An interview with author Chris Cleave, whose best-selling “Little Bee” is soon to be a stage show presented by Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle.
Thousands are fleeing strife-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East for Europe by dangerous (and sometimes fatal) boat crossings.
Such are the recent headlines reflecting the latest humanitarian crisis of desperate refugees, risking all to escape violence, persecution and poverty in their homelands.
British writer Chris Cleave knows well the ongoing dilemma facing such émigrés, who often arrive in the West to a chilly welcome.
By Chris Cleave, adapted by Myra Platt. Book-It Repertory Company, through May 17 at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $25 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
Cleave explored the personal ramifications of the issue and earned a global readership via his best-selling 2008 novel “Little Bee,” which Book-It Repertory is presenting in Myra Platt’s new dramatization. It runs through May 17 at the Center House Theatre.
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The title character is a bright, asylum-seeking African girl of 16, who flees for her life from Nigeria’s ethnic and civil unrest, to land in legal limbo in England. Cleave contrasts her perspective with that of Sarah, a British magazine editor who is challenged when Little Bee seeks her help after running away from an immigration detention center.
Cleave visited Seattle when his book was a 2011 selection in the Seattle Public Library’s citywide Seattle Reads program. Unable to come to this week’s Book-It opening, the Londoner agreed recently to an email interview.
Raised partly in the African nation of Cameroon, Cleave said he worked briefly in the 1990s at a U.K. immigration detention center. “It was a prison basically. The conditions were shocking. The detainees were charged with no crime except not being British. We were locking them up indefinitely and without trial, which I thought was shameful.”
Cleave learned to swim on beaches like one where Little Bee has a catastrophic encounter, and where the vacationing Sarah meets her briefly. For further research, he called himself “lucky to live in London, so I was able to go down the road and interview people from the exact areas [in Nigeria] I was interested in. It is fascinating to tap the life experience a city contains these days. You can travel the whole world for the price of a metro ticket. “
Asked why he told the story in two voices, he explained, “We, the comparatively very rich, can no longer pull up the drawbridge and let the very poor rot out there. They are coming whether we like it or not, so we will have to arrive at some accommodation with those dispossessed by violence and disaster. That is the big story and it lives in two voices: the voice of the haves and the voice of the have-nots.”
Along with the tale’s horrors and ambivalence, it’s flecked with social satire of the Brits. On this point, Cleave quotes Oscar Wilde: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Compared to the U.K., Cleave contends “the U.S. is more honest in its treatment of refugees and migrants, for the simple reason that [it] takes democracy more seriously.”
“In the U.K. these issues are effectively decided for us behind closed doors … In the U.S. there is a real public debate, which informs policy. The results are often mutually contradictory — you build a wall, and grant naturalization amnesty. But they do represent the democratic will of the people.”
“Little Bee” is in print in over 30 languages — “nowhere near ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ but I live in hope that one day the readers of earth will be more excited about setting people free than tying them up.”
No film is planned yet, but Cleave was pleased by the abridged version of Book-It’s “Little Bee” he saw while in town for Seattle Reads. “Their mission is visionary,” he recalled. “It was a brilliant performance and one of the highlights of my life as a writer.”