Author travels the ocean to launch a dialogue in Cambridgeby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Cambridge, Minn. — Cambridge, about an hour north of the Twin Cities, welcomed a special guest to its Cambridge Coomunity Read: bestselling British author Chris Cleave.
His book "Little Bee" has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. Cleave has come all the way from London specifically to visit Cambridge, and he's looking to start a good debate.
As Cleave signed copies of Little Bee at Scout and Morgan Books in Cambridge, he chatted with everyone who came to see him. He kept apologizing for being a little jet-lagged, but no one seemed to mind.
Store owner Judith Kissner is on the Cambridge Community Read committee. The committee picked "Little Bee" a while back.
It was a change for the event, because in the three other years it selected Minnesota authors. They knew Cleave lives in London, so the organizers thought it was unlikely he'd come, but they liked the book so much they decided to asked his publisher.
"And he contacted us and said, 'When will you decide on your book? And if you do choose "Little Bee," we will send Chris Cleave to Cambridge, at no charge to your community or our organization," Kissner recounted.
And the reason? Just ask Cleave.
"I asked my publishers to start sending me to some new places," he said. He was tired of the book tour beat and wanted something else.
"I just thought I'd like to come and see some different parts of America and see how people live."
Actually, there is a little more than that. Cleave wants to start a discussion. "Little Bee" is a story of two women, Little Bee and Sarah, who meet on a beach in Nigeria. Their encounter is brief but changes both their lives. The story picks up a few years later when Little Bee, now living illegally in Britain, turns up on Sarah's doorstep, asking for help.
Kissner said the book is perfect for a community read because it encourages readers to consider difficult questions.
"How far would any of us as human beings go literally to save someone else's life? We never really know what we would do if we were in a similar circumstance as one of the narrators of 'Little Bee' was," Kissner said. "And then on a larger issue, at what point do human beings decide not to continue to turn their head at the plight of other people, even though those people live across the ocean?"
And those are just some of the questions that Cleave has been asking at readings around the world. He talks about open-ended issues, questions of altruism and self-interest, of immigration and development. He said the immigration question is always a good one -- particularly in America, where the question is who is an immigrant?
"Where do you draw the line that says 'OK, this is the country now? We are all here because of immigration, but it finishes at this date.' Now what is that date? Is it 1776? Is it sometime in the mid-19th century? Is it 2001? Is it 2011? I don't know."
He said he's always eager to hear the answers people give.
"We are always told the world is getting smaller and we are getting more and more like each other, but I don't agree," he said. "One of the fun things about being alive right now is to see as the world culturally becomes more homogenous, what are the things that are still really different? Turns out places still do keep their character. Communities still do hang together. People are still proud of the differences they have."
Cleave's looking forward to hearing what people in a community like Cambridge, which is heavily influenced by agriculture, thinks of the themes in his book. He's amazed how heated the discussions can get sometimes.
He remembers going to a tiny community in New Zealand with a population of about 600.
"And I swear every single one of them had turned up at the bookstore for this discussion, and it went on late into the night. And it got really heated, and, by the end, it calmed down again, and people brought wine and beer, and it turned into a party."
Some 200 hundred people are expected to come hear Cleave Wednesday evening at the Hardy Center in Cambridge. He said he's looking forward to the conversation, and he hopes it continues when he is gone.
- All Things Considered, 05/10/2011, 6:15 p.m.