Chris Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in London. His first novel, Incendiary, was published in twenty countries; won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award; was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize; won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club's First Fiction Award; and won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs 2007.
From a Q & A about his new novel, Little Bee:
Is the novel based on a true story?Read the complete Q & A.
No, but there’s one true story in particular that made me determined to write the novel. In 2001 an Angolan man named Manuel Bravo fled to England and claimed asylum on the grounds that he and his family would be persecuted and killed if they were returned to Angola. He lived in a state of uncertainty for four years pending a decision on his application. Then, without warning, in September 2005 Manuel Bravo and his 13-year-old son were seized in a dawn raid and interned at an Immigration Removal Centre in southern England. They were told that they would be forcibly deported to Angola the next morning. That night, Manuel Bravo took his own life by hanging himself in a stairwell. His son was awoken in his cell and told the news. What had happened was that Manuel Bravo, aware of a rule under which unaccompanied minors cannot be deported from the UK, had taken his own life in order to save the life of his son. Among his last words to his child were: “Be brave. Work hard. Do well at school.”
Did you have a personal reason to write the novel?
Yes, there was a chance encounter that really shook me up. Around fifteen years ago I was working as a casual labourer over the university summer vacation, and for three days I worked in the canteen of Campsfield House in Oxfordshire. It’s a detention centre for asylum seekers – a prison, if you like, full of people who haven’t committed a crime. I’d been living within ten miles of the place for three years and didn’t even know it existed. The conditions in there were very distressing. I got talking with asylum seekers who’d been through hell and were likely to be sent back to hell. Some of them were beautiful characters and it was deeply upsetting to see how we were treating them. When we imprison the innocent we make them ill, and when we deport them it’s often a death sentence. I knew I had to write about it, because it’s such a dirty secret. And I knew I had to show the unexpected humour of these refugees wherever I could, and to make the book an enjoyable and compelling read - because otherwise people’s eyes would glaze over.
Read an excerpt from Little Bee.
Visit Chris Cleave's website.