Across the Big Blue Sea - book club questions
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” - Fred Rogers
- How does the Across the Big Blue Sea’s subtitle – Good Intentions and Hard Lessons in an Italian Refugee Home – play out in the story?
- The narrator is convinced she can help, but learns the hard way, that ‘helping’ can be much more complex than we often assume. Why is the situation more complicated than the narrator had assumed in the first place?
- The giver is also a taker: what are the expectations connected to helping?
- One of the author’s conclusion in the book is that things would have been easier with the Syrian family had they stayed at the shelter. What made her think this?
- An interesting sidenote: the working title of the book was ‘The Trouble with Helping’. Equality Film, the producer who acquired the film rights, has decided to go back to this title for the screenplay. Can you see why?
2. MIGRATION & CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
“History in its broadest aspect is a record of man's migrations from one environment to another.” - Ellsworth Huntington
- How is the narrator’s sense of her own Swiss identity challenged by the Nigerian girls’ arrival and what does this change in her relationship with Italy, her elected country of residence?
- The narrator is a foreigner in Italy just as the Nigerian girls. Why are some migrants called ‘expats’ while others are being labelled ‘immigrants’? What prejudices and privileges surround the different terms Western societies use to describe foreigners?
- The narrator started to read up on Nigeria and discovered an incredible array of great contemporary writers from Western Africa. Why was this so important for her?
- Is it really true we’re so different? Or is it some people click with each other and others don’t?
3. SEX WORK
“Don’t talk to us about sewing machines, talk to us about workers’ rights” - Title of a recent international sex workers conference
- Sex workers are still outcasts in Western societies: they are either identified as victims who need to be saved and re-educated (hence the sewing machines) or as immoral people beyond hope. What are your prejudices or thoughts on the matter?
- Sex can be a sort of currency. Not just for sex workers, but also in monogamous relationships.
- The book touches on three approaches used in the debate about sex work: laissez-faire /looking to the other side; stop the demand (aka the Swedish or Nordic Model), and the request to legalize sex work, which is put forward by international sex worker organisations (the author’s experience led her to support this approach). What are your views on the matter?
- What is the connection between poverty, human trafficking and sex work? Katja summarized her view in a letter to the New Yorker which can be used as a start to the discussion.
4. WORK-LIFE BALANCE
"Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management." - Betsy Jacobson
- Do you think the narrator went too far? Should she have quit her job before?
- How did her job influence her family life? Did you think her partner was supportive or not? What must it have been like for him?
- Children don’t always get enough credit for what they see: how did they relate to what their mother did? What do you think might have been their experience?
- How to balance wanting to give to your job and wanting to give to your family? Can a challenging job and the urge to step up and make a difference be combined with family?
Many thanks to Rivka Klein - de Graaf and Laura Gray for formulating and discussing many of the questions above, and to Désirée Marie Townley & Girl Gone International for the fabulous first Across the Big Blue Sea book club discussion in Rome.