What does Chris Cleave reveal (say) about power in Little Bee?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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When Little Bee commences, Little Bee has just been released from a center for refugees. She has been there for two years, like a prisoner. She reflects on what it would be like to be "a British pound" because, right now, despite her freedom, she is somewhat scared of her uncertain future. "A pound is free to travel to safety," signifying freedom to Little Bee which would empower her as up to now her life has been one of powerlessness and fear. 

There is power in the Queen of England and certainly power in language to the point that Little Bee recognizes that "I am only alive at all because I learned the Queen’s English." She suggests that "it is not the Queen’s crown and sceptre that rule in your land. It is her grammar and her voice."  At the same time, Little Bee is still afraid of what lies ahead and is angry at her own seeming lack of mastery, realizing that her efforts in the detention center to learn English were necessary but it is "quite another thing to actually speak the language." If she wants to mask her true identity, she "cannot afford to go around making mistakes like that." She has already realized that English people may not trust her if they know her real identity and her status as a refugee. 

Up until now, Little Bee has had to make compromises to ensure her safety. Her sister was not so lucky and Little Bee is haunted by thoughts of "when the men come suddenly." Even in the detention center, "I decided that talking would be safer for me" and would stop the authorities from sending her back to Nigeria whilst at the same time the men in the center will leave her alone. She goes to great lengths to hide her femininity, allowing herself only one indulgence - painted toe nails. This is the only power she has over her situation and she believes it "saved my life."

Hiding her true identity is also crucial and her name change is a form of protection for her;Little Bee being the name she chose that has no threatening connotations, reveals powerlessness in its use of the diminutive "little" and will, in itself protect her and this marginally empowers her. 

The author is making the point that, even though there is a stark difference between Nigeria, its cultures and its beliefs; for Little Bee and others like her, being locked up in England where "there were no seasons" in the dark and cold rooms is just as restrictive, rendering her powerless and from which she can never recover as "in my soul she (herself) is still locked up in there, forever."

Language is so powerful and Little Bee is so aware of this as she struggles to understand English words in context rather than simply their literal meanings. "Every word can defend itself. Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air." So the reader, early in the story, already understands that money and language are power - "You are like sorcerers and you have made your language as safe as your money."

Charlie sees the world in terms of "goodies" and "baddies" and his Batman character allows him to cope with an otherwise unforgiving world and the death of his father as these are things he cannot control. Little Bee's efforts to control her circumstances are evident from the fact that she plans her own suicide - just in case she needs to escape any life-threatening danger.  

Thus, power or powerlessness must be recognized in order to survive. "A scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."

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