All immigrants live a variation of the biblical act made famous by Lot’s wife: They always look back.
It may be a fleeting thing, or something more prolonged, but the yearning to return or revisit is strong, even when life is “better” wherever they’ve settled. For children of immigrants – many of us born in the New World and bearing names from lands we may never even see – the tale of returning “home”, as told by our parents and grandparents, is familiar. In time, many of us even come to sing it ourselves.
The story of a hopeful young man and woman crossing an ocean and wishing to someday return from whence they came is not only something I have read about; it is something I have lived with my entire life. My parents told us fairly early on that the plan had never been to have us children in the UK. They arrived (separately, but as an established couple) in London in the ’70s to study, work hard, and return home. Nigeria as they had left it was still a very young country – barely in her teens – and the work to be done was laid out for them. But when they and their friends began having children, leaving became harder if not fully impossible. Through the years, their hold on the dream of returning home (at this point my mother has spent more of her life in London than the city of her birth) never weakened.
Immigrants are planners, despite the sometimes cruel curveballs their status throws them – I know so many whose final resting places (“long from now, amen!”) have been picked out in the motherland. Death is the universal story, and for immigrants whose life narratives have been dictated by the whims of so many – from the embassy clerk to the border control officer to the landlord and the would-be employer – the perfect, decisive symmetry of actively choosing the place to die and be buried is too pleasing to give up.
What has always been more interesting to me, however, is the life lived in the meantime; in the years before being committed back to their patch of African earth. And how these stories have been documented and repackaged in works of fiction over the years.
The first immigrant narrative I remember reading is Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, cited by many Nigerian-Brits of a certain age as a tour de force in literary cinéma vérité. It was, for me, an alien read in many ways. My parents, my grandparents, and my siblings and I lived very different lives from those depicted in the book, most notable in the casual cruelty that was inflicted on its protagonist, Adah. Adah is one of those women whose lives would be infinitely better without their terrible husbands. Her triumphs and woes are symptomatic of more than what she is (an immigrant) – they become more spectacular or pitiful because of the space she occupies (cold, grey, and wet London) and the time in which she lives (the overtly racist and not-great-for-women-of-any-race 1970s).
Despite my natural resistance to the idea that African literature’s first job is to educate, i.e. as an act of anthropology via lyrical prose, Adah’s story is a mirror to the life of the author: Emecheta arrived in the UK as a very young woman in the 1960s and lived with an abusive and violent husband who burned her first manuscript. There is no such thing as the immigrant tale, but the world of Emecheta’s novel was real enough to paint at least one vivid picture of one immigrant’s life. The singular story held notes of the universal.
And because of this, Emecheta’s story was deeply resonant for my parents’ generation, illustrating the isolation of being a foreigner in a foreign land and the stress of navigating a new social and physical landscape. They were the ones who had to take jobs well below their education level, the ones who dealt with overtly racist landlords (spoiler: those still exist, even if their methods of discrimination are now more cloaked), the ones who had to foster their children to kindly white families so they could go out and work. But the child of an immigrant is a different kind of “immigrant”; even if the surface (e.g. our new “native” accent) suggests otherwise, we inherit so much more from our parents. This includes their stories, which are absorbed through a filter of mild incomprehension; my reading of Emecheta’s book felt somewhat detached as a result.
In Imbolo Mbue’s new novel, Behold the Dreamers, the immigrants are closer to my age than they are to my parents’, and their tale is littered with memories and confirmations. Jende and Neni Jonga are two Cameroonians in a long-term love match (a child provides some of the evidence of their bond). Jende, like many other men in his position, is the provider and main breadwinner – he works every hour he can to make and save money so he can send for his wife and son to come and join him in New York. Their arrival coincides with the start of a period of great turmoil for America and large swaths of the world – the beginning of the financial crash that wiped billions off the values of people’s savings and investments. Mbue makes the global resonate in infinitesimal and personal ways: Jende lands a job as the chauffeur of a man intimately tied to Wall Street, and his destiny – as well as his wife's and child's – becomes linked to that of a man who wields the kind of power Jende will likely never have in this world, or any other.
Beyond hitting all the beats of a novel of its size and style, Behold the Dreamers is full of rich details of immigrant life. Neni’s interior life is written out explicitly – she sings while she irons her husband’s shirts and applies lipstick on her way to African parties, whether they be “a naming ceremony in the Bronx” or “a death celebration in Yonkers for someone who died in Africa and whom practically none of the guests knew”. Jende takes “the last piece of plantain from the plate” and uses it “to clean the tomato sauce bowl, and rush it, together with the last piece of chicken, into his mouth.” When Jende meets Leah, a colleague, he wonders if she is “one of those American women whose knowledge of Africa [was] based largely on movies and National Geographic and thirdhand information from someone who knew someone who had been to somewhere on the continent...” On Christmas morning the Jongas eat fried ripe plantains and beans and exchange no gifts; in my house our Christmas meal was usually Nigerian fried rice, fried plantains, and, in the one concession to Britain, roast turkey or duck plus stuffing. Their natural references are also steeped in African imagery, most eye-catchingly when Mbue describes Jende’s internal grin as “wider than the Great Rift Valley.” It reminded me of the time I overheard my mother counting under her breath in Yoruba. When I expressed surprise at what was clearly instinctive, she told me that wasn’t the only thing she still did in her mother tongue – specifically, she routinely dreamed in Ijebu, the dialect she had grown up speaking.
Perhaps most notably, Neni’s friendships with other Cameroonian women (with names like Fatou and Betty) are written cleanly and with a scope that is usually only often afforded to white characters – immigrants talk about so much more than their immigration status, and African immigrants don’t spend all day pondering their blackness. Neni and Jende’s relationship is particularly tender: They call each other “bebé” unselfconsciously; Mbue dedicates entire paragraphs to their romantic connection. But she also explores the precariousness of the Jongas' immigration status in minute detail. That she does this while also colouring in the rest of their lives is a simple but incredibly powerful refusal to overexplain. This is more than a field study of the greater spotted African immigrant. The African characters in Behold the Dreamers would never describe it in these words, but in the moments that Mbue lets us in on their conversations, they never seem to be speaking from beneath the oppressive spectre of the white gaze.
In Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian immigrant Ifemelu and Obinze acknowledge whiteness in direct ways: Ifemelu, who arrives in the US as a young student, writes her blog and understands that her readership is mixed, and so occasionally does explainers; over in the UK, Obinze sees how proximity to whiteness alters his childhood friend. But Adichie wraps them in their Nigerianness, writing about the teaching strikes that marred much of Nigerian higher education in the 1980s and 1990s, and simply not providing translations for the Igbo the characters break into from time to time. Mbue does the same with Neni, who breaks into her first language while she is joyous and singing.
There is no glossary. Use your context clues.
Even with the penchant for looking back that is common to immigrants, my broad experience suggests they fall roughly into two camps: those with one foot firmly planted in the old country, and those for whom the mantra might well be “forward, never back”. Jende and Neni start off more or less in the same camp (America is the only place for them to thrive, much as they look back at their hometown of Limbe), and throughout Behold the Dreamers they are in constant movement, their positions strengthened or weakened as the ground in America keeps shifting beneath their feet. Neni’s arrival in New York is her dream realised. Mbue writes, “Limbe was now some faraway town, a place [Neni] had loved less with every new day Jende was not there … the town was no longer her beloved hometown but a desolate place she couldn’t wait to get out of.”
Their shift in status throughout the novel is gripping. The dream – American or otherwise – is to be settled and thriving, and the upheaval the Jongas’ instability causes is a rich seam to mine for fiction. But there are other shifts happening on a less dramatic, everyday basis. By travelling further than their own parents, the immigrants of fiction are exposed to the Other, and the result is a broadening of perspective, something immigrants are rarely praised for. Immigrants are often portrayed as stationary rocks, isolated by their own limitations, impermeable and unwilling to assimilate and integrate. The real story is that they are walking examples of a different kind of human evolution: Their leaps are greater, and more daring. Digging in your heels is a luxury not always open to immigrants. Once you’ve landed, your options are to adapt or die.
A couple of years ago I attended a British Council discussion about the state of contemporary writing and the creative future in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. When someone brought up the dearth of memoirs in the Nigerian literary landscape, almost everyone in the room laughed ruefully. Someone joked aloud, “We can’t write memoirs. We’d have to wait for parents to die. Not just parents – everyone who knows us, even!” This concern is not limited to nonfiction.
For so long, the portrayal of immigrants from the continent of Africa has been coloured by the same tropes that serve to centre white narratives in literature, regardless of genre. Novels like Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Adichie’s Americanah, and now Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers are a reminder that we need not wait for our relatives’ demise before we chronicle the many stories that make up contemporary immigration.
Behold the Dreamers will be published on August 23.