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“To be well in your mind you have first to be free” (Cleave 147). This quote taken from Little Bee not only grasps an evident theme in the novel but it also briefly identifies how the main character Little Bee struggles for freedom from society, her past, and ultimately herself. The novel is set in modern day Nigeria and the UK, where Nigeria is in the midst of an oil crisis and is struggling to keep it covert from the rest of the world. Little Bee is a sixteen year old Nigerian village girl whom after experiencing traumatic events, flees to England in hopes of escaping the horrors of her country and her past.
The psychological and social effects caused by traumatic events in Little Bee’s life can be seen mirrored in real-life situations of individuals undergoing post-traumatic stress, and as well as in cases of illegal immigration into the UK. The plot in Little Bee is developed around a life changing event that took place two years earlier on a Nigerian beach. Sarah and Andrew O’Rourke, two British tourists, as well as Little Bee were present. As a result of what they witness, they suffer psychologically for the two years following until the arrival of Little Bee in England.
Because of the desperate need of oil in various parts of the world Nigeria was a large contributor around the time the novel was set (2005-2007). Since a large amount of the oil rich land was inhabited by villagers, many of the oil companies paid local rebels to clear out villages and towns to allow for drilling. The tactics used by these soldiers however were very violent and many times involved mass killings of Nigerian villagers and the sexual assault of women. These traumatic events can lead to permanent mental damage, and affect a person’s personality, sense of self and social behaviours.
After seeing the murder of her entire village and family, Little Bee suffers from panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares as responses to her trauma. “Sometimes immediately, and sometimes after brief or even extended delay, most of us will experience intense feelings and symptoms related to the traumatic event” (“Responses to Trauma”). This is manifested through Little Bee’s behaviour in the detention centre. Also mentioned how insomnia, hyper vigilance about safety, and suicidal tendencies are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Little Bee recalls, “For the first six months in the detention center, I screamed every night and in the day I imagined a thousand ways to kill myself” (Cleave 47). These behaviors demonstrate common responses to traumatic events as outlined in the Institute of Maryland article. Thoughts and attempts of suicide are not uncommon occurrences at immigration detention centres throughout the UK. An article on Women who seek asylum in the UK states “… the emotional impact of refusal was also revealed: more than half of women refused asylum had contemplated suicide” (Radice, “Women Seeking Asylum in UK: Have We Lost Our Sense Of Humanity”).
Furthermore, after Little Bee’s life is saved by Sarah, she is forced to standby as her sister is raped by Nigerian soldiers and then brutally killed. She is permanently affected by this event and develops a constant fear of men. Cleave writes: I made myself undesirable … Under my clothes I wound a wide strip of cotton around my chest, to make my breasts small and flat… I rummaged through the cartons to find clothes that hid my shape … I went to the detention nurse and asked her to cut my hair very short. For the whole two years I did not smile or even look in any man’s face.
I was terrified. (7) Little Bee is immediately changed by what she has witnessed and is lead to believe that all men are dangerous and intend to hurt her. Even after being released she still fears that “the men” will come and get her and take her back to Nigeria. These thoughts and feelings are expressed many tomes throughout the novel. “Avoidance of triggers or reminders of the trauma: Given the intensity of your feelings when you are reminded of the trauma, it is only natural to avoid such triggers” (“Responses to Trauma”).
Little Bee’s feelings and behaviours are normal responses to trauma as they are a way for the victim to avoid the cause of the traumatic event. The behaviours displayed by Little Bee as a result of her trauma are very realistic to how any person who has experienced such things would behave. Little Bee’s response to trauma is to distance herself from triggers and reminders of what caused her pain. However, this internal conflict which pushes her to escape Nigeria, then leads Little Bee into a much more complex issue between her and British society as an illegal immigrant.
With certain death awaiting her in Nigeria, Little Bee is forced to leave and then finds herself detained in Black Hill Immigration Detention Centre for two years as an asylum seeker. Only after she is released accidentally does Little Bee realize that there was no other way they would have let her go otherwise. “‘dere is only one place where de proper procedure ends, and dat is de-por-tay-SHUN’…‘But we can’t work if we’re illegal Yevette. We can’t earn money. We can’t live’” (Cleave 73).
During this conversation with Yevette, (a Jamaican refugee who is responsible for their release) Little Bee not only comes to acknowledge that Yevette did her a favour but also realizes the restrictions that have been put on her life due to the fact she is now illegal. In addition for Little Bee to be detained for such an extended period of time was also not uncommon during these years, as the conditions by which she would be granted asylum were very tedious. “Women who were victims of sexual assault did not qualify. At best their abuse was seen as merely incidental to the political repression” (“Women and War Crimes”).
Hence, Little Bee’s claim as being merely a witness of mass murder and rape would not have qualified in the least for asylum much like a situation that reached the VANGUARD newspaper in the UK. “May Brown, a seventeen-year-old college student, fled to Britain from her home country three years ago after witnessing her father’s murder and being subjected to sexual abuse … However, despite her marriage her application was rejected” (“All Africa”). Many immigrants who landed in the UK around these years were either deported swiftly or detained in mass numbers, overpopulating detention centres.
“By 2009, the UK had the capacity to confine some 3000 people in immigration detention facilities…Approximately 26000 people were detained under Immigration Act powers in 2010” (“ United Kingdom Detention Profile” ). By illegally living in the UK Little Bee remains in constant fear she will be found out and deported. This causes her to hide in Sarah’s home and to isolate herself from the outside world. “‘I thought we could go into London. ’ I dropped my hands back down on the blankets. I said, ‘I like it here. ’ Sarah shook her head. ‘These are the suburbs, nothing ever happens here.
’ I said, ‘That’s why I like it’” (Cleave 210). Little Bee does not want to risk being found by the police upon leaving the safety of the suburbs, because she knows she will certainly face deportation. The hiding and lying essentially transforms Little Bee into a criminal in the very country where she seeks refuge. However, she eventually agrees to go to London, and what she fears most, ultimately happens. Little Bee’s deportation is yet another example of Cleave’s effective way of mirroring a fictional story with the reality of illegal immigrants in the UK.
Real-life situations of immigrants from crisis-torn countries such as Nigeria are accurately portrayed through the character of Little Bee and how she is both affected psychologically and socially by the events of her past. Chris Cleave achieves this through the intertwining story of Little Bee and how her life is influenced by the horrors she faces. As a novel, Little Bee allows for a unique insight on the perspectives of a Nigerian village girl, and how her life is changed socially and psychologically by her experiences.
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