“The financial crisis laid bare a lot about the ways in which the American dream is not that accessible to everybody,” the writer Imbolo Mbue, originally from Cameroon, recently told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “I was very disillusioned about America.” After losing her job in marketing during the Great Recession, she turned to fiction to explore that disillusionment. Behold the Dreamers, her debut novel, opens in 2007 and follows Jende and Neni Jonga, a pair of Cameroonian immigrants whose sights are fixed on “the milk, honey, and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” Both husband and wife go to work for the family of a Lehman Brothers executive. Red flags wave from the first page, signaling disappointment ahead—and visa troubles are on the horizon as well. But whether or not America will have them, they don’t lose faith in its platonic form: “a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers.”
Jade Chang’s debut, The Wangs vs. the World, is fueled by currents of immigrant disenchantment too. It picks up in 2008 just as Lehman Brothers files for Chapter 11, and features a family that has enjoyed decades at a pinnacle perhaps even higher than Mbue’s American executive. But now Charles Wang, a Chinese immigrant who made hundreds of millions running cosmetics factories in southern California, has lost everything. He is “mad at America” and “mad at history,” which propelled his emigration in the first place. (Like Charles, Chang’s Chinese parents came to the U.S. by way of Taiwan.) Forced to give up his home and his business, Charles sets out on a cross-country road trip with his wife and two of his children. As he heads east to stay with his eldest daughter in upstate New York, he dreams of “the land in China” he hopes to reclaim.