Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Back to White People Telling African Stories: Chris Cleave and Little Bee

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

I hesitated before adding Chris Cleave to my White People Who Tell Black Stories list for Black History Month. After all, his critically acclaimed novel, Little Bee, isn't only about the Nigerian orphan who calls herself Little Bee. It's also about a White British couple who 'meet up' with Little Bee. But then I figured, since my book Substitute Me features two White main characters and only one main Black character and it was routinely classified and categorized as an "African-American title," then Little Bee can join the Black book bandwagon.

About the Book: Little Bee debuted in 2009. It was one of those quiet sleeper hits. Without giving away too much of the kind of 'twist at the end' plot, Little Bee is about the ravages of war and immigration. It's also about Africa and post-colonial, White British guilt. It's about reparations in a way, and it's about doing the right thing, even if the right thing comes at a great personal sacrifice. And even though all of those issues sound dark and heavy and probably the last thing anyone would want to read outside of a college classroom, Cleave did an amazing job creating a immensely readable, touching, tender and yes, sometimes horrifying story that gives readers something to really think about.

About the Author: Let's just get it out there. Chris Cleave is White. He is not affiliated or connected to Black Nigerians in any way. He did however spend the early years of his childhood, living in Cameroon. When asked why he wrote this story about an African assylum seeker he said he was inspired by his brief stint working in a detention center in England. He called it a "prison ...full of people who haven't committed a crime." He said the conditions were "distressing," and he just knew he had to write about this "dirty little secret."

The Success: First released in the UK under the title, The Other Hand, the novel was snapped up by Nicole Kidman for film adaption. In the United States the book was New York Times Bestseller and made several Best Of lists.

I enjoyed Little Bee but only discovered it by accident. I thought it was very interesting that the book was marketed in the United States with very little mention of its African protagonist. I wonder why? Thoughts?

I'm listening.



Sidne said...

thanks for bringing this novel to your blog. I'm going to look it up.

LT said...

You're welcome. It's a great book!

ThisNamLife said...

I read the book and why I give the author kudos for tackling a difficult subject: notably, what kind of help do you owe to another human being, especially a stranger? I was less than satisfied with the overall tone of the novel...Sadly, I felt that it was one of many books in which I have found that Africans are allowed to have only one of two dimensions: victim or monster...I would have liked for more nuance and also a greater awareness of the complexity of all human beings...of whatever race.

Anonymous said...


My book group will be discussing this book this weekend. I'm angry. Like ThisNamLife, I appreciate what the author set out to do and feel that the writer brings some beauty to a horrific story (making it compelling). But ThisNamLife is very right about the lack of nuance on the Nigerian side: victims or monsters but nothing in between. The final scene, for example, really shows this: as the white boy is dashing across the beach, his wife mother is being held back by soldiers, one of whom takes his rifle out and begins firing after the boy. This is a crowded beach in Nigeria, with black children and black mothers also along the sand. There's initial screaming but, once the Nigerian protagonist runs forward to save the white boy, well, everyone just goes back to what they're doing. This was the child that had just drawn gunfire seems to not matter as the black bystanders and children are there only to admire the white skin of the boy.

That pretty much sealed the book for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm a black woman and I thought this was an amazing book and that Chris Cleave did an amazing job of using the dual narrative and never revealinig everything/ leaving a lot of interpretations up to us. However, I do find it weird about publishing the book with two different titles.