Book Club Addresses Cultural Differences

A town-wide book club full of members of a variety of ages, backgrounds and ideologies may seem like a big idea, but with One Book One New Paltz, that idea comes to life every year. 

As a diverse crowd shuffled into Lecture Center 100 on Monday, Oct. 2, author Imbolo Mbue, a native of Limbe, Cameroon and current New York City resident, prepared to speak about her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers in the first event of One Book One New Paltz (OBONP) this year. Faculty, students and fans of the novel settled in to hear Mbue read an excerpt and talk about her process.

“Mbue is a very honest writer,” said sophomore psychology major Ashley Rodriguez. “She spoke so openly about her personal life. I found the event very interesting and made a lot of connections with her personal life to mine.”

Behold the Dreamers is about an immigrant family from Cameroon trying to get by in America by working for a rich, white family in New York City. The book explores the ideas of class, race, immigration, family and the disillusionment of the American Dream. 

Charlene V. Martoni, committee member of OBONP and the conversation moderator began the evening by introducing Mbue and her book, explaining the praise it has received in recent news publications, such as being chosen for Oprah’s book club, and then giving Mbue the floor to kickstart the four-day long series of programs.

 “I was driven by inspiration,” Mbue said. “I was very observant of the class differences in New York City, and I did a lot of research. This book is a love song to many places for me; Cameroon, America, Harlem, and writing this book was a way of going home.”

One Book One New Paltz is a project that began in 2005 and was founded by Dr. Gerald Benjamin, Director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, to promote reading as a way of connecting people in the College and neighborhood. Every year, the committee chooses a book that becomes the “community read,” which is meant to encourage people of all backgrounds to participate in and celebrate their community by having a shared reading experience.

Behold the Dreamers was chosen because it fits the criteria the committee uses in their selection process. The chosen book needs to incorporate many different issues that can open a conversation that is accessible to various groups of people. Mbue’s goal for the book was to focus on empathy and challenge people to think of their world differently and consider other perspectives.

“Everyone deserves empathy, even if we disagree,” Mbue said. “It was hard for me to empathize with rich white people for this book, but I needed to develop empathy for these characters, even if I didn’t understand the struggle of the one percent. I wanted to connect two drastically different worlds.”

Martoni interviewed Mbue and audience members were also invited to participate in the Q&A. Mbue spoke on her inspirations, her struggles in immigration and understanding America and where she hopes to head next from here.

“I dreamt that America was full of rich people and that everyone had a wonderful life. Coming to America I realized how rough it actually is.” she said. “While America is a wonderful country, it has many issues and flaws, and it is not wonderful for everyone.”

The final event of One Book One New Paltz 2017 will take place on Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. in the Elting Memorial Library in the Village of New Paltz, with the book discussion and wrap-up. Behold the Dreamers can be purchased as a paperback in local book stores Barner Books and Inquiring Minds Bookstore for $14.50.