Rutgers alumna wins prestigious PEN/Faulkner award for 'Behold the Dreamers'
Earlier this month, Rutgers alumna
The annual award is among the most highly regarded in literature. Among its past recipients is Philip Roth, a Rutgers—Newark graduate who went on to win both the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award for fiction.
“Behold the Dreamers,” Mbue’s first finalized novel, was published last year by Penguin Random House, and quickly gained popularity for its intersectional approach to the American dream during the 2007 economic downturn. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Targum, Mbue said her story was influenced by her experiences living in New York City during this period of uncertainty.
“In 2011, I was unemployed and I went out for a walk one day and noticed chauffeurs waiting in front of a building in front of the Time Warner building and so I was really intrigued by the relationship between the chauffeurs and the men they worked for. I wanted to write a story about how the economic crisis affected the lives of the immigrant chauffeur and the executive he worked for,” she said. “So my original intention was to write about the financial crisis in two very different families and the different ways the financial crisis affected them.”
Mbue was born in Cameroon and moved to the United States to earn her bachelor's degree at Rutgers. It was at Rutgers that she began to find her footing and after attending graduate school at Columbia, she decided to move to Manhattan.
Mbue was a student at Douglass College but she said she didn’t start writing until after she graduated. She was first inspired to put her pen to the page after reading “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison.
“I think what Rutgers did for me was it made me who I am,” she said. “I think that had to do with who I met there.”
She said that many of the friends that she made at the University remain her friends today and that some of them attended the PEN/Faulkner Award Ceremony to support her. In her interview, she mentioned that Rutgers alumnus and author Junot Diaz was one of her greatest inspirations.
“Rutgers was a just wonderful experience. I remember taking the EE bus from College Avenue to Douglass (campus). I use to live on Douglass. It was all around a wonderful experience. After I left Rutgers and I went into the real world I saw how wonderful it was to be cocooned in New Brunswick, to be protected from the outside of Rutgers. You know, life got more challenging,” she said.
In addition to winning $15,000 for the PEN/Faulkner award, “Behold the Dreamers” garnered a slew of positive reviews from outlets including The New York Times and NPR.
The Washington Post described the novel as “the one novel (President) Donald (J.) Trump should read now,” while The New York Times pointed to the underlying optimism that persists throughout the piece.
“‘Behold the Dreamers’ is a capacious, big-hearted novel,” The Times review says, “Near the end of it, Neni describes America as ‘a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers.’ That might aptly describe the book as well.”
The book focuses on the story of two immigrants, Jende and Neni, who move to Harlem from Cameroon. On a visitor’s visa, Jende earns a position as a chauffeur for a wealthy Lehman Brothers executive who lives on the Upper East side.
As the recession hits, both families are affected, but in drastically different ways.
“This is my first novel so obviously it was a very new experience for me because I've written a lot of stories, but writing this particular story was different,” Mbue said. “It took a lot of writing and rewriting and learning about the characters and trying to move the story ahead and shape it and take it in a direction that it had to go.”
Mbue said she was humbled by the critical acclaim that “Behold the Dreamers” attracted, but she never expected or actively pursued it while drafting her work.
“I think any writer would do a lot of things because of their passion and love,” she said. “I did not think about the Pen Faulkner for one second because I wanted to write this story and tell it completely and tell it honestly, and tell it to the best of my ability. And that took me a long time. It took me almost five years total to write this novel.”
Prior to “Behold the Dreamers,” Mbue said she spent nine years writing other stories.
She said she dropped her other work to focus on this story. In the current climate, she said it holds particular importance because it tells a story of immigration on a personal level rather than simply a political one.
“One thing that I have taught myself to do is to have more empathy for other people, to understand other people’s perspective, to listen to other people’s stories, and to try to consider that other people have their own dreams and goals that matter to them,” she said.
Her final product, Mbue said, was a human story — one that could be understood on a universal level, but was still fundamentally centered on the vibrancy and energy of New York City. She described her novel, in part, as an homage to the Manhattan itself.
“New York City was very instrumental in me really finding myself as a writer,”
Kira Herzog is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. She is the news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @kiraherzog1 for more.