While authors on book tours are used to reading from their own works, Chris Cleave, author of Santa Monica’s 2010 CityWide Reads selection, Little Bee, shared with his audience at the Main Library the experience of hearing his words spoken by actors.
Petal D’Avril Walker spoke as Little Bee, a 16-year old Nigerian refugee: “I ask you to agree with me that a scar is never ugly…a scar means I survived.” Rosalyn Landor joined her as Sarah, the 30-something British journalist whom Little Bee befriends when she makes it to the suburbs of London.
Their riveting performances were a hard act to follow. But Cleave praised the reading and managed to follow it with more of his own words, in his own quiet British-accented voice.
“It’s a sunny day here. Yet the auditorium is full of people here to discuss books! It means the bad guys haven’t won yet.”
Cleave explained that his purpose as a writer is to tell “a simple story– in fact, the only story there is: the story of the five billion people who have nothing and the one billion who have whatever they need.” This “big story,” he felt, needed to be made “small,” that is, understandable to all. A journalist for the Guardian, Cleave based his novel on interviews with refugees, but drew his original inspiration from an experience when he was a university student.
To earn money, Cleave and other students volunteered as day laborers in the English countryside and were taken by bus to a place they had never known the existence of: a detention center for undocumented immigrants. “I worked in the kitchen for three days, serving the world-literally.” There were immigrants from Sierra Leone, Botswana, Jamaica, Nigeria, even from the Balkans. Cleave forgot the experience for a time, but when he became aware, some years later, of his own country’s policy for immigrants, and wanted to respond to it, he realized he had passed on the opportunity to use what he had learned from his unique encounter with these people, whom he found to be “smart and resilient—the very people we should be welcoming.” Feeling “guilty,” he decided to pursue their story.
Needing something to make the tale livelier, Cleave turned to the Internet, which made it possible to listen to radio stations from other countries. He got into the rhythms of Nigerian English and chose that language for his narrator.
“I love the idioms of Nigerian,” Cleave said. “One of their proverbs, which I quoted, is ‘If your face is swollen from the beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man.’ ”
Cleave expressed hope that Little Bee will make people more curious about life in Nigeria. As for the “geopolitics” of the novel, he felt that it should provoke dialogue.
“I don’t have the answers. I am happiest when people disagree with me. If every person reads a book and is able to stand around a water cooler asking others if they read it, and they disagree, it’s wonderful.”