Imbolo Mbue has won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” about an immigrant desperate to become a U.S. citizen.

The author Imbolo Mbue has won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers.” (Kiriko Sano)

The $15,000 award, announced Tuesday by PEN/Faulkner Foundation chair Susan Richards Shreve, is “America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction.”

“Behold the Dreamers” (Random House) 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.

Jende’s tale is informed, in some ways, by Mbue’s life. 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. Her novel reportedly sold to Random House for at least $1 million. She knows 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 in an interview with The Washington Post last summer. “We come here just in awe of this country — in awe — and wanting to be a part of it.”

(Random House)

But “Behold the Dreamers” demonstrates how heartbreaking the process of becoming a 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 May 6 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The finalists will receive $5,000 each. They are:

●Viet Dinh, “After Disasters” (Little A).

●Louise Erdrich, “LaRose” (Harper).

●Garth Greenwell, “What Belongs to You” (FSG).

●Sunil Yapa, “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” (Lee Boudreaux).

Chris Abani, Chantel Acevedo and Sigrid Nunez served as this year’s PEN/Faulkner judges. They considered about 500 novels and story collections by American authors published during 2016.

Tickets to the award ceremony, which include dinner and an opportunity to meet the authors, are $100 and can be purchased at or by calling 202-544-7077.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.