Perhaps one of the saddest moments of the novel is the Jongas’ return to Cameroon. What do you think of this decision? How do you envision their lives if they had tried to stay in America?
Discuss the portrayal of American immigration in this novel. How does this shift the traditional representation of America?
- American immigration stories are often meant to be inspirational. They depict journeys of immigrants picking themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming successful, furthering the American dream. America in these narratives is shown as the land of opportunity, and most importantly the land of equality. Behold the Dreamers moves away from this narrative as it deals with the intersectional identities of the characters. This can be seen with Jende being an immigrant, being perceived as black, and being of low socioeconomic status. Each of these identities equates to an amount of privilege or lack thereof, by addressing this in their everyday interactions it shows that to succeed as an immigrant is much more challenging than Americans wants to believe. Even more so, this book portrays it through a family, showing the strain that being an immigrant can cause and how it leaves lasting effects. This comes to fruition when Neni compiles an assortment of material possessions she is bringing back to Cameroon as a way to enforce her status as a woman of class.
Family and Relationships
How do the Edwards’ private issues and arguments, in relation to their attempts to seem perfect publicly, affect Jende’s understanding of this family? How does it inform our interpretations?
Discuss the parenting styles that the Edwardses and the Jongas utilize. How are they similar? How do they differ? How can our own pathways in life inform the way we direct our children? How do our parents affect our futures and our view of the world?
What are some of the ways Jende and Neni change as individuals over the course of the novel? How does their marriage change? Do you feel this is for the better or worse? How does it speak largely to the way America’s ideals affect the members of its society?
- Both Jende and Neni change drastically over the course of the novel. Jende is no longer the patient and considerate husband he once was, and Neni is no longer as trusting. The most drastic change their marriage undergoes is that it becomes abusive. We see that Neni makes excuses for Jende hitting her as she views the abusive as situational, however, we see how it moves away from situational to domestic abuse. The domestic abuse is pushed to the forefront when Jende brings Neni roses instead of apologizing and having a conversation. This behavior is further normalized as he buys Liomi a videogame after witnessing Jende abusing his mother. This impacts the marriage greatly as the trust Neni had in Jende is broken. This evolution of domestic abuse is a reflection of America’s ideals and American success. Jende and Neni are undeniably exposed to the American idea of success in their contact with the Edwards family. As the Edwards family is the epitome of success to Jende, their marriage inadvertently becomes the standard for success as well. We see the Jongha family slowly start to mirror the Edwards family with the same abusive patterns and coping mechanisms, primarily with the way the women ignore the abuse and even expect it.
Consider the role of the American dream in the novel. How is this ideal defined in the story? In what ways is it manifested in the central men and women of this story? How is manifested differently for characters based on gender?
As the novel progresses, Cindy and Neni’s identities seem to merge. How else are they similar? How are they different? What do they gain from each other? What do they take from each other?
- Both Cindy and Neni gain an awareness of unhappiness regardless that they are from distinctly different social statuses. They come from opposing pasts and have preconceived notions about one another. They both want to keep their families secure and happy although both of them are reduced by their husbands and the ideals of gender in society. The two women differ in the way that Neni seems more self-sufficient. She has to work hard for a successful life in America, where Cindy doesn’t. Cindy seems to have plateaued and is gradually declining even with the expensive lifestyle she lives. Neni is very driven by the idea of the American dream but gains insight from seeing Cindy displeased with her life that money can’t truly measure happiness. Cindy is responsible for Neni’s husband Jende losing his job, which affects the Jonga family’s progression in American society. Neni oppresses Cindy in a way when she tests Cindy’s status of the ideal wife. She forces them to be on equal ground as women. In some way, Neni is gaining power from Cindy’s personal struggle. She threatens to blow up her life if she doesn’t give her family money. Neni exploiting Cindy gives Cindy a sense of personal insight and how much she really cares about how she is perceived by the public eye.
Discuss the character of Clark Edwards. What type of husband and father is he? Would you consider him a good or a bad man?
Discuss the character of Vince Edwards. What do you make of his relationship to his family and his thoughts about his country? How do his opinions play a larger role in the novel?
- Vince has good intentions and recognizes problems in his home country, but he is never able to separate his privilege from his reality. He thinks his country is too materialist, yet he is able to travel to all these developing countries to ‘find himself’ because he grew up wealthy and can purchase–or have his family purchase–plane tickets. If anything ever went wrong in India, he could have his rich family bail him out. He grew up White in America and therefore has the freedom to travel without consequences. In relation to the novel, his opinions are particularly unsettling; he has the same desire for movement across borders like the Jongas and the same desire for some personal fulfillment beyond his home country yet his movement isn’t marred by any sort of struggle. The Jongas’ immigration is about family and success. Vince’s is about wearing dreadlocks and being cultured. While I appreciate his philosophy, it isn’t fully cognizant of why he’s able to have that philosophy in the first place.
Discuss the role of dreams in the novel. How do dreams drive the plot of the novel? What kinds of dreams do these characters wish to achieve? What dreams are deferred?
Consider the theme of power in the novel. How do some of the characters hold power over others? How do they yield this power?
- Intersectional identity is very apparent in this novel. The characters within the story experience oppressiomfrom multiple sources that hold them at a disadvantage. The theme of power ranges between the rich vs the poor, immigration vs citizenship, men vs women, and even race. The Edwards family holds power over the Jonga family because they are already established in America. Clark Edwards has given Jende his job and has economic control over him, in other words, the ability to fire him. Neni Jonga yields to the power Jende has over her when things become abusive between the couple. Instead of confronting the situation and acknowledging that it’s wrong, she takes it because American society tells her its acceptable.
Note: All of these questions are taken from, inspired by, paraphrased from, or added (original student-made additions are in italics) to a selection of the original discussion questions published in the book: Mbue, Imbolo. “Reading Group Guide.” Behold the Dreamers, Penguin Random House, 2017, pp. 395-397.
Every section has a sample answer given. Please feel free to reference our answers as guides or examples while you develop your own answers to the questions.
Nimalah Baaith-Ducharme, Jasmine Edwards, and Casey Nixon ’19