Feminism & Neni Jonga in “Behold the Dreamers”

This blog post contains spoilers from Behold the Dreamers.

You were warned.

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Behold the Dreamers is one of my favorite books this year. The story follows Jende, a Cameroonian immigrant who came to America on a visitor’s visa but has no plans to go back to Cameroon once it is up. Eventually, his wife and child, Neni and Liomi, join him, Neni on a visitor’s visa with dreams of being a pharmacist. Jende lands a sweet gig as a chauffeur for an investment banker In NYC, Clark Edwards, and the family sends up praises of gladness for their luck. Then came the 2008 financial crisis. The Lehman brothers, Clark’s employers, files for bankruptcy, and everyone’s stability is shaken. Eventually, Jende decides to return back to their native Cameroon, richer and better off than they came.

But Neni, Jende’s wife, doesn’t want to leave New York City. She’s drunk the Kool-Aid and believes that America is the greatest place on earth. She has giant dreams of becoming a pharmacist, of making it. She’s excelling in her academic program, despite her husband telling her to take time off for her pregnancy with their second child. No matter how much Neni refused, aired her grievances, stated her case for staying, Jende wasn’t having any of it. Since he is the man of the house, his is the final say.

But with others, hers is the final say. To come to America, to marry Jende, Neni defied her father. He didn’t want her to marry Jende but she decided that she would because she wanted to. She bid her time and planned carefully so that she would be able to come to America on a student visa, and marry Jende. Defiance is no stranger to her. Which is why it confused me that she didn’t stick her heels in and refuse to leave America.

Neni also confronted Cindy, Clark’s wife, when it became evident that Cindy was at least in part responsible for Jende’s being fired. A few weeks before, Neni caught Cindy blissed out on a pill cocktail, and promised to keep Cindy’s secret. But when Neni’s husband lost his job, that piece of information became fair game. Neni used it to secure $10,000 to hold her family over. She straight up walked into that white woman’s house and demanded that she fork over mad dough or the world would know she’s a lady in the city and druggie in the Hamptons.

I don’t want to be whitefeminist about it – the bitch who tells women to take off their Burqa, the Feminism Police who says how women should behave. I’m for the Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist-brand of feminism. But it did frustrate me when Neni ended going back with Jende even though she so obviously wanted to stay. Neni could stand up to her father, who was against her marrying Jende, and a white woman who had the power to make her life way harder than it already was.

That shit took guts.

She wasn’t afraid of any of them. She went against them confidently and unapologetically. With them, she acted in her best interest. But with her husband, she accepted his plan like she accepted his name.

Is it because Jende is her husband? Does he get some sort of honor that no-one else has access to? Is it because she doesn’t want a go of it on her own in a foreign country? I’ve been seriously trying to make sense of it, but I suppose that confusion will always be part of it. Lots of women’s choices confuse me sometimes, as mine do them, I’m sure. And in the end I would never try to assert my will over hers just because I’m right.

But I guess a life in America, to Neni, wasn’t really a dream without Jende.


(Photo by hannah cauhepe)