The Asian Reader on The Bees

by Adrienne Loftus Parkins

Every few years, the question of stereotyping in Asian literature comes up for discussion.  Many British Asian writers feel that publishers try to push them to write about post colonial stereotypes of their community – arranged marriages, conflict between traditional and modern values, the search for identity.

Cultural stereotyping is a monster that any diaspora or second generation artist has to deal with, whether their background is Asian or African, Mexican or Brazilian. It’s a delicate balancing act that can use up a lot of creative energy.   If they write about what they know, take their family and culture as the starting point, they risk being pigeonholed as a “British Asian writer”.  If they move towards more generic characters, more universal themes, they may be accused of being “coconuts”, or pandering to a white audience.

One British Asian author has solved this dilemma by setting her novel in a completely different world barely populated by humans.

Author Laline Paull was born in England to Indian parents.  She studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theatre in London, where she has had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre.  Her debut novel, The Bees, is about as far from stereotypical as is possible.

The Bees is a unique thriller set inside a beehive; a look at the regimented life and terrifying challenges of a community of bees.   So far, it sounds like a lively school text book.  But this is fiction at it’s best with drama, love, fear, adventure and heroism.

The novel’s protagonist is, of course, a bee.  Flora 717, is born different from her kin in a world where conformity is an ancient tradition.  She is big, bold, inquisitive and ambitious. Born into the “caste” of a lowly sanitation bee, she is recognised as special by a Sage, one of the superior bees.  Through hard work, she rises from her lowly station to impress her betters and goes on to meet the Queen in her inner sanctum, become a forager (the ace pilots of the bee-world), do battle against wasp-terrorists and eventually to save her community. She is a non-conformist, who breaks the hive’s most sacred law and in doing so, changes the destiny of her world. The story touches on some real world, human topics like caste/class, feminism, identity, violent conflict, motherly love.

The Bees is completely captivating, completely original. It made me laugh, cry and it  made me run to Google to find out more about life in the hive.  Paull has combined a huge amount of research with an equal measure of imagination to create a book that I couldn’t put down.  She claims Margaret Atwood and Watership Down author Richard Adams as her inspirations.  Paull and her novel are themselves great inspirations for British Asian writers wanting to break away from cultural stereotypes but also for readers looking for a great read.

See what Laline Paull has to say about The Bees and writing in general here.