Q&A: Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee (or, The Other Hand)

Little Bee (published in the UK as The Other Hand), written by Chris Cleave,  is one of the best books I’ve read this year (along with Daniel O’Thunder [more on that here], and a few more, to be discussed).  Incidentally, both Cleave and I were employees at The Guardian when I lived there in London in 2005 – and here is an interview with him I did for the Post back in March:

First Published: March 23, 2009
Brad Frenette, National Post

The plot of Chris Cleave’s first book, Incendiary, dealt with a series of terrorist bombings in downtown London. The book was launched on July 7, 2005, the exact day that homegrown terrorists ignited a series of bombs across the city’s transit network. The strange timing left Cleave with a book no one wanted to sell or promote, and a personal struggle which had him questioning whether he even wanted to continue writing.

Cleave, also a popular columnist at The Guardian newspaper, persevered and has returned with the critically acclaimed follow-up, Little Bee (which is published in the UK and Australia as The Other Hand). In his second novel, Cleave tackles another big topic: asylum seekers. Little Bee follows the titular character – a young Nigerian woman who flees Nigeria after a devastating event, which was witnessed by a vacationing British couple, Andrew and Sarah. On arrival in Britain, Little Bee is locked into an immigration detention centre, and when she is allowed to leave, she turns to the only people in Britain that she knows. Her trip leads her to couple’s home in the idyllic suburbs of London, and Sarah and Andrew are faced with the horrors they thought were left on an African beach.

Brad Frenette spoke to Cleave during a recent tour stop in Toronto.

NP: What inspired this story, Little Bee?
A: I visited a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Actually, there were asylum seekers, they weren’t even illegal yet. This was more than 12 years ago, when I was a student. And in the summer holidays I would take on any job, a labouring job to pay the rent. I’d wake up at six in the morning; they’d put us in the minibus and we never knew where we were going for the day. One of the jobs we’d be doing before was painting a subway – an underpass. Another job we did afterward was shoveling rubbish into a landfill site. And the job we did for these three days. was serving food in the canteen of this detention centre. The spooky thing was that I was living within five miles of this place for three years and didn’t know it existed.
I found the conditions in there absolutely shocking. I found the secrecy of these places appalling. I found the fact that they were run for proviate profit by private companies. The government outsources this problem. They are run by – this place I’m taking about – by a place called GeoGroup. One of the major investors is Dick Cheney. I sound like a conspiracy nut. The thing is so sick and so dark, I want to say less about it because the more truth I tell about the more it sounds a bit X-Files. But no, there’s this place in the Oxfordshire countryside where we detain innocent people for an indeterminate period of time in direct violation of British law and international human rights conventions. So I thought I’d write about it. This is what I do. I try to find a story that if I was a journalist, I would think it was an interesting journalistic story and give it the fictional treatment because I think that you can do something in fiction that you don’t necessarily get the space to do in print journalism which is to look at individual human stories behind the statistics and give back a measure of humanity to the people concerned so readers can look at those lives for themselves and judge whether or not those loves have value.

Q: And do you think the book achieves your goal of conveying the human story behind this issue?
A: I guess it’s not for me to judge if I’ve achieved it. All I was trying to do was to tell a big story in a compelling way. I do think it’s the big story. And I say that for a very specific reason. The book talks about globalization. We’re told we live in a globalized world. But I don’t really believe it. What can move is capital. And what can’t move is people. So we live in a half globalized world. Arguably, that simple fact that money can move across international borders but people can’t gives us the two crises that the world is plunged into at the moment: the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. Imagine a world that was the other way around. That way you couldn’t have speculators and investment banks creating these strange financial vehicles that they hopscotch across international borders until no one can remember what they meant. We wouldn’t have this financial meltdown if money was restircted in the way that people are. I’m inviting people to look at globalization, but the human cost of it by looking at the life of one refugee. I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded…

Q: Let’s discuss your refugee. Little Bee is this amazing character. Her sense of self – even while her circumstances are grim – there this innate levity to her. In fact, the whole book has this sense of playfulness with your head in the lion’s mouth. Is that something you aspired to achieve with the book – a heavy topic treated lightly?
A: Definitely to treat it gently. Just because these people are victims doesn’t mean they have be serious all the time. And one of the reasons I liked a lot of the people I met when I was doing the research was because they didn’t present themselves as victims; they presented themselves as survivors who needed a bit of help.  I don’t see asylum seekers as a burden on society, and I’m making the case they can be an asset. Look at the great asylum seekers of history – people like Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Joseph Conrad,  one of my favourite writers. I don’t see those people as being a burden. I thinnk being an asylum seeker means you are a determined and interesting and often a funny and likeable individual who is going to add value to whichever country they arrive in. So I deliberately made Little Bee obviously likeable. The idea after you’ve spent 50 pages with her, of sending her back to a country where she;d be killed is anathema.  And so I deliberately wanted to make the character as likeable as possible. I hate this idea that we’re the rich people and everyone must come with a begging bowl. That’s not what they’re doing. They’re just asking for some help to get back on their feet, and if we give them that they’ll be grateful forever and be really useful members of our society.

Q: In the process of researching the book, who did you meet? Where did you go?
A: The first people I met were people who work with asylum seekerts. I met with this psychiatrist, a child psychiatrist – turns out we detain children in these places as well – whose job was to reduce the mental impact of detaining children. She was called Dr Mina Frazzell. She made me realize that I wasn’t crazy for thinking this thing was happening. That it really was happening and I wasn’t the only person who though it was very, very wrong. That gave me the confidence to carry on. And I met a lot of campaigners. I realized there’s this whole network of people who’ve been trying for years to shine light into these place and get people to care. That made me more determined to write the book. Then I talked to three people who are illegal immigrants whose names must never be exposed! One from Kosovo, and two from sub-Saharan Africa – one fdrom Nigeria and one from Congo.

Q: Did they help form who Little Bee was?
A: Little Bee‘s personality really comes from the Nigerian sense of humour, that I know from talking with the Nigerian comnmunuity in South London. you know, I’ve never been to Nigeria. When I was a kid, we went on holiday when I was 8 years old. And I’ve certainly never been to the south of Nigeria, where parts of the book is set. And I wouldn’t – it’s far too dangerous for a Westener to go there right now. Little Bee is really informed of my love of Nigerian language. It’s the most brilliant language. It’s English english, plus thousands of extra words of vocabulary and weird grammar and brilliant ways of thinking. I love the idioms – night fighter, for prostitute and wahalla, which means trouble. I thought it was inherently good and beautiful and optimistic and humourous language. And I studied Nigerian proverbs – which are really interesting – “If your face is swollen from the sever beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man”.

Q: A great quote, which we see in the book.
A: It’s brilliant! So Little Bee’s personality comes from my increditble bits and small amounts of Nigerian culture.

Q: Let’s talk about two other characters in the book – Sarah and her son Charlie, or Batman.
A::Yes, Batman is my son. I was just taking dictation. He just was Batman and he had three outfits – one on him, one in the wash and one ready to put on him. He would only answer to Batman and would ask him what he was doing and he’d say I’m fighting crime. Everything he said was funny. He’s in the book for two reasons – one, he’s loveable. And he gives Sarah and Little Bee a reason to stay in the situation and not just to disperse and leave the story. He’s the emotional centre of the story. We care because we care about Charlie. But also he’s a study in the formation of identilty. The book’s all about – who are you, where do you belong? What’s your personality? What do you do for a living? What’s your place in the world? All of the adults in it are trying on identities the whole , working out what parts of their identities they need to give up in order to become themselves. And actually that’s what kids are doing all the time, when they put on the costumes, try on the mask – it’s playing with an alter ego, playing with identlty. We do this more and more as we get older, the ways we do it just get more and more subtle.

Q: And this idea of identity is confusing for Little Bee, this idea of almost needing to become a super-Brit, perfecting the Queen’s english, to fit in to this new society.
A:: That’s exactly right. She tries to find that identity and almost overdoes it.

Q: What about Sarah? Who is she?
A: Sarah is more like me. She’s London, media. Got some principles but they’re quite elastic. Thinks she’s better than she is. Ultimately not that all bad – she’s trying to do the right thing, but she’s very confused, So alot of me. (laughs) She was a little easier to research because I’ve spent a lot of time in that world – newspapers and magazines. Completely full of some people who are doing something brilliant, and some people who’ve done something brilliant a few years back and it’s all gone a bit wrong, and it’s become a bit mainstream anbd it’s become not the thing it originally was. But on any given day it seems like a good compromise because you’ve still got to put shoes on your kids, right? Sarah’s a living example of compromise.

Q: Do you consciously try not to judge your characters?
A: I like them all. I agree with you, it’s definitely not my place to judge them. I think my job is to imagine them very strongly. And I don’t plot them out in advance. I put them in the situation. There’s that scene on the beach in Nigeria. I started off with that,  I sort of let it evolve in both directions. With it’s own momentum and see far it plays out. I’m as interested as anyone to see how it ends. To try and see if the innate strenght and weakness in people characters will just carry them through the situations.

Q: Your first novel, Incendiary – there’s a different story behind it. It came out on the infamous day in July. What was that time like for you?
A: Apart from the writing thing I’m a Londoner and it was a really dark day for London.  I was worried on a personal level, my wife was working in town and I didn’t know if she was blown up. It was very stressful. The night before, my book launched. And you wake up with that post-book launch hangover into a world where suddently your book has come true. Not a very nice feeling. I spent a lot of time feeling very guilty. That I’d somehow brought it on the city. Because there was a lot of hype about the book, there were posters up across the whole of London – “7th of July, 2005” which was the launch date. A picture of the London skyline smoking. And a question: “what if?” Huge letters across the London Underground. We had 2000 posters across the city. They had to go and take them down. I was thinking: what if this is my fault? The books could – I guess if you misread it – could be construed as anti-Islamic. And I thought maybe someone was responding to that. Crazier things have happened about books.
I moved my family to a safe locaton and  I spent a few days waiting for a call to come through saying “yes, we did it because of this blashpemous book”. I completly lost it. And now it looks like hubris  and overreaction, but at the time that’s how I felt. Complete insanity. Afterword I fell into a depression because that meant the end of my book. Which after my whole life, I’d been working up to, trying to get my first novel. It hadn’t become a dream but it had become a nightmare.

Q: How do you mean the end of your book? The end of talking about it?
A: It got taken off sale. They just took it off the shelves. They said it had been very bad taste; it had the smoking London skyline on the front cover.

Q: So it was that abrupt.
A: Yeah: “slightly too topical, thanks!” Just moved on. They cancelled all of the promotion. The book kind of died on its feet. About six months later it started to make a slow comeback but it never really recovered from not having a launch. I’m not moaning, I’m not complaining. The thing is, fifty people died. They can not get their lives back, but I can. I can write another book. I’m not complaining. but it did present a lot of practical difficulties for me, in terms of getting my head back into the space where I wanted to write contemporary political fiction again because it hadn’t been fun so far.

Q: Did that affect what you chose as a subject – this topic of asylum seekers?

A: It’s a book I always wanted to write since I visited that detention centre. I always had it slated for the second or third book I’d write becuase I wasn’t technically up to the task of writing it.  I just desperately wanted to write. It’s a story pepople want to hear as well. People want to know the truth, there’s this big, quite poisonous idea that seems to have a wide spread currency that there is no such thing as an original idea or an original plot for a novel, it’s just not true. There are so many huge stories out there waiting to be told and this is one of them and I’ve always wanted to do it.

Q: Was there any trepidation with the launch of this book?

A: I wasn’t looking forward to the launch. What’s going to go wrong this time? I was so mentally damaged by what happened at the launch of the last one, because – what are the odds? I thought my mind had slipped a gear, I didn’t think it was real. I got this weird post traumatic set of symptoms that lasted for months. I wasn’t in the headspace to write.

Q: How did you find your way back? It’s a pretty unique situation.
A: I’m really lucky to have a really good wife and family, who helped keep my feet on the ground. They reminded me that it’s just fiction. It’s just fiction. I tried to make it meaningful entertainment, but it’s just entertainment. I like to think what I do is very important, but it’s not important. It’s not as important as putting your kids to bed, making sure they have a bedtime story. I just concentrated on the day to day – these little things that you do that are actually the most important things in the world. it is actually the most important thing you can do. Through force of repetition, my mind came back together and I started writing. And it made me more determined. I had to ask myself a question – do you still want to write political fiction? This is what I want to do. I like the sense of engagement that it gives me. It makes me feel alive, so I do it.

Photo credit: Peter J. Thompson/National Post

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