I don't know about you, but I am tired. I am tired of our government locking up men, women and children in immigration detention here and abroad; I am tired of our customs and naval services being implicated in the drownings at sea of desperate people who have risked death in a leaky boat over certain torture in their own countries; I am tired of having bits of our country excised into special zones no longer eligible for asylum claims; I am tired of members of our government calling people who make legal claims to asylum 'illegal' even as the government itself continues to break international laws and treaties to which it is a signatory; I am tired of hearing people who should know better telling me that asylum seekers are criminals in their own countries, and that they throw their children overboard; and I am tired of reading about it all. I have written letters and signed petitions and volunteered at charities which provide services for asylum seekers; I have written about media portrayals of asylum seekers in the newspaper; I have preached on the ancient prophetic call to care for the refugee; I support family and friends as they study and work with asylum seekers and refugees; I spend time each week with refugee children myself; I pray – and I am so tired.
I have been ground down. I still care, but I feel hopeless. And hopelessness leads to despair, and despair leads to passivity – and that's not a good place to be.
But last week, I read Little Bee. It is the story of two women: Little Bee herself, the teenage survivor of genocide who has fled to England seeking asylum; and Sarah, the Englishwoman Little Bee met on a beach in Nigeria and whom she has come to find. The novel alternates between their voices as their lives become intertwined; and it is the saddest, funniest, most compulsively readable story I have read in a while.
Little Bee is luminous. She has been through the fire; she is deeply traumatised; and yet she has decided to seek beauty in the world's scars. Meanwhile, Sarah is also deeply traumatised by the events of their first meeting and what ensued; but her trauma has been largely blanketed over by the comforts of wealth. Their reunion cracks her mask, and allows Sarah to return from moral death back to life.
Sarah doesn't particularly want to make this journey. When they first met, she made a significant sacrifice for Little Bee, but she does her best not to think about it. As the editor of a fashion magazine, she wishes fashion and make up were enough for her; she would prefer her life to be pleasant and fun. Despite her efforts to be frivolous, however, her deeper moral compass continues to bind her to Little Bee in ways that make her life decidedly more difficult. The novel is both the telling of Little Bee's story, and the chart of Sarah's journey.
The book is very hard going in places, particularly when Little Bee recollects what happened to her village. Horrific events are recounted calmly, but are, of course, deeply distressing. What makes the book manageable is Little Bee's generosity of spirit, and a good dose of black humour. As a coping mechanism to deal with her very reasonable terror of what will happen when 'the men' come, Little Bee works out how to commit suicide in any setting; many of her plans are decidedly comic. For example, she is fixated on Queen Elizabeth II, and in one scene imagines how she will commit suicide at the Queen's garden party.
A further note of humour is provided by Batman, Sarah's four-year-old son, who lives in the costume of the caped crusader and will only answer to that name. Like any four-year-old, he erupts into the most serious moments with 'mine done a poo' and other tricks; and any parent will recognise Sarah's voice as she struggles through a devastating conversation spliced with instructions to her son not to spill cornflakes on the floor.
This humour, and the human side, give the book the voice of authenticity. The story isn't perfect, and the dialogue is somewhat hackneyed at times, but it is a great read. Little Bee's story could easily have become a treatise on the experiences of asylum seekers, both abroad and in Western detention centres; and while these stories must be told, they are easily ignored and don't make for bestsellers. Splicing the story in with conversations about cornflakes on the floor make it both more shocking, and more real, because it brings it home.
As mentioned above, there are several very distressing scenes; as I read in a café in the spare hour between writing with refugee kids and picking up my daughter from kindergarten, I wept over my café latte. It aligned me uncomfortably closely to Sarah, also fond of a coffee, also the mother of a four-year-old – and it was a good place to be taken.
One of the curses of privilege is that one can fall into the trap of thinking that one has somehow earned it, and that one has the right to protect it. One can also feel affronted when other, less privileged, people make one's life uncomfortable – such as when one feels tired, so tired, when one thinks of asylum seekers. Me, I'd prefer they didn't make me so uncomfortable. If they need to come, then of course they should, but it would be so much more pleasant if we could just welcome them and they could then assimilate and become invisible. I am fed up with being made to feel morally uncomfortable because I belong to a society which treats asylum seekers like sub-humans, and has normalised that attitude to such an extent that when I wrote about refugee children in the newspaper, I received letters from people saying it was the first time it had occurred to them that they were just people (!). But somehow my feelings of frustration have spread from government, elected officials and the media to asylum seekers as well. Such are the poisonous times in which we live.
However, Little Bee makes the story of seeking asylum personal; and Sarah brings it home to the comfortable suburbs. As a reader, I am reminded that as a person of privilege I don't have the moral option of feeling despair. I think I'm tired? I should go live in a detention centre somewhere and fill in a form every time I need a new sanitary pad; I should try to sleep when I am tormented by violent memories of what happened to my village and my loved ones; I should live in detention year in year out with no visa and no hope; and then I might know something about fatigue and despair. Or I could read Little Bee again, experience life through her eyes, and then recommend her story to you. Any novel which makes nice middle class women laugh out loud and then weep and lie awake at night, confronted by their own complacency – well, that can only be a good thing. Read it.