More from Chris Cleave
With the possible exception of U2, as noted by the title character in Chris Cleave’s novel “Little Bee,” there’s not much in arts and culture that everybody likes.
That includes literature, which makes choosing a book for the Spokane is Reading program tricky. This year’s program will culminate Friday when Cleave will read from his book, answer questions and sign books.
“Little Bee” contains “heavy concepts,” said Spokane library communications manager Eva Silverstone, which has prompted complaints along with praise for the selection. The novel, published in 2009, switches between two narrators. Little Bee is a teenage Nigerian refugee. Sarah is a magazine editor in London. Their initial meeting and its aftermath, set on a Nigerian beach, are brutal.
But the novel’s heart centers on the characters and the choices they make, not on the violence or the politics of asylum.
“This book is very much about people,” Silverstone said.
In a recent phone interview, Cleave, a former journalist who lives in London with his family, said it’s people – those fictional characters – that “Little Bee” readers want to discuss. He also talked about the role of personal choice in a global context, his own experiences as a newcomer to the Western world, and the role that language plays in first impressions.
A transcript of the interview:
S-R: Why write a novel about real-life situations? Compared with nonfiction, what are the strengths of fiction in illuminating real, current events?
Cleave: In fiction you can tell a story that’s emotionally true, and that’s what I’m trying to get people to engage with – the truth of one’s own conscience when presented with the facts about things that are happening in the world. I think there’s a continuum between stuff which is fiction and stuff which is factual, and I deliberately position my stuff as fiction that’s based in a world that’s recognizably our own.
But I think you can do the same thing, actually, in powerful nonfiction. Some of the journalists who are out there talking about the things in the area that I covered in “Little Bee.” There’s some great journalism, some great nonfiction, happening in that space, too, writers like (human rights journalist and biographer) Caroline Moorehead, she’s doing a great job there, or Dave Eggers. So I’m not a zealot for fiction. I think there’s other ways of getting to the truth. But, for me, fiction is a way to make these big ethical questions that we face in our modern world compelling, exciting. I want people to engage emotionally and intellectually with the big questions of our time in a way that isn’t political.
S-R: Looking back in talks with audiences about “Little Bee,” what do readers want to talk about most?
Cleave: Most people are interested in the choices that characters make, the moral and ethical choices. For example, there’s a scene in “Little Bee” where Sarah, who’s a woman in her 30s with a pretty comfortable life and a pretty exciting job, is forced to make a real life-or-death decision. People want to talk about what they would have done in Sarah’s position or in (her husband) Andrew’s position. They are very interested in talking about the choices people make.
That suits me fine. For me, personal choices sit in the context of big political situations. The choices we make are individual, whereas politics is about what is collectively right and true. I think that’s where my stuff sits, on the interface between what’s personal and what’s political.
In the Q-and-A’s and in the events I do, everything we talk about it personal. Everything we talk about is about characters and their choices. I very rarely end up in an ideological conversation about the politics of asylum and refugees, although of course that’s the subtext of everything that the book is about.
S-R: You spent part of your childhood in West Africa. How did you end up there? What do you remember?
Cleave: We grew up in Cameroon. When I was 6 weeks old, the family moved out there. My father had a job working in a brewery. I was in a town called Douala, in Cameroon.
That’s where my brother and I had our early childhood. We moved back to the U.K. when I was 8 years old.
Like any kid, what I remember most about is my family. Those are the people you lived with and those are the people you remember. … I remember being happy. I remember the landscape and the countryside, I remember the people. I remember the holidays we went on in Nigeria. I remember learning to swim on some of those beaches that I describe in the novel. I remember a huge sense of freedom. And I don’t remember it feeling weird or strange. I think everyone’s childhood seems completely normal to them.
In fact, the thing I remember as being quite shocking was the move back to the U.K. It was very strange trying to reintegrate into life in London that I’d missed out in the first years of my life. It was very difficult trying to fit back in.
… The whole years that you miss out on as a kid, all of the shared cultural experiences, the TV shows you haven’t seen, the soccer teams that you haven’t supported, the years of a particular way that a country does education that you haven’t benefited from. The way you don’t know how to dress, the pop music you haven’t listened to, the place names that seem unfamiliar or exotic but are familiar to the people that live there – it’s the same cultural dislocation that you would feel if, for example, you went to Italy and went to a completely new town and had to start from zero. It’s what they refer to as a cultural shock. Every aspect of that for a child is challenging.
I think that’s what in many ways made me quite an analytical person. I try to go into a situation and observe it and learn as much as I can try to understand it before I open my mouth and try to become part of it. I’ve always felt slightly like an outsider, and I think that’s probably still the reason why I write.
S-R: Do you think that experience informed Little Bee, as she entered the U.K. and everything was completely foreign?
Cleave: Yeah, definitely. A lot of people have written that the book was influenced by my childhood in West Africa, which I don’t agree with at all. I don’t think there’s anything of my childhood in the novel. But I do think that it was influenced by my move back to London and that sense of being an alien, and not understanding how things worked.
S-R: What considerations and research went into creating Little Bee’s voice as a narrator? Why does she abandon her own dialect and learn the Queen’s English to direct her story to a Western audience?
Cleave: The way in which we speak is the biggest factor in determining how other people treat us. I think we’ve made a lot of progress in the West in terms of how we treat people. We don’t make instant judgments about people anymore based on their gender or their religion or their ethnicity or their sexuality. We’ve moved on a little bit from there. It’s still a work in progress and we’ve got a long way to go, but we don’t automatically assume what people are going to be like on the basis of those quite superficial indicators. But language – the way people express themselves – is still an area in which we make snap decisions about people.
Especially in the context of where I come from, London, there are all different races, religions, sexualities and ethnicities, and we judge people instantly based on their accent, how they speak. That’s the No. 1 differentiator of people now.
If somebody speaks English with a great accent and a great facility for vocabulary and idiom, then we tend to treat them as an elevated person regardless of the way they look or where they’re from.
Little Bee very quickly realizes that in order to be taken seriously and in order to have some say over her own destiny she needs to learn to speak in a very particular way, and she finds that to be not more expressive that her own idiom but certainly more persuasive. It gives her influence.
S-R: You’ve written that you “accidentally” visited a detention center in the United Kingdom. How did you get there, and why was it so distressing?
Cleave: Accidentally is genuinely how it happened. I was a student at the time, and I was working in the long vacation, in the summer vacation, doing a variety of casual laboring jobs just to make the rent, which everyone did. I was working with an employment agency, so they would just send you to a new place every day. I was working in the fields, I was working in the subway system, I was working on construction sites.
One of the jobs that I had, they sent me to work in the kitchens of an immigration detention center. I worked there for three days, that was all, but that was enough. The conditions there were shocking. The secrecy that surrounded the place was amazing. Normally people weren’t allowed there at all. We didn’t know what it was. The place had been three miles from the town that I was studying in. I’d lived right alongside it for three years, and we’d been told it was a prison. We didn’t know that it was an immigration detention center.
We didn’t know that the people who were detained there were refugees, people who had committed no crime. It’s not illegal to come to the United Kingdom as a refugee, as an asylum seeker, yet these people were locked up with no legal framework. They had no release date, there was no charge, there was no trial. It was just arbitrary internment.
S-R: Do you have any experience with big-group events like Spokane is Reading, where people read the same book and get together to talk about it?
Cleave: The ones I’ve done are Seattle Reads and St. Louis Reads, and I’ve also done one in Atlanta. I think it’s a wonderful idea for a community to get together and choose a book to read.
S-R: How does reading with others affect how people experience a book?
Cleave: The first thing is you don’t have to like the book for it to be an interesting experience. The city-reads programs, they’re all about bringing communities together and having conversations with people you live with who you wouldn’t normally speak with. The great dynamic that happens is in the signing line, when people find themselves completely by accident next to other people and they have a common experience to talk about.
They might only talk about your book for a minute, it might only be an ice-breaker or a preamble, and then they might talk about where they live or where their kids go to school or whatever.
The idea is that they make friends in their community, and the book is only just a very good excuse. That’s my honest opinion now, as someone who really does value literature. I think if it goes well, the book itself should be the least important part of a community reads program. … The bonus from my point of view is that people have read my book.