I remember reading Little Bee, the novel by Chris Cleave, many years ago. I remember I loved it, that I couldn’t put it down and it really made me think. When I saw the excellent rendition of it by Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre last Friday, all the themes and the narrative grabbed me anew and threw me into another round of discovery.
For those of you not familiar with the story, Little Bee is a young Nigerian woman who met a British couple on a beach during wartime when Little Bee was fleeing her would-be captors and the couple were on a holiday trying to repair their damaged relationship. There is a horrifying violent encounter with soldiers which becomes a defining moment in both the couple’s and Little Bee’s life. Years later, they meet again in England and seek to repair the damage and find some way to connect. The novel is beautifully written, the story told in details that place the reader in each scene, and the play drew me in completely.
As the characters worked to find their way and make connections, I became one of them, asking myself the same questions that drove the cast, as adapter and director, Myra Platt, wrote in the liner notes: “How far would we go to help someone not of our culture? Whose lives have value? Who are we to tell someone they do not belong?” And I added a few of my own: “Why is it so hard to connect? What special role do women have in making the world a better place through our propensity to nurture connection? Why do we make it so hard for people seeking asylum to find it?” The scenes in the detention center were especially troublesome, and made me think of the abuse happening in Nepali refugee camps after the recent earthquakes, those fleeing an untenable situation Myanmar finally finding “temporary” refuge in Indonesia and Malaysia, and a recent incident in a refugee and immigration center here in the Northwest.
As Little Bee fights to keep a positive attitude, she holds on to her belief in the basic goodness in human nature and works to understand her new situation. Laura, the British woman, examines the hell her life has become and seeks connection to some part of herself she can see reflected in Little Bee. Even as the women struggle, they find the desire to help each other, work together, and forge a new path is stronger than the forces that would tear them apart. Their relationship stands as a powerful example of the power of trust, of possibility, the opportunity to learn from each other and provide shelter when possible.
I think about the times strangers have welcomed me during my travels, the times we made great efforts to learn about and understand each other. The hospitality shown me and what friendship with people from other cultures has meant to me makes me examine my own behavior here in the U.S. Am I as welcoming? When the opportunity has presented itself, I have opened my arms to embrace visitors, but have I reached out enough? How do I intend to extend the hand of friendship to others? How will I make my voice heard as I learn of atrocities committed in refugee and immigrant communities? How can I reconcile the fact that we are (almost all) descendants of immigrants, and yet we differentiate based on ethnicity, era and reason for immigration? How can we share the resources of time, money, space, and most importantly, friendship? I pledge to do better. Thank you, Little Bee, Laura, Chris Cleave, Myra Platt, and Book-It Repertory Theatre, for your inspiration.