Literary Travels: Little Bee

Every time I think I’m going to make some headway on my book pile, which I’ve started compiling electronically thanks to GoodReads.com, someone at work leaves a new book on my desk.

I’m not really complaining– I’ve read some pretty incredible novels thanks to input from fellow bookies at work, the latest being Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’d not heard of the novel before, but once I started diving into it, I did some more research and was thoroughly impressed, and in agreement, with its accolades:

  • New York Times Bestseller
  • A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
  • O Magazine “10 Terrific Reads of 2009”
  • NPR “On Point” Best Books of the Year
  • St. Louis Dispatch Top 50 Books of the Year
  • Chicago Tribune Favorite Novel of 2009

My travels have only taken me to Africa once, and that was to Egypt, which, I quickly learned, considers itself more Middle Eastern than African. While I’m quick to admit I have no knowledge based on personal experiences from any other areas of Africa, this book made it clear to me that I really have very little knowledge about other areas of Africa at all. Period. Personal experiences aside. It made me feel incredibly naive and disappointed in myself, but inspired to learn more.

A brief synopsis of Little Bee, care of Sarah L. Couteau’s book review for The Washington Post:

On a beach in Nigeria, the lives of Little Bee, a teenager from a small village, and Sarah O’Rourke, editor of a posh British women’s magazine, are brought into brutal conjunction. Little Bee and her older sister have the misfortune to live on valuable Nigerian oil deposits, for which their family pays a deadly price. Sarah and her husband, heedless tourists out for a walk in the sand, are confronted in an instant with a choice: Save the girls at great personal cost or ignore them.

It’s impossible for me to give away any more than that in terms of plot– it’s necessary to read the book without knowing what you’re getting yourself into– but I will say the overall themes relate to immigration/refugees and violence/corruption. The biggest take-away for me was how these themes played out across the characters themselves rather than just the environments in which they live.

This was all made very personal to me on my return from a tradeshow I attended in L.A., which I discussed here. On my flight home, I was sitting in an aisle seat in the very last row of the plane next to a woman and child who looked to be of Asian decent. They were both dressed in sweatpants, wind-suit jackets, tennis shoes and baseball hats, none of which matched. The boy was young, probably about 8 or 9, and kept hugging his mom who was so small and trying to hug him back.

I didn’t want to stare or make them uncomfortable, but I was really caught off guard by their appearance and obvious need to comfort one another. My curiosity got the best of me and when they settled and were dozing on one another, I caught a glimpse of laminated cards they were wearing on lanyards around their necks. I leaned forward so I could read the mother’s card, which was close to my seat, and  it read: “Hello, my name is XX, and I am a refugee from  Laos. I do not speak English. I am meeting my sponsor in XX. I appreciate your help in getting me to my final destination.”

I almost couldn’t breathe, and it was all I could do to keep the tears from spilling over onto my cheeks. Looking at the mother and son holding each other so close as they tried to sleep on our flight to Ohio, I couldn’t stop picturing the scenes from Little Bee, imagining what horrors these refugees sitting next to me had endured, wondering what had happened to the rest of their family, trying to think how I could possibly help, feeling absolutely helpless.

I was also thinking about myself– the fact that I had just flown to L.A. for a few days for a client’s tradeshow and how I was looking forward to getting home to my boyfriend. It all seemed incredibly unimportant and insignificant. I had a job. I could fly on an airplane any time I wanted. I could buy food and drink on the flight. I could go home and get in my car. I could drive to my house and know the person I love was there, happy and healthy and safe, and that I am all those things as well. I couldn’t watch the in-flight movie, I couldn’t read my book and I couldn’t think about anything else but how incredibly lucky I am.

Traveling, through literature, movies or personal experiences, continues to open my eyes and heart to the world and how little I know about what others have to endure. Many things are universal and remind me that the world is not such a big place– that there are similarities and common themes tieing everything and everyone together, even when I least expect it. But there are also terrible differences, and many people, myself included, are completely ignorant of those realties.

Little Bee is soon to be a major motion picture, and I wonder if the movie will be nearly as compelling as the novel. Perhaps it will be more so. I can’t wait to find out.

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