By Melinda Guerra
In 2015, 21.3 million people were forced to flee their home country because of war, persecution, or violence.* This number includes only refugees. If we were to include those internally displaced (forced to flee their homes by the same violence, war, or persecution, but remaining in their country) and those known as asylum seekers (having fled to a new country to request asylum, but not having yet received refugee status), that number would jump to 65.3 million.
In the face of such a crisis of refugees and asylum seekers, one might be tempted to think The Powers That Be would be finding ways to shelter these at-risk persons, but one would be wrong. The country I call home has an upcoming election (which I’ll gladly be on the other side of the world for), the results of which could mean certain disaster for any vulnerable asylum seeker hoping to escape the violence of the nation they fled. Hungary held an anti-immigration referendum a few weeks ago; although ultimately an invalid vote due to insufficient voter turnout, an overwhelming percentage of those who turned out voted against accepting the EU-mandated number of refugees into its borders. And who can forget this summer’s Brexit, the historic vote by Britain to leave the EU, a vote preceded by months of calling for a more strict policy toward immigration and demonizing refugees? Those who flee their home countries have no guarantee of safety when they reach a new, potential home country, particularly amid the widespread negativity directed toward foreigners in many nations today.
Even before having to navigate a country’s xenophobia as a refugee, an individual must cross from being an asylum seeker to being a refugee, a coveted status which brings certain protections with it. Refugees who make it to a new country alive (a difficult feat on its own) have to find a place to live and a way to earn income without papers, and they live under the constant reality that at any moment, the officials could round them up and send them back to whatever hell they escaped. The places where hopeful refugees are kept are often known as detention facilities or processing camps, and are roundly horrific. The US had a national embarrassment a few years ago, as conditions of a detention center in Texas (families locked in prison cells, etc.) became public and ICE was forced to stop using that facility. Earlier this year, Australia had to close one of their facilities, after a major leak of documents exposed–among other things–rampant sexual assault and child abuse, as well as widespread self-harm among the detainees.
[I]f you are a refugee, when death comes you do not stay for one minute in the place it has visited. Many things arrive after death–sadness, questions, and policemen–and none of these can be answered when your papers are not in order.
Truly, there is no flag for us floating people. We are millions, but we are not a nation. We cannot stay together. Maybe we get together in ones and twos, for a day or a month or even a year, but then the wind changes and carries the hope away. Death came and I left in fear. Now all I have is my shame and the memory of bright colors and the echo of Yvette’s laugh. Sometimes I feel as lonely as the Queen of England.
Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee tells the story of two women: its namesake, a teenaged Nigerian refugee released from a UK detention center in the book’s opening pages, and Sarah, editor of a fashion magazine, with a husband, a lover, and a three year old child who refuses to wear anything but his Batman costume. Sarah, her husband Andrew, and Little Bee had met two years earlier on a Nigerian beach (the former two there on a trip as part of an ill-formed effort to save their marriage). The day of their meeting had been life-altering for each of them, and we make do with only snippets of the effects of their meeting until well into the book when we finally get to hear the full story of what happened, and understand why it’s affected various characters as deeply as it has.
The story is alternately narrated both by Little Bee and by Sarah, the former’s narration being a mix of Nigerian dialect and formal English. I cringe a bit when I read an author including a particular dialect for certain characters, because it often can be either so poorly done it is distracting, or so unnecessarily done, one wonders if its inclusion is merely veiled racism. I believe Cleave’s book avoids both criticisms, and the result is an engaging piece of prose that draws readers in, rather than alienating them. In fact, Little Bee’s bridging of two languages and the things each represents is part of what makes the book so difficult to put down. Similarly, the humor that arises from a person from one culture observing the language and customs of another, is one of the things that keeps the book from being an intensely depressing read: because its characters have learned to smile in their circumstances, the readers too can find levity even in the unexpected places. One of the best examples of this is in Little Bee’s compulsion to practice self-care in new places and situations by imagining how she would kill herself “if the men came.” A self-soothing mechanism that helps her feel at peace and gives her a sense of power, this refusal to allow them to again subject her to any manner of harm seems like a perfectly acceptable calming technique.
One day the detention officers gave all of us a copy of a book called LIFE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM. It explains the history of your country and how to fit in. I planned how I would kill myself in the time of Churchill (stand under bombs), Victoria (throw myself under a horse), and Henry the Eighth (marry Henry the Eighth). I worked out how to kill myself under Labour and Conservative governments, and why it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats. I began to understand how your country worked.
They moved me out of the medical wing. I still screamed in the night, but not every night. I realized that I was carrying two cargoes. Yes, one of them was horror, but the other one was hope. I realized I had killed myself back to life.
At first, Sarah’s character seems unlikeable, in the way of the loud and Very Put Together people at a coffee shop. Give her time, though–she grows on you. Similarly, if you are interested in the book, I advise that you avoid reading the back jacket, which is altogether cheesy and almost prevented my reading the book at all. Just trust me: judge this book neither by the title, nor by the jacket, neither of which we will assume the author had any control over at all. The story contained in the book’s pages will prove itself to you quickly.
Little Bee, Sarah, and Sarah’s son Charlie (who sometimes only responds to “Batman”) show us multiple sides of two different nations, opening up worthwhile conversations about immigration and the struggle to assimilate (or whether to assimilate at all) and the reality of how much goes into a struggle for a better life, both for those who remain in their own countries and those who leave their countries in search of something better. Little Bee is also Bookish’s next read, and if you finish the book before our November meeting, which will be the final meeting for Bookish, please feel free to join us for the discussion. As always, email me at gplbookclub[at]gmail.com for details and to reserve your space!
*Statistics in this paragraph taken from Global Trends: Forcible Displacement in 2015, published by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Full report available: http://www.unhcr.org/statistics
Little Bee is available now at GPL.