Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mr g

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

The creation wars. If you believe the newspapers – and some execrable American school boards – Christians believe that God is ‘up there’ somewhere tinkering away with the creation (one imagines some bearded whitefella fooling around with mud); and physicists believe that it all started with the Big Bang. Never, apparently, shall the twain speak except abusively, and without respect or understanding.

Me, I’m a Christian; I relate to the universe and my place in it through the lens of the Christian story. I also accept the Big Bang as the best scientific explanation of how the universe came to be, and evolution as the best explanation for how life began and takes the form it is now. I don’t see this as a contradiction, because I have faith in something bigger than can be encompassed by one religious framework, or one set of faith stories; any religion can offer only a partial glimpse. It is arrogant to the point of hubris to suggest that any human being or religious system has full knowledge, or can begin to fathom the size and extent of the universe, let alone the vastness and nature of what I, in my religion, call God.

And that is why I paradoxically loved the attempt of one human being to communicate the size and extent of the universe, and the vastness and nature of God. Mr g, by Alan Lightman, is a novel about the creation. After countless aeons wandering around the Void with Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, Mr g becomes a little bored. He is tired of nothingness; he feels like it is time for something. And so, in a playful mood, he dreams up Space. Out of this whim spin countless universes; and with Space, comes Time. Mr g and his relatives explore these new and interesting dimensions, until Mr g decides even more is needed. Therefore, in one universe, he invents matter – and then sits back and watches what happens.

As well as being an author, Lightman is a theoretical physicist, and the story of creation is beautifully described: the Big Bang, the expansion of matter, the development and collapse of stars, the slow movement of atoms into planets and solar systems, and, to Mr g’s surprise, the gradual development of animate matter out of inanimate particles. Even more surprising is the arrival of three new presences in the Void, particularly Belhor, a conversational sparring partner for Mr g.

These developments provoke many conversations in the Void. Will the animate matter have a soul? Will it experience suffering? What is the role of Mr g: to intervene, or to stay away from the creation? Animate matter longs for eternal life; can Mr g grant this? The conversations bring out different religious assumptions: Uncle Deva represents the Eastern; Aunt Penelope, the Greco-Roman; and Mr g, the Abrahamic faiths. Through all, Belhor plays Devil’s Advocate, arguing, for example, for the necessity of evil and ugliness now that goodness and beauty have come into being.

These thoughtful conversations are never turgid or heavy; rather they are brief exchanges interrupted by somersaulting demons and Mr g’s need for a long meditative walk to think things through – but they cut straight to the heart of the big questions. And just as the Christian scriptures tell stories of God evolving in response to human need, the eternal Mr g finds that he too is being affected, even changed, by his own creation.

Lightman is a beautiful and lucid writer, playful and evocative, and manages in this novel to convey, to some extent, the unimaginable vastness of Space and Time. If you are a rigid, conservative Christian, there is no question that you will find this book and the representation of God highly offensive, even blasphemous; you have been warned. But if you have a bigger idea of God, or if you are open to the idea of a curious, thoughtful, experimental supreme being, then you too might fall in love with this wonderful novel, and the way it allows scientific and religious stories of creation to lie not in opposition, but nested gently into each other, right where they belong.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Little Bee

Little Bee

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.

(If you've already enjoyed Little Bee, you may also like Wizard of the Crow.)

Wizard of the Crow