Chris Cleave's Keynote

Thanks to all of you who have read the shared reader for this year, my novel Little Bee. People often ask me, having read the book, about some of the possible responses to it, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. So thanks to those of you who’ve read it, and thanks to all of you who are about to read it, and thanks also to all of you who will at the appropriate time pretend to have read it but who will, in reality, be far too busy with the intellectual and social opportunities furnished by this terrific institution to actually read a novel right now, and who will instead download the executive summary from my website – I salute your initiative. You will go far. And I would also say to you, hey, maybe give the book a try – it really isn’t too bad.

I have been fortunate over the last few years to have travelled the length and breadth of this country, talking with all kinds of people and listening to their stories, and the more I learn about America the more I’m grateful for it. This country is a shining light, a beacon in the world, and it’s a real thrill and a humbling experience for me as a British novelist every time I come to this country that has been responsible for so much of my cultural upbringing as an artist and which continues to lead the way in the field of literature. It’s great to be talking with you today.

Pace University, you are incredible. Congratulations on being here. I’ve learned that there are 13,000 students at Pace, representing every academic discipline and cultural background imaginable. You study here in a climate of excellence in what is one of the most open-to-the-world institutions I’ve ever seen, with an emphasis on being good members of your community and your country and your planet. Pace University is special and unique.

You go on to great things - to be Fulbright scholars and scientists and artists and academics and business leaders, and you come together to do this from such a huge geographical sweep, it’s really impressive. I’ve learned that the international students at Pace come from over 100 different countries – that’s quite something. That means that if you’re open and curious then just by talking to each other, in this place, over the next few years, you will have travelled half the world in the friendships you will form and the global understanding you will gain. If nothing else, just think of the air fares you’ll be saving. What an incredible place to be a student.

I have to say, when I learned how many of you, like me, were visitors from overseas, I knew we would have at least one thing in common: we all know how hard it is to get through US immigration. I talk a lot about how your passport is the single most important book you’ll ever own, and how lucky you are if you have one that works, but even with a good passport it’s hard when you finally get to the head of the line at the immigration counter at Kennedy airport.

They always ask me: are you here on business? And I say yes. Actually I say yes sir, because, you know, the guys tend to be quite a lot stronger than me, and armed. So they say: What job do you do? And I say: Sir, I’m a novelist.

This is the look they give me. I see. Because novelist does sound quite a lot like a euphemism for unemployed, drunk, and undesirable.

So I’m like: no, really. I’m a proper novelist. It’s my full-time job. Millions of people in thirty languages have read my stories, and I’m pretty sure that nearly all of them are attractive and popular people with considerable good taste and style.

I see, they say. You written anything I might have read?

Yes, I say, I wrote a novel called Little Bee. It’s basically about becoming a global citizen. It’s about love and danger and refugees and immigration.

I see, they say. So you have opinions about my job, do you?

It’s always a tense moment. One of the things you’re occasionally asked to do, to get through immigration in this country on a business trip, is to prove that you are here to do work that no American could do. In a country of 300 million people who are smarter, freer and pretty much universally taller than me, that’s unfeasibly hard to prove. You get involved in some really technical conversations.

Yesterday at the airport they asked me: So what exactly will you be doing on this visit, sir?

I told them: Well, I’m going to stand up in front of thousands of very bright people and tell them the truth about being a global citizen.

I have to specify that thing about the truth, because of course my job as a novelist is to lie. My job is to make up stories that never happened, and present them in a way that makes them sound as if they did.

I might say to you: listen, Pace, there was this African girl – she was fourteen years old - she was just waking up in her village one day when suddenly the men came – soldiers – and all the cooking pots were kicked over into the dust and there was a massacre and the soldiers killed everyone in the village, even the mothers and the children and the dogs – they even dragged the dogs around to the back of the huts and the dogs knew what was going to happen to them and their hackles were up and they were yelping but the soldiers shot them, and then they took the collars off the dead dogs and put the collars in their bags to sell at the market the next week – but this one African girl managed to escape into the jungle with her sister, and they hid in the jungle and heard the distant screams from their village fading into a terrible silence and they watched a tall black column of smoke rising up over the forest canopy as the thatched roofs of their houses burned, and they were scared, and they fled to the sea, and the African girl’s name was Little Bee and she was a likeable young woman, clever and funny and kind, and her sister was killed but Little Bee managed to stow away on a cargo ship to England, and this was just the start of her troubles.

And I might say all of this, because it’s my job to help you imagine. Even though Little Bee was never a person who actually existed and this exact story never happened to anyone. It’s a lie, but because you are decent human beings with feelings, it does something to your emotions that is visceral and true. My job as a novelist is to lie in a way that is emotionally true.

Why does it feel true? One, because I do my research about the conditions on the ground in the countries I write about, so I know my stories are realistic portrayals of the situations that are really happening in the world, right now, as we speak. And two, it feels true because I have space as a novelist to include the little human details that the newspapers and the TV don’t have space for. As a novelist I can include that detail about how even the dogs were killed, and their collars collected and sold for the sake of a couple of dollars, and that is something the heart bleeds for.

The TV news will tell you: eighteen people died in ethnic violence in a small Nigerian village, which is true, and you will forget it very quickly. I will tell you: the dogs were family pets and they were dragged away from the children they had been trying to defend and they died in the dust with their teeth bared and their hackles up and their collars were sold for twenty cents each, and that’s made up, but it feels real.

I want my novels to feel more realistic than the television news.

So what I do when I’m writing is, I interview dozens of people who have personal experience of the kinds of situations I’m writing about. When I was researching Little Bee I interviewed refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world, and I asked them to tell me their stories, and over a period of many months I collected all these horrifying details.

A novel, like a university, has a time of convocation. In your initial research you convene a diverse set of people in the service of a worthwhile project. The sense of potential at such a time – just like the awesome sense of potential in this room today – is electrifying. It’s positive. It’s inspiring. It makes you believe you can be more, and achieve more, than you could ever achieve on your own. And after the convocation, just as in a university, there begins a time of learning. From the mouths of refugees I learned some truths about what it means to be one of the disenfranchised citizen of this world, to be swept around helplessly on its crueller tides and currents, to be broken and beaten and battered, and just occasionally to find the strength and the opportunity to fight back and find peace again, and to strive for that elusive thing which I have learned is the greatest and rarest luxury on this whole troubled planet of ours: a quiet life with your family and friends.

I promised you that today I was going to tell you the truth about being a global citizen. And so to begin with I’m going to tell you a true story and it’s this: You can do what you want with your life.

There. I didn’t say it was going to be a long true story. You can do what you want with your life. The end.

It’s a short true story, but not many people on earth can say that. What I learned when I was researching Little Bee is that most people on this planet are just surviving from one day to the next. I learned that most of the world is brought low by war and conflict and poverty and dictatorship and disease. But you, in this free country, in this great independent university with its policy of inclusiveness and its motto of opportunitas, you are in the very rare position of being able to chose what kind of global citizens you want to be, and that’s why it makes sense to talk about it today.

You have this great opportunity, and you can do what you want with your life.

So how do you chose what kind of global citizen you’re going to be?

Well, here’s another true story. When I was researching Little Bee I learned about a British guy called John. He was working in an office, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that at the time we join him in the story of his life, he was a pretty ordinary guy with a wife and kids and a mortgage, working a pretty standard office job. He was a nice guy with no unusually strong interest in the wider world that surrounded him.

Anyway, John was working late one evening, and he became friends with a woman who was cleaning the office building where he worked. Her name was Angela and she was from Jamaica and there was no need for them to get along, or even to pass the time of day together, except that for whatever reason they exchanged a polite nod and there was some spark, perhaps of curiosity or maybe just of common courtesy, that turned it into a conversation. And they discovered that they liked each other.

They got into the habit of chatting from time to time, whenever their paths happened to cross, and over the course of several weeks John learned that Angela was a refugee. She was an asylum seeker. She’d got on the wrong side of some powerful people in Jamaica, and she was frightened for her life there, so she’d fled to my country, Great Britain, and applied for political asylum, for the right to remain and be safe.

And what had happened was, her application had been denied. She was due to be forcibly deported back to Jamaica, and as far as she knew she would face persecution and maybe even death when she arrived there. She had no savings, no money to fight against her immigration decision in a court of law. In short, she was finished. And John was sad to hear this, because he’d grown used to their little chats, but she was going to be deported and there was nothing he could do about it and it was just another sad chapter in the age-old and inevitable story of this world’s haves and have-nots. Right?

Except that at this point, John did something that wasn’t in the script. He went on Google and he found an immigration lawyer, and he said look, just out of curiosity, how much money would it take for you to get a dossier together, to collect solid evidence about my friend’s predicament, and to appeal against her asylum decision? And the lawyer named a fairly substantial number, which just happened to roughly correspond to John’s life savings.

So then John was presented with a pretty stark decision. A human being’s life, or my life savings? And he thought about it for a couple of days, and a couple more days, and then he did something else that wasn’t supposed to be in the script: he wrote the immigration lawyer a cheque. And so a case was prepared, and contested in court. Great. What a hero. Except that after several months of intense effort and stress, Angela lost that court case and a date for her deportation was set.

And so of course at this point, with his life savings gone but his moral integrity as a human being intact, John could now say: Well, at least I did everything I could. Except that’s not what he said. What he actually said was: No. I’m not going to accept this. I refuse to see my fellow human being deported by bureaucrats to a place where she might get killed. And so what he did was, he went on Google again, and found a better immigration lawyer, the kind rich people use, and he said hey, just out of curiosity, how much money would it take to actually win this asylum case? And the lawyer came up with a number that more or less equated to the value of John’s family’s home. And so John thought about it for a couple of days, and a couple more days, and then he did the third thing that no sane person would do but which no moral person could fail to do: he remortgaged his family home and wrote the immigration lawyer a very large cheque.

And then he told his wife what he’d done.

Maybe in the future in your long, exciting, and I hope very happy lives, maybe some of you will have the opportunity of telling your husbands or your wives that you have just unilaterally liquidated your major joint asset in the pursuit of a personal moral or philosophical project. If you do have that experience, then I hope the conversation goes better for you than it went for John. I don’t know how close their marriage came to ending, or how many nights John spent on the couch, or whether in the fullness of time John and his wife will be able to laugh about it together over a glass of wine, but I’m guessing the answers would be very close, several weeks, and maybe.

Well, something good happened, which was that the new lawyer was great and he won Angela’s case for her, and she was given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. What John had done was, he had saved her life. And I’ll leave it for you to decide how he felt about that.

You don’t have to do what John did. You can save someone’s life by donating $20 to fund immunization projects in the Amazon basin. For $200, you can save a whole bunch of lives by paying for a fresh water well to be drilled in the Masai Mara. For $2,000, which is still not a fortune, you can save a classroom’s worth of lives by paying for a school to be built in Sierra Leone.

Life is cheap. You can look at that old cliché in a very positive way. It costs a ridiculously small amount of money to save a stranger’s life – it costs less than a round of drinks at Starbuck’s – and yet I invite you to imagine the feeling that John had when he acted to save the life of someone he actually knew and was friends with.

John didn’t accept the definition of citizenship that the British state was offering him. In the script, the authorities decided who got to be a citizen and his role was to accept it. But John tore up the script. From being a very ordinary guy he had become an opinionated global citizen and believe me, no one was as surprised as he was. His whole life was transformed. The way it felt to him was that he paid a very high financial and personal cost and with it he bought not only Angela’s survival but his own mental and emotional emancipation. Maybe that’s what it means, to be a global citizen. To see beyond the near horizon that life seems to be offering you, and to lift your eyes to the true horizon. Sometimes that means saying hey, we are not winning the game here so I’m going to change it. And that’s a brave thing to do and, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s a very American thing to do.

Here’s a story that you will know. In 1955 in Alabama, Rosa Parks, who at the time was just another nobody like John, was sitting on the bus one day when the bus driver ordered her to get up and surrender her seat to a white passenger. And she said? No. And you all know how that story ends.

Yes, Rosa Parks’ single, seminal, local act of defiance reverberates globally to this day. It changed things in this country, and it changed things all over the world too. Those kinds of acts say to everyone, globally: guess what? One ordinary person can change the script. These individual acts gain momentum and reverberate down the years. This is what is happening in the Middle East right now, in the so called Arab Spring. Dictatorship after dictatorship is living in fear of citizens who are ready to tear up the script. Whether those citizens will win, I don’t know. Maybe it depends on the extent to which we, acting as global citizens, decide to help them. Maybe it depends on you.

I’ve told you two stories here, the one about John saving Angela, which is not a famous story, and the one about Rosa Parks, which is an extremely famous story. What I want you to consider is that there are more people like John and like Rosa Parks than we know. For every true story that happens at the right historical moment to become famous, there are ten, or a hundred, or a thousand untold stories like John’s. Courageous people are everywhere, in your town and mine, in your family and mine.

Know what I found out the other day, talking at dinner one night, straight out of the blue? I found out that my wife’s grandfather hid two Jewish women in his house in France during the Nazi occupation. He saved their lives. And the weird thing was, after the war, it turned out that a lot of the people in his town had done the same thing, and all of them had been terrified, and all of them had imagined that they were the only people in that town to be doing something so dangerous and frightening. They were not alone – they had never been alone - they had only thought that they were.

Unusual people are more usual than you might think. As a novelist, whenever I convene my interviewees to research my theme, I discover something I never expected about this world, which is that brave people are everywhere.

Don’t be disappointed about this world. Don’t be cynical about it; don’t be exhausted into believing that you – personally – do not have the power to make a huge and global difference. So what if you’re nobody? Everybody was nobody before they were somebody. Rosa Parks was nobody. The guy who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square was nobody. John, who saved Angela, is still nobody as far as anyone knows. He’s not famous. Only he knows what he did.

I want you to consider the possibility that strong moral decisions of citizenship, like John’s in remortgaging his house to save Angela’s life, or like Rosa Parks’ in refusing to give up her seat, are not unusual, but that most of them go unsung. Quiet heroism doesn’t make the news. Silent acts of good citizenship change the world, but because nothing is blown up spectacularly, and no one is caught with their pants down, it doesn’t make it onto TV. Good people are everywhere, acting quietly to become part of the global solution, but I guess that will have to be our little secret.

So, given that we believe it is possible as citizens to change the world for the better, and given that we believe we are not alone in wanting to, then what does it mean to be a global citizen, given that very few of us are going to change the world as bravely or as radically as Rosa Parks?

It’s not a new idea, thinking of oneself as a global citizen. The ancient philosopher Diogenes said: “I am not a citizen of Athens or of Greece, but a citizen of the world.”

It sounded good when he said it, but try telling that to the immigration officials at Kennedy airport. I am not a citizen of Athens or of Greece, but a citizen of the world. Yeah yeah, but can you prove that you aren’t here to do a job that could feasibly be performed by an American?

You see, when you talk about being a global citizen, you have to be careful not to let yourself get too pretentious.

Here’s another true story. In the mid-to-late nineties, there was a youth movement that I was a small and misguided part of, where global consciousness met up with direct action. We had protests against everything, from deforestation by mining companies in the Amazon through to medical testing by pharmaceutical companies Africa. The main thing we were against was multinational companies, which all of us were convinced were pure evil. How dare they be globally organised? Weirdly, the fact that we were globally organised to fight them didn’t strike us as deeply ironic. Thinking globally was cool when we did it, and evil when grown-ups did it.

I did a fair amount of tying myself to trees and chaining myself to railings, at demonstrations which were beginning to look more and more like riots, until I realised two things. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly negative the movement was. The more involved you got, the more you had to be against absolutely everything, from Nestlé to the oil companies to the CIA to the gun lobby to the tuna fishermen right through to people who ate meat and people who wore leather shoes. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for discovering a global injustice that moves you, and protesting against it, but by 1997 I found it had become absolutely exhausting even to keep up with the list of everyone I was supposed to hate, let alone to muster the strength to hate them.

I remember thinking, late one night in some smoke-filled organising meeting or other, my god, all of us are against everything. Isn’t there one of us who is actually for something? It wouldn’t even need to be something as big as world peace. It could just be a little thing to start with, like growing roses, or playing air guitar, or knitting babies’ shoes. But no one was for something. We were all against everything. It was so curmudgeonly and self-righteous and ugly. We had become like really young grumpy old people. And the second thing I noticed, at these protest marches that were looking more and more like riots, was that there were fewer and fewer girls there, and frankly that’s when I began to lose interest.

Gentlemen - and I believe you’re outnumbered here at Pace by sixty per cent to forty - may I strongly suggest to you that any kind of political movement you find yourself involved in that doesn’t also involve women will not only be no fun, but is probably doomed to failure. Women really are smarter than us and they really do have a good instinct for what is worth fighting for and what is just guys letting off steam. Just an observation.

I got out of the ironically global anti-globalisation movement just about the time a lot of really angry guys were getting into it, and a little while later the movement completely lost its way. In 1999 the anti-globalisation protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle turned into a full-on riot – the Battle of Seattle – and that violence spread to the demonstrations in Europe, and the movement began to look more like global thuggery than global citizenship.

Whatever global citizenship is about, surely it’s not about trashing Seattle.

Something you learn is that you can’t be against everything. No to this, no to that. You have to be for something. You have to propose a solution, or be a small part of the solution, otherwise you’re just another noisy dog barking at the garbage truck.

Let me propose a modest working definition of being a global citizen: it’s about being yourself, to the maximum, right where you are. It’s about being a beacon that people can see by. You don’t have to do something as brave as Rosa Parks did when she refused to surrender her seat on the bus, or something so committed as John did when he liquidated his property to save Angela’s life. If one day you’re moved to act so strongly, then good for you, but the way the world is now, you can be a good global citizen just by sticking up for your passions and living with a sense of fun and grace. Positivity is infectious, and if you operate with commitment and fairness and passion, you might be surprised how far that ripples out into the lives of those around you and on into the wider world.

Work on the assumption that people are good, and that all they are missing is the courage of your example.

These days you’re a global citizen whether you like it or not. Every time you stick up a photo on Facebook, every tweet you send: it all goes into the mix, eternally. People in Timbuktu will be reading what you put on your friend’s Facebook wall. Impressionable young people in China will be looking at the photos you upload from the party tonight and thinking: Ah, so this is Western democracy. So be good for goodness sake.

I spoke near the start about how proud you can be of attending a university like Pace that is academically excellent, socially inclusive, and globally focused. With this great opportunity comes this interesting question, that only you can answer, about what kind of global citizen you want to be.

Let me tell you one last story that I learned while I was researching Little Bee.

[Tell story of Manuel Bravo here].

What I hope for you, as you decide what kind of global citizens you’re going to be, is that you never forget you have more of a choice than Manuel Bravo did, and more of a choice than Little Bee did. Opportunitas is your motto here at Pace and it’s a strong, admirable motto. It invites you use this incredible chance to excel in your field and to do something interesting and good with that excellence. It invites you to recognise your power as an individual.

So be an individual. Be unbiddable. Be brave, be bold, be stubborn and awkward and mischievous necessary, but be free in your mind at all times. Be ready to tear up the script if you need to, so long as you have something positive to replace it with. Don’t make my mistake and waste years being against everything before you find something to live for.

Something I’ve learned from the people I’ve interviewed in my research as a novelist is that life is magical and strange and it rewards strength and patience and hard work, but above all it rewards simple courage. I know how much courage it took for you to be here today, how hard you and your families have worked to come to this excellent place, and how proud and excited you must be feeling. I congratulate you and I wish you more of that courage, and lots of fun and happiness in this wonderful, outward-looking, world-class university.

Thank you.