Little Bee is a bestselling novel about a young Nigerian refugee who, with the English woman who befriends her, faces a disturbing past and uncertain future.
But I don’t read novels. My bedside stand (and bookshelf by the sofa) are overflowing with memoirs, oral histories, biographies… and the occasional “how to write” book. My “hold” list at the library sends more every few days. I just don’t have time for fiction. So what is Little Bee doing here?
Of course there’s a story. The book came into my posession in the parking lot in front of the Hawthorne Branch library, located in the same seedy strip mall as JJ’s Fish and Chicken, the strip mall with a starring role in Chris Connolly’s “My 3rd Most Violent Vomiting Experience.” A young man came up to me asking for $20, the usual ploy about “my wife’s in the hospital thirty miles away and I ran out of gas.” In a twist on this old standard he offered to give me some books in exchange.
“I don’t believe your story,” I said, “but you wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t need the money.” I gave him the $20. (Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.)
“Please, at least take the books,” he said. I looked at the handful of paperbacks he held toward me. I’d heard Little Bee was a good novel. So I took it.
Now, a year later, my stack of “true” books ran thin and I filled in a summer weekend or two reading the novel and confronting my own “fear of fiction.”
So what’s my deal on this? First, some holdover of stubborn Yankee sentiment that fiction is a waste of time. What can we learn from fairy tales? But of course that’s nonsense. Great writers have encoded great teaching into stories drawn from their imaginations. Can’t say that I’ve read much of it but that’s my problem, not the authors’. Second, it’s just a problem of time. I’ve triaged my reading down to that which informs and expands my passion for “true stories well told.”
When you’re out of the habit of reading novels, the Yankee keeps raising its querulous little head to say things like, “But that’s a man writing a woman’s point of view. How can he get it right?” And, “But I can’t even trust that what he’s describing took place. What can I learn from something I can’t trust?” See, the Yankee can’t even let me take a Sunday afternoon break from learning!
Well, here’s what I learned from Little Bee. Most–maybe all–writing takes place somewhere on a continuum between truth and fairy tale. Categories like “Fiction” and “Nonfiction” are useful for booksellers but also absurdly reductionist.
Sometimes those who think they are writing truth delude themselves. Sometimes those who write fiction use it as cover for what would be too dangerous to tell as truth, or to put a human face on abstract issues. Such was the case with Little Bee.
I have a special affection–you could almost call it a fetish–for those Author’s Notes that typically follow the final chapter of a book, or more rarely precede the opening–those notes in which the author tells you where on the continuum between truth and fiction to set your expectations.
Here’s the first of three pages of Notes that closed Little Bee.
It was good for me to practice suspending my disbelief, to read the story of two women as imagined by a man, because he made a tragic situation into a call for moral action through the magic of his fiction.
I should give myself permission to read fiction more often. There’s a lot I can learn from it.