Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers has won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award and she is the first African author to do this. The Cameroonian’s debut novel beat competition from Viet Dinh’s After Disasters, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, and Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist—a shortlist that has been described as “a sign of new diversity in books.”
The $15,000 award, given by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, prides itself as “America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction.” In 2016, Julie Iromuanya’s Mr. and Mrs. Doctor was shortlisted.
Imbolo Mbue became famous when the manuscript for Behold the Dreamers, then titled The Longings of Jende Jonga, earned her a $1 million advance. The novel was named one of the best books of 2016 by several top publications, including The New York Times Book Review, NPR, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Guardian. Here is a description of the book by its publishers Penguin Random House.
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.
When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
Mbue will receive her award on May 6 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The other finalists will each receive $5,000.
On the judging panel is Chris Abani who, alongside Chantel Acevedo and Sigrid Nunez, considered about 500 novels and story collections published by Americans in 2016.
Congratulations to Imbolo Mbue! We are excited for her.