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Cameroon’s literary gem wins PEN/Faulkner fiction award

Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian-American writer has won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers”. The novelist…

Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian-American writer has won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers”.

The novelist from the coastal resort city of Limbe in Cameroon scoops an award worth $15,000, almost nine million F CFA. The award was announced Tuesday April 4, by PEN/Faulkner Foundation chair Susan Richards Shreve.

Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” chronicles how the fall of one of the world’s biggest investment banks affects an immigrant African family. It is a strikingly timely story about Jende Jonga, a man from Cameroon who hopes to settle his family permanently in the United States. In the opening pages, a Lehman Brothers executive in New York hires Jende to be his chauffeur. Their relationship allows the novel to follow the trajectories of two very different families at opposite ends of America’s economic ladder when the Great Recession hits.

According to the 33-year-old Cameroonian writer, Jende’s tale is informed, in some ways, by her life.  She has recounted stories of how after a childhood of extreme poverty in Cameroon, relatives sponsored her to come to the United States in 1998. She went to college and graduate school and eventually settled in New York; she became a U.S. citizen in 2014. Two years later the book that Mbue wrote at the kitchen table of her tiny New York apartment — often while breastfeeding her babies — is getting the kind of reviews that authors dream of. Her novel reportedly sold to Random House for at least $1 million.

Mbue “Behold the Dreamers”, reveals she knows too well both the immigrant’s boundless optimism and America’s conflicted attitude toward foreigners.

“I am an example of what America offers to immigrants,” Mbue said. “We come here just in awe of this country — in awe — and wanting to be a part of it.”

Her award winning “Behold the Dreamers” demonstrates how heart-breaking the process of becoming an American citizen can be for many. “This story was influenced by people I’ve met who are trying to get papers, trying to become citizens,” Mbue said. “It is something that pretty much every immigrant dreams of.” One of her goals was to show “the pain of illegal immigration for the people who live it. Because right now people hear, ‘Oh, 9 million illegal immigrants!’ and they do not think about the stories behind those numbers, those people, and the struggles of living without papers.”

Mbue is to receive her award at a ceremony on May 6 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.



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