In a global city such as London, one might expect to find a variety of people from many distinct cultures and backgrounds. The extent to which this is true, however, can only be realized when immersed in the sights and sounds of multiculturalism for the first time. This is something I personally hope to encounter in December, but experienced from the perspective of a young Nigerian girl in Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, this awareness is magnified and even takes on a life of its own. Culture is a huge aspect of this novel, and the issues that accompany it, along with other themes, create a world revolving not only around immigration and cross-cultural differences, but love and the length to which one family will go to save a girl who was once just another victim of an African oil war.
Little Bee takes the reader on a journey across the world, through the perspective of its title character as well as a British woman, Sarah, now entangled in the life of an orphan from Nigeria. The differences between these two women’s native countries are stark, in regards to everything from race and government to language and communication. These cultural issues are intertwined with Sarah’s regrets and misgivings associated with her husband’s suicide and her affair, her occasionally misplaced love for Charlie (more commonly known as “Batman”), and the complicated and awfully managed British immigration system, fought against until the bitter end by a journalist, a superhero, and a Little Bee.
Coming from a place where jungles and soldiers are more common than suburbs or magazines, Little Bee is subject to culture shock, to say the least, when she arrives in London. But the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre is far from representative of the world surrounding its high walls, a fact Little Bee discovers only after two long years of captivity. The treatment of the women here does not at all reflect well on the British government, especially the immigration department, and the rigid policies surrounding immigration suggest a regression and misdirection on the part of the authorities.
To punish innocent people like Little Bee for trying to escape the violence of Nigeria does not add up when the reader is aware of the warlord “baddies” patrolling beaches thousands of miles away. The experience Little Bee goes through shows that a new sense of global understanding is necessary before the immigration processes and procedures might have some possibility of progress.
Race is another factor played out in the novel through contrasting views of the characters. Although London is considered to be a melting pot of colors and ethnicities, Little Bee is shocked and delighted to see “brown” children and mixed raced couples, an anomaly where she is from. Towards the end of the book, Sarah is so worried about her and Charlie being negatively associated with Little Bee because of their bright white skin that she instructs Little Bee to move away from them while they are all relaxing on the Nigerian beach, for fear of the approaching soldiers.
It is in the back of peoples’ minds at Andrew’s funeral when the widow shows up with an unknown girl, darker than anyone else there. The immigration authorities think they are doing their country a service by deporting the Jamaicans and Nigerians invading their British lives. Actually, these people are fleeing for their lives themselves, driven away from the conflicts in their homelands that those same British authorities seem to pay no mind to.
The attitudes displayed towards African or darker skinned people by those who are in charge of deporting them are a general consensus that if they are not legal or like them, then they are a disservice to the “values of Britain.” But nothing is being done about the aggression these illegal immigrants are trying to escape, a message Little Bee’s author tries to convey. Sarah, as a protagonist on the issue, begins to collect her late husband’s efforts at a book on the oil war and its victims, an attempt at shedding light and righting some of the unfairness of the whole situation by making it more public. In this case, immigration control in Britain has turned into something very race oriented, yet misdirected. Social change comes out of this when Sarah (and others like her) work to redirect thought from simply deporting these people because of their race, to delving deeper into the issues that made them leave their homes in the first place.
Sarah never would have continued Andrew’s book endeavor if it hadn’t been for the deep connection formed between her, Charlie, and Little Bee. This novel is a prime example of an unconventional family, from the affair and suicide to taking into one’s home an illegal immigrant and a married man simultaneously. The need Little Bee feels to help Sarah cope-with becoming a single parent and losing her husband, and the reciprocated protection Sarah gives to Little Bee show love knows no bounds. The theme of family within the novel gives both positives and negatives. Although Little Bee is an orphan, Charlie has lost his dad, and Lawrence has left his wife and three children, they are all working within their new situations to find the best. Sometimes the bond is not forged right away though. This is evidenced by Lawrence and Little Bee’s seemingly blackmail laden relationship, after their conversation in the kitchen early one morning.
Apart from that tension, the overall feeling is one of rebuilding broken lives by bringing everyone together as a new family. The climax of this comes on the airplane when Sarah and Charlie surprise Little Bee. It cannot go without mentioning that Sarah credits Lawrence as helping them find out which plane they needed to catch. This is a small but significant fact in that it settles any doubts that Little Bee and Lawrence had overcome their apprehensions about each other. The family ties these characters share come before any immigration laws, and in Lawrence’s case, they also override work obligations. Even though they are separated by skin color and age, they have found a love that makes them family, and they are willing to crisscross continents in order to try to save each other and promote the bettering of Little Bee’s and her contemporaries’ situations.
Personally, reading this last section of the book, when the trio was seeking refuge in Nigeria, was the time when I truly realized how much the characters had grown. It was evident at this point how close they really had become, and I was rooting for Sarah to succeed in making progress in her research on those with similar experiences as Little Bee. I had no idea as to how gruesome the situation in Nigeria was, and how the violence there does not discriminate against age or race. Also, I was shocked as to how uncivilized Little Bee’s experience in the detention center was, and the disconnectedness of this process from the outside world of the suburbs and the city proper of London.
It is clear to me now how structured the British government is, especially in regards to immigration. Maybe that is how it is in the United States also, because I probably am not as aware of our policies as I think I am, or should be. Not everything is as clear-cut or as fair as I assumed it would be in the twenty-first century, and I feel a bit naive because of assuming it was like that. Reading Little Bee has definitely prompted me into becoming more interested in global affairs, and has opened my eyes to the excitement and differences London can hold.
Also, being interested in journalism myself, I thought it was fascinating that both Sarah and Andrew were writers, and while I was reading I took notice of their different styles of writing and how those differences played into their unique personality types. In the end, though, Sarah continued working on the same piece Andrew had started, a sort of closure I think for her and definitely a type of project that I would love to be involved with someday. Illegal immigration and its process, as well as the deportation side, is a subject I have never considered in depth, so the entire novel was eye-opening in that respect.
Little Bee is a book that touches on many subjects. From the Queen’s English to Batman, to an oil war to a missing finger, I felt at all times something new was being woven into the plot. The way Little Bee is acutely aware of it being a “sophisticated story” that her friends back home would not understand makes her narration more personable and realistic, as if she is talking directly to the reader. Whether in Nigeria or Britain, the novel paints a cultured view of a current issue through the eyes of two unalike people, who turn out to have more in common than one would have ever thought.