Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Keeping Little Bee Simple

Shlomo's picture

I am so enjoying Little Bee.  We are talking on-its-way-to-becoming-one-of-my-favorite-books enjoying.  Part of what I love is how much Chris Cleave elected to leave to our imaginations.  I'm not just talking about Little Bee's past (which, at least at the part I'm at, is murky at best).  I'm also talking about the way the characters look, their emotions, and their surroundings.  At the same time, Cleave provides enough detail to completely blow me away.  Seriously, I know this sounds cheesy, but when I really like things, I can feel them sitting in my chest, and reading Little Bee is like having an inflating balloon on top of my breastbone.

Because of my ardent admiration for Little Bee, I am really nervous to discuss it in class.  I am used to overanalyzing literature in English class--chewing up symbolism and word choice and character names until whatever we have read loses all meaning (sometimes a flower is JUST A FLOWER).  As I have made clear in the past, I often feel like our classroom is the kingdom of overanalysis.  We try to delve so deep into issues that we actually end up discussing...nothing.  We get tripped up on word definitions, minute statistics, and the need to relate everything to gender.  I am not reiterating this to blame anyone; I am guilty too.  Rather, I am resharing it in the hope that we will take a different course with Little Bee.  Some things are too beautiful to be overanalyzed.  I want to discuss the novel, but let's please let Little Bee speak for itself.


AmyMay's picture

Gender and giving voice

I have to agree with you, I REALLY liked Little Bee. Besides being a beautiful story, something about the timing just seemed so right. I don't think I've ever felt so thankful at Thanksgiving before. I actually read it on the plane ride home, so it really made me think a bit harder about what "globalization' means to different people. Typically when i've talked about globalization in academic settings, the porous nature of societies and nations has been assumed. This book made me think differently about what societies are truly porous, and more importantly, for whom they are porous. Nationality, race, wealth, and gender all seem to be relevant factors in Little Bee's experience of being locked out of the U.K. I was also struck by how important the U.K.'s public stance on Nigeria was to her attempt to gain access to a better life. It certainly put a personal spin on something seemingly so bureaucratic as public acknowledgement of one nation by another nation. I think this truly shows how, in a practical sense, people are entangled. Decisions made by elites behind closed doors on U.K. soil had a huge effect on Little Bee's treatment and ability to survive. Her fate was not just tied to her own nation, but to other nations, international relations, and the flow of money and natural resources across borders. Even more so than with Paul Farmer's book, Little Bee left me frustrated. With issues so international, complicated, and hidden, how does one react to such a book? How does one help? The only solution I could think of was that taken by Sarah in the book-- donating money to an NGO or non=profit somewhere, but even the idea of doing this left me unsatisfied due to its lack of personal connection and responsibility.

someshine's picture

How Do You Make People Give A Shit?

It's great to hear I'm not the only one who was/is being deeply moved by Cleave's book! Equally moving for me (cinematographically) is A Walk to Beautiful .

Here are a couple places Cleave got me...

Lawrence says to Sarah: "Oh god. Why can't you be like other people and just not give a shit?" (177)

Sarah, thinking to herself: "Still shaking, in the pew, I understood that it isn't the dead we cry for. We cry for ourselves, and I didn't deserve my own pity" (96). 

I have to type the entirety of this next passage, because it was in its entirety that I cried on the plane, next to a woman who was at first frazzled (from the long hours on the late-night flight, I'm sure), but then visibly bothered by me... I later apologized for making her uncomfortable (to which she responded that I hadn't, but had worried her, even though she didn't ask me if I was okay) and explained that this passage was why I was upset. She asked if she could read it. After I let her borrow it and she had read this, she responded that I needn't worry since "this is fiction." I'm certain that moment, in which I was very shocked at her naivety and ignorance, could have been a "teachable moment," as it's called. Instead, I spent about 30 minutes thinking about how I might best try to explain to her that she was very wrong about Little Bee's/Udo's concern and that in fact millions of people do live in and experience horror the way she describes it. I tried to make small talk with her about her stay in Maui, which I discovered was another one of her and her husband's annual seasonal stays. This year, they were returning early, "because, you know how the economy is now," she said to me. I felt pretty disgusted by her and decided that in picking my battles, this just wasn't one I wanted to entertain. It was 3am, I was absorbed in reading Little Bee, and to be honest, I just still wasn't sure what I would say to her. For the moment... I'll stop rambling and give y'all the passage.

Chapter Three (45-46)

One of the things I would have to explain to the girls from back home, if I was telling them this story, is the simple little word horror. It means something different to the people from my village. 

In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film. Afterward you can go out of the cinema into the night and for a little while there is horror in everything. Perhaps there are murderers lying in wait for you at home. You think this because there is a light on in your house that you are certain you did not leave on. And when you remove your makeup in the mirror last thing, you see a strange look in your own eyes. It is not you. For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away. Horror in your contry is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it.

For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it. It is not an illness you can cure yourself of by standing up and letting the big red cinema seat fold itself up behind you. That would be a good trick. If I could do that, please believe me, I would already be standing in the foyer. I would be laughing with the kiosk boy, and exchanging British one-pond coins for hot buttered popcorn, and saying, Phew, thank the Good Lord all that is over, that is the most frightening film I ever saw and I think next time I will go to see a comedy, or maybe a romantic film with kissing. But the film in your memory, you cannot walk out of it so easily. Wherever you go it is always playing. So when I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge. 

 After a while of thinking about what exactly what words to say to her, and dozing off, I finally said, "this book may be fiction, but a lot of people do experience horror like that in their lives." To this she said, nonchalantly, "I don't think someone wouldn't write about that if it was real." I'm telling you, it was like I was in one of those situations people imagine never could actually happen in real life because no one you come by is that ridiculous. In my humble opinion, yes, in fact I was in one of those situations. I meant to say what I said, hoping to discover that what the woman had meant by her intial comment was that Little Bee's/Udo's analysis of horror was itself fiction, not the experiences of horror Little Bee/Udo was alluding to. Please bare with me while I vent... this woman (who's name I'm glad not to know) was subtly complaining about her annual tropical vacation getting cut short because of the state of the economy. Really!? Couldn't enjoy another week or two? I hardly consider a month's vacation warrants concern. The way she said it, though, seemed like she was experiencing bereavement. Granted I know nothing else about this woman's life, I couldn't look past her blind sense of privilege as she was making me gawk inside. I do think there are many people who read Cleave's book and have their blindness, per say, cured to the utter atrocities of human injustice around the world. But for people like this woman, how do you make them give a shit? They read this and think it's just fiction, a part of an unblissful fantasty that could never exist in the world. Or, they read it, and choose to rule it out as fiction because facing the possibility of it being a reality is much more difficult. I got the impression that she thought the former from our brief exchange. Thankfully(?), I fell asleep for the last hour and a half of the flight and only woke up in time for the last few minutes of my descent into Phoenix before being able to deboard and walk the hell away. I'm telling y'all, never have I felt so against wishing someone a good rest of their journey home.