I was stuck at LAX for four painful hours and lacked a great read to help kill the time. At the bookshop, I bypassed the usual romance chick lit and landed on the lovely Little Bee – a natural choice considering the current uproar over the Arizona immigration laws.
The jacket called to me. I was able to buzz through Chris Cleave’s bestselling story of a Nigerian refugee and her attempts to take safe shelter in Britain over my holiday weekend. I devoured each page as if I were reading about my own ancestors and their plight to escape antisemitism in Poland for a home where you aren’t overpowered by murderous armed men. Little Bee’s struggle is both myopic and familiar, shedding light on the horrors and humiliation of detainment through the journey of a girl escaping civil war brutality near her once peaceful village.
We sail through our lives never really grasping the refugee experience – and tend to be amazed when learning the mistreatment of detainees occurs daily on own shores in our own crudely built shelters by our own people. What emerges in this story is a gratifying friendship between the refugee and a British journalist who would risk everything to protect the life a child, even a disparate stranger on a beach, simply because it is the humanitarian choice. Heart wrenching as it is to join Little Bee on her precarious flight to safety, we walk away more sensitized, if not infuriated. I immediately thought of Arizona, and developed even more empathy for immigrants worldwide who dare to cross borders in highly policed countries. Meantime, I ache for those who are consistently sent back.
“Does our book club read anything but stories about women in pain?” asked my avid reader friend, Julie. Avoiding pitching yet another one, I ordered Shanghai Girls on the side. Like Little Bee, this story highlights the female refugee experience. The tale of two Chinese sisters in the mid-1930’s struggling to find a new in America is told by Lisa See with the gentle but masterfully detailed brush strokes of a water color painting. Infused with the colorful descriptions of their sophisticated life before the revolution, May and Pearl pose for a seductive commercial artist to make extra money and hobnob in cafes frequented by their contemporaries. But a father’s blunder in handling his finances and selling the girls as chattel through a bad arrangement changes life as they knew it.
After a miserable detainment in California’s Angel Island, they arrive in Los Angeles and restart their lives amidst vehement prejudices and restrictions of the time. Throughout the read, you’ll find yourself cursing the injustices foisted upon women without power, while sharing a sense of guilt as an American for a system that continues to punish new settlers who have already suffered countless, inhumane abuses. Born in the USA? Without paperwork to show it, you might suffer a fate worse than death.