ask what she thought of the ever-fluid American Dream in our “One Question and Answer” series.
Question: Behold the Dreamers follows two families, one being rich and powerful on the verge of collapse, and the other an immigrant family caught up in the Great Recession also on the verge of collapse. Both families act as examples of the quintessential ‘American Dream.’ But what is your version, if there is one?
Imbolo Mbue: I don’t suppose I have a version of the “American Dream” because I’m conflicted on the whole idea of the “American Dream.” There was, of course, a time when I fully believed in it, a time before I moved to the U.S., when I thought America was a promised land of sorts. Like Jende and Neni Jonga, the immigrants in my novel, I left Cameroon for the U.S., excited about what lay ahead. I went to college and graduate school here, and then got a job in New York, which I lost during the recession. It was during the recession that, as I’d done during other challenging times in America, I began questioning the definition of the American Dream—and I still question it. I’m not convinced this Dream is accessible to everyone and I certainly don’t believe that hard work is what’s needed to achieve it. I know dozens of people, immigrants and American-born citizens alike, who work hard and are still living in poverty because there are socio-economic challenges that stand in the way of the achievement of that dream for them. No matter how hard a person works, it’s incredibly difficult to afford a house on 10 dollars an hour, never mind paying for one’s child to go to college.
And for many who’ve achieved the Dream on paper, for families like the Edwards family—the American family in my novel who own nice homes and have good-paying jobs and cars and can afford to send their children to good schools and take vacations— there’s still a price to pay to hold that dream life together, and that price sometimes involves working long hours which might undermine a person’s health and lead to other disastrous consequences like broken marriages and fractured families. I have a hard time understanding how someone can be said to be “living the Dream” when they’re paying such a heavy price.
That said, I still believe America is a land of opportunity and I believe that while these opportunities are not offered equally to everyone, they are far more than I could have ever dreamed of in my homeland.