Revolution #182, November 8, 2009
Check It Out! Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
This powerful novel begins with Little Bee's voice: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead—but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other's names."
As the story opens, Little Bee is a 14-year-old Nigerian girl. She barely escapes a massacre in her village carried out by paramilitary gangs who are employed by the multinational oil companies like Shell and Chevron, which control the economy of much of the oil-producing regions of the Niger Delta. (This is where Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed—murdered—in 1995 for leading the movement to oppose the oil companies' war on the people.)
"A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind…. How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is called, globalization. A girl like me gets stopped at immigration, but a pound can leap the turnstyles, and dodge the tackles of those big men with their uniform caps, and jump straight into a waiting airport taxi. Where to, sir? Western Civilization, my good man, and make it snappy."—Little Bee
Alternating with the voice of Sarah, the white Londoner whose life intersects with Little Bee's on a beach in Nigeria, we follow Little Bee as she sneaks aboard a ship to London and is handed over to the immigration authorities. The story that unfolds—beginning with the two years Little Bee is imprisoned in an immigration detention center—is a searing condemnation of the brutality of globalization and its real toll in human lives and suffering, and the immorality of a capitalist-imperialist system that profits off of this suffering and whose citizens are mostly ignorant or indifferent to the plight of the refugees who live, hidden in broad daylight, among them. Through the events in this story, Sarah transforms and comes to Little Bee's aid when she appears on Sarah's doorstep in the summer of 2007.
This story is told with great humor, in the midst of great tragedy. All summer Sarah's four-year-old son, Charlie, will not remove his Batman costume, and Little Bee, who learned to speak "the Queen's English" in the immigration center, bonds with Charlie: she can relate to Charlie's fixation on being someone else. They play together in the garden, "killing baddies" with Charlie's imaginary bat weapons. Little Bee works through her encounters with the strange circumstances of suburban London by imagining how she would explain it to "the girls from back home," wryly contrasting daily life in the village to what she is now experiencing.
Beneath the important political themes of Little Bee, there is a deep investigation of what it means to make choices, to live your life as a moral human being, in the context of a world where humanity is being dragged down by the dominant economic system of imperialism. It asks two questions of the reader, and they are not resolved in the novel:
Is it moral to give "ten percent" toward lessening the suffering of humanity? Sarah muses that she's only given ten percent to save Little Bee, and her boyfriend Lawrence argues that she's done enough: "Ten percent buys you a stable world to get on with your life in. Here, safe in the West. That's the way to think of it. If everyone gave ten percent, we wouldn't need to give asylum." Sarah answers: "Isn't it sad, growing up? You start off like my Charlie. You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little bit older, maybe Little Bee's age, and you realize that some of the world's badness is inside you, that maybe you're a part of it. And then you get a little older still, and a bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you've seen in yourself is really all that bad at all. You start talking about ten percent."
This novel is worth a read, and a re-read, for anyone who cares about the future of humanity.
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