[Later this month I start teaching a new online class, a variation of my Ethnic American Lit course that will focus on representations of work in American literature. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such representations, leading up to a special weekend post on some of my favorite pop culture worker-characters!]
On two takeaways from a compelling creative reading and talk.
Sometimes a literary work becomes more and more relevant in the years after its release, perhaps in ways that would surprise even the author. I think that’s the case with Cameroonian American author Imbolo Mbue’s wonderful debut novel Behold the Dreamers (2016). Mbue’s overt focus is on recent social and economic histories, specifically those of the 2008 financial crisis and recession; one of her two central families features Clark Edwards, a high-ranking official at Lehman Brothers, and his disaffected wife Cindy and their two children. She thus initially contrasts and compares the experiences, perspectives, and versions of the American Dream of the novel’s other central family, Cameroonian immigrants Jende and Neni Jonga and their own two young children, to those of Clark and his family (for whom both Jende and Neni end up working in different capacities). But it is more than class or wealth that separate these families—throughout the novel the Jenga’s are fighting to avoid deportation and gain legal (or at least permanent) status in the United States, and it is those battles, always part of our history of course, that feel even more frustratingly salient three years after the novel’s publication, in the age of Trump.
I conceived of the above opening line about this evolution of Mbue’s book surprising even her before I had the chance to hear her read from and talk about Behold the Dreamers at NeMLA 2019’s opening night creative event. But interestingly enough, in that presentation Mbue likewise emphasized that she was her book and its characters mostly through the lens of class; she was specifically responding to a question about the relative absence of race from the book’s thematic engagements, and noted that for her class has been the dominant issue in both her own life experiences and her perspective on the world. Of course there’s no one identity issue or theme that informs human experiences and societies, and certainly the financial crisis in particular both reflected and affected class and social status in America in particular and striking ways. Yet the truth is that immigration status is at least as significant a factor in the experiences of the Jonga family as anything related to the 2008 crash—and if it’s ever been possible to see immigration status as separate from racial and ethnic communities and identities (and I’ve argued in many places that that’s never been the case), the last couple years have made clear just how intertwined those themes are. That doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple ways to read Mbue’s multi-layered novel, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine a 2019 reading that doesn’t engage with these themes of race and ethnicity.
Hearing an author speak about her own work is even more illuminating when it comes to topics like process, and on that note Mbue offered a particularly striking story. I knew this book was her first novel, but of course many writers have multiple projects in development before that first book is published, publish a number of short stories before landing a book deal, or in other ways have established careers or bodies of work prior to that debut novel. Yet in Mbue’s case, the opposite was true—not only had she not published any short stories, but if I understand her correctly she really hadn’t written any (and certainly hadn’t written any other novels). Instead, this novel emerged from her personal experience of the financial crisis on multiple levels—she was laid off from a job in New York City, was walking down the street out of work and increasingly impoverished, and saw a line of chauffeurs waiting to pick up Wall Street executives from their offices. Out of that combination of personal situation and social observation was born the initial idea for Behold the Dreamers, the first extended creative writing Mbue had ever worked on. Of course, she would then work on it for five years and have it rejected by (in her words) “every agent in America other than [her] agent,” which just goes to show that the road to an amazing, “overnight” success might be unique but still has some common threads across many writers.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of work you’d share?