March 13, 2014
I just finished reading a novel called Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. I came upon this book accidentally, as is often the way I come across a particular book. I’m a haunter of thrift stores, bargain bins, and garage sales for new and interesting titles to line my bookshelves with, both the ones in my home and the ones in my classroom. I’m a big believer in the power of the written word to transport and transform, to ignite and incite, and to engross and entertain. I believe in surrounding myself and my children with words, because I believe it encourages them to know that their voices, too, are powerful. Entertaining. Valuable.
So I came across this book on one of my treasure hunts. I looked first at the binding, then at the cover, and then at the synopsis on the back. We tell kids not to judge a book by its cover, but my students—especially my reluctant readers—don’t often know where else to begin. And if we’re honest, we adults who attempt to guide students through the world of knowledge outside their own worlds, we’ll admit that it’s often where we begin, too. Why on earth else would publishers and artists expend so much time, energy, and money on what the outside of the book looks like? If we want people to walk into our house and cozy up on the figurative couch with our ideas, we’re going to want our front porch to be inviting, right? Of this particular book, Little Bee, I thought the graphics and the title were interesting. The back cover summary, which intimated a dark secret that bound two women inextricably, was intriguing. I dropped the book into my cart with several companions, made my purchase, and then set out to divide my new acquisitions between my classroom and home libraries. Little Bee was one I couldn’t immediately place—not until I’d read it and determined what, in fact, was the secret, and whether or not my classroom was the right home for it.
I dove in, not knowing what to expect. Little Bee turned out to be the name of our protagonist, one of two alternating narrators in the work. The world of Little Bee, a sixteen-year-old illegal immigrant fleeing the horrors of her native Nigeria, is shocking, unsettling. How she comes to find herself connected to Sarah and her son Charlie is a series of choices, each one setting a subsequent one in motion, until their worlds collide and become simultaneously uncomfortably and comfortably intertwined. The secret that binds them? I will reveal no more than the back cover of that novel did. Suffice it to say the secret continues to be revealed and unraveled throughout the course of the novel. Each piece of the secret that comes to light lays bare another part of the story—and it’s worth digging in deeper to find the whole story.
It’s not a nice story. In fact, it takes the reader to some very dark places. I wanted to look away; I wanted to put down the book and be done. But it was compelling, you see, shining a light on a place and an injustice most of us will, thankfully, never see in the kind of first-hand nightmare-you-can’t-escape kind of way. We can put the book down—take a break from it for a while, live our reality, flawed though it may be—and remember that we are not in that place. But the point is, there are people for whom this is a reality, an existence from which they can’t escape. And in the end, I had to go back; I had to know what happened to Little Bee and to Sarah.
In my neighborhood, there are no guerrilla troops raiding villages; there is not a violent power struggle between powerful factions that leaves torn and broken human collateral damage in its wake. This world I stepped into as a brief visitor is, however, real. The story is inspired by theft and greed and corruption over real crude oil in a very real Nigeria. The true events are well-documented and thoroughly researched. If I’d come across a news article online about the human injustice—the unadulterated disregard for human life at the expense of a land-grab that might yield financial gain—I would almost certainly flick the page or scroll past the story. I would exercise the kind of purposeful ignorance that many who are comfortable in life often exercise. If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
The book, though—it made it real. Funny thing, that; a fictionalized account is what made the thing real to me. Why? Because it humanized the circumstances for me. It made it personal. I cared about Little Bee’s experience; I cared about her life. I was invested and I was moved. Her story continued to stay with me when I was not with her, and her story continues to affect me even though I have turned the final page. This is not to say that a non-fiction account couldn’t have done the same thing; this is to say that it didn’t.
This perhaps sounds like a book review, or possibly the initial workings-out of an analysis. That is not my intent. What continued to reverberate in my mind for quite a while after reading the book in addition to the fact that I had been educated about a facet of the modern world I didn’t even know existed was something entirely outside of the story itself. As teachers of English, we have seen a seismic shift in the past several years regarding the importance of reading. What do kids need to read in order to be productive citizens? What do students need in order to adequately and appropriately enter the work force? Overwhelmingly, the answer from the world of business and even the world of academia has been a sharp aversion to the luxury of reading fiction ‘for fun’ and a turn toward non-fiction. Functional, informative, necessary. That’s what our kids need. They need to be critical thinkers and they need to be problem-solvers. Nowhere in their world, unless their aspiration is to become a stuffy and quaint 19th Century Literature professor, will they be asked to read novels to make a living. Why on earth hold on to such antiquated ideas about English curriculum? Why bother? The novel is dead; no one needs to read fiction anymore. It isn’t relevant. It isn’t real.
Except that it is relevant; it is real. Unrest in Nigeria is real, and citizens are dying. Government tyranny and oppression, like Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, exist. Today. Right now. Compelling and disturbing choices have resounding and long-lasting effects on the human psyche, such as those illustrated in The Kite Runner or The Poisonwood Bible. Real? These authors aren’t writing about characters; they are writing about life. Real life. Issues in our world. Problems that need solved. Questions that need to be faced. Questions that need to be answered. Oh, they’re real, alright. And although nonfiction writers write about some of these same issues and ask us to contemplate the hard questions, fiction writers dress up those issues in raiment familiar and close to us, so that we may examine them firsthand, walking hand in hand with the characters on their journey. They allow us to see the human-ness behind the story and see the way in which a person can inhabit the experience in a personal way. The fiction, in fact, makes it real. We are drawn in by the cover or by the artwork on the front, and we are dropped headlong into a reality we might never have known we didn’t know.
Functional, informative, necessary. That’s what reading should be, according to the pundits of the day. And make no mistake; I am not advocating abstaining from reading nonfiction. There is a wealth of fascinating, engaging, and informative nonfiction to take in. But to sweep under the rug the vast landscape of literary fiction as a superfluous luxury is not only erroneous, but dangerous. Fiction draws us in because we are human, because we want to relate. And because it draws us in, it is able to delve into what connects us as human beings because we become invested in the lives of those we spend time with—in real life and in between the pages of a book. Good fiction is functional; it begs us to think and draw parallels and understand what it means to be human. Good fiction is informative; it shows us vast landscapes, both literal and figurative, that expand our horizons. Good fiction is necessary; it connects us to each other across time and across place. It reminds us that there is more that should bind us as humans than that should divide us.
Functional, informative, necessary. I suppose all depends really, on how you choose to define those terms. If you boil them down to the lowest form, the most basic of terms, one might say you only need the barest of essentials. On the one hand, perhaps one might define that as eliminating ‘superfluous fiction’. Read only what you need to do in order to function appropriately within the construct of the job you’ve chosen to pursue. Perhaps you only need to read science documents for your job, or perhaps read government policy. I would agree that those are necessary skills. On the other hand, might one not define the most necessary element of our future as the ability to read a common thread of humanity among us? The ability to put a human face to the issues that need our problem-solvers and our critical thinkers? This is not a luxury or a past-time for the idle; this is what we need as a society. We need never to forget our connectedness, and fiction allows us to remember in a real and personal way. It may, as it turns out, be exactly what we need.