You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

I’ve been an avid Mitali Perkins reader for over a dozen years now, and it never fails to thrill me when she has a new book out. And what a book she’s written in You Bring the Distant Near! (Don’t take my word for it–the book was nominated for the National Book Award this year.)  Perkins crafts positive, uplifting, yet realistic stories that immerse the reader in carefully-detailed worlds of her creation; YBtDN is all that and more. When was the last time you read a novel with a black Bengali mixed race family? Never, I bet.

Discontented, prejudiced, fearful Ranee Das moves from London with her two teen daughters in tow to join her engineer husband, who’s moved to New York for a new job. Seventeen-year-old Tara is a born star, adapting to life in seventies America by modeling herself after Marcia Brady (of The Brady Bunch), while fifteen-year-old Sonia is the girl who can’t stop reading, who gets straight As in the gifted program, and who wears oversized T-shirts with feminist slogans. You go, Sonia! Ranee is the kind of person who believes her girls should only hang out with kids from “good families” (aka Bengali or white folks), who’s mad at her husband for sending money home to his ailing mother, and who zealously guards her girls’ “reputation”. But the sisters have each other’s backs; Sonia wrangles Tara a drama audition at school, while Tara coaxes their mother to let Sonia visit the library sans chaperonage. Gradually, Ranee (and Sonia and Tara) learn to reconcile their cultural inheritances (they’re Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh)  with the demands of America–specifically New York, which insists on erasing boundaries while creating new, dangerous yet rewarding spaces.

Just when Ranee is able to relax  and let go of her hang-ups (she clings on to racial prejudice though), tragedy strikes, and the Das women find themselves bargaining from a position of powerlessness. But America in the late 1970 provides room to experiment and grow, and soon, the girls strike their own paths, even if it’s far from what their parents ever imagined. Tara wants to act, and Sonia to write, even though “good Bengali daughters have three options after high school: go to college and study engineering, go to college and study medicine, or if they’re pretty but terrible in school [..], marry an engineer or a doctor.” And as though specializing in the creative arts wasn’t enough, Sonia goes on to adopt Christianity–and to fall in love with a black boy from Louisiana.

We’re just halfway into the novel, and there’s already so much to unpack about race, feminism, immigration, and Bengali history and culture. The next generation brings yet more elements to the mix–Sonia’s biracial daughter feels she’s not black enough for some, and not Bengali enough for others, while Tara’s daughter Anu, transported from contemporary Mumbai to attend high school with her cousin, undergoes severe culture shock. Meanwhile Ranee, who’s always maintained a certain distance from her adopted country, decides after 9/11 to immerse herself in the American experience–with, um, unexpected results.

These five women thus forge unique ways to work, pray, love and to be, and oh, I’m so enchanted with the clear-eyed hopefulness that Perkins brings to this vision of the choices available to women of color in America. Although marketed as a YA novel, YBtDN would work beautifully for middle grades as well–I can totally see a 13-year-old South Asian girl from New Jersey read this book and realize that she, too, can negotiate with parental expectations and the weight of tradition to open up her options. This is the novel you didn’t know you needed till you’ve read it.  And I have to mention that the (many) men in this novel are SO NICE. They are respectful and non-stalkerish and endlessly patient and kind and hot and funny and never mistake aggression for masculinity…

Is YBtDN’s happy vision of a society where class, race and religious divisions are rendered insignificant in the face of love and good intentions realistic? I don’t know, but how I’d like to believe it’s so–that all of us can learn from our diverse communities to be the best version of ourselves. Here’s to the cast of YBtDN–may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.

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Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

I’ve searched many moons for a nuanced kid’s book that explains India’s struggle with British colonial rule prior to the country’s independence in 1947. Supriya Kelkar’s middle grade novel Ahimsa (Tu Books, 2017) is that book. It provides a lucid, thoughtful explanation of the ethos and evolution of India’s journey to self-governance–and acts as a welcome antidote to Empire defenders with their rallying cry of “But the railways!” Nope, dudes.

It’s 1942, and Gandhi, jailed by the British, has urged Indians to go on a strike to compel the British to “Quit India” already. Gandhi has asked for peaceful civil disobedience, based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, to never hurt anyone. Young Anjali, all fired with patriotism, decides to paint a large Q (short for “Quit India”) on the local British officer’s house. After all, the British won’t hang a ten-year-old girl…or will they? Anjali’s mother used to be the officer’s secretary, but then resigned. Or was she let go? It’s all very complicated, but one thing is clear to Anjali: her duty lies in fighting injustice, beginning with a little well-intentioned vandalism.

And then the Gandhian movement comes to Anjali’s backyard, when Anjali’s mother becomes a freedom fighter. Ma’s first step is to burn all their British-manufactured clothes. (Why? Because India’s raw cotton was exported, at pitiful rates, to Britain, whose mills processed it into cloth that was sold right back to the hapless Indians. The freedom fighters vowed to hand spin their own yarn on a spinning wheel, and have that yarn made into coarse cloth locally, rather than patronize mill-made British cloth; many activists burnt their British-made outfits as a gesture of rejection.) Ma’s gorgeous wedding sari, her father’s work clothes, Anjali’s dresses–even her beloved gold-embroidered Diwali outfits– are all gone. And Anjali’s father isn’t happy–maybe those clothes could have been donated to the poor?

Anjali is courageous, stubborn, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking. Even as she’s protesting the indignity of British rule, which treats Indians as unfathomably inferior to whites, she gradually realizes that many Indians are just as culpable of cruelty to their own people. The caste system she’s never questioned (she’s upper caste) treats low caste people (called untouchables) inhumanely—just as horribly as the British treat Indians. And once sensitized to injustice, Anjali is forced to question her own attitudes–towards Muslims, towards the caste system and its deep roots in Hinduism, and even towards Gandhi, whose Hinduism-based approach to helping lower castes might have more than a whiff of condescension.

This can all seem a bit preachy, but Kelkar paces the novel beautifully, sans info-dumps–we learn about India and British colonial rule along with Anjali. Perfect reading for 7-14 age group. And the problem Anjali faces is a universal one–people resisting change when it results in the loss of their (unfair + unearned) privilege and power. It’s lovely to watch Anjali’s  speedy transformation from one of the NIMBY crowd to a principled fighter who does the right thing even when it’s hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it’s equally satisfying to witness the journeys of the supporting characters. Take Ma, whose attempts at caste integration begin as well-meaning but insulting charity. But by reflecting, and listening to other perspectives, she moves from token gestures to genuine empathy.

Sometimes Ahimsa feels a bit like it’s ticking off boxes–Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, she has a pet cow (who’d make the perfect emotional-support animal!), and she lives with an ultra-conservative great uncle who freely vocalizes on the dangers of women working outside the home, disrupting caste barriers etc. etc. Kelkar, however,  injects the plot with enough twists that it never feels predictable, and in all, she does a superb job of balancing historical detail with the honest-to-goodness confusion of a ten-year-old figuring out her role in a turbulent world. Ultimately, Anjali captures our hearts with her vulnerability, her compassion, and her determination to be the change she wishes to see. And we learn, along with Anjali, to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.

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Kelkar was born and brought up in the Midwestern United States, and for readers unfamiliar with India’s freedom struggle, she’s included a helpful Author’s Note which provides a more detailed social and historical context for the events in the book. Fun aside: the author’s great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. She “was imprisoned for civil disobedience, fought for women’s rights […]. After independence, [she] went on to become a two-term Congresswoman.” Woo-hoo!

 

YA reading update

I had the flu in January and ah, my friends and oh, my foes, please get the flu shot if/when you can, for my seven days of misery was followed by several weeks of exhaustion, all due to my own laziness and stupidity. The flu left me unable to read anything demanding–all I wanted was juicy plots sans navel gazing and happy endings, preferably in paperback so I could balance the book on my stomach while lying down flat.  (I could’ve done that with hardbacks but the covers cut into my tummy.) YA fantasy, in the form of strong girl protagonists kicking sorcerer butt over the course of a trilogy seemed the order of the day. Well, there’s an abundance of those books, and yes, most of them are painfully derivative and you could’ve saved your money for wine or acetaminophen, but I did find some winners. And I’m posting this piece in March because I finally finished all instalments of all these trilogies last week.

1. The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson: 16-year-old Elisa, the overweight and underconfident younger princess of  a made-up-name kingdom has a special stone in her navel (ha!) that gives her magic powers. The Godstone is a gift from God, and as the stone-bearer, Elisa is fated to do a special act of heroism in service of God. Over the three books, Elisa meets dudes, becomes more confident and smarter, rises up to the challenge to save her kingdom, and becomes thin.

As you might have guessed, there was a bit too much God-talk for my liking, but overall, these are fun, engaging books, whose strong finish made up for their shaky start. And apparently I can live with navel gazing when there’s a pretty blue stone to look at. The only other real downside was the emphasis on weight loss. Can we have a plus-size protagonist without making her a teachable lesson already?

2.  Agent of Hel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey: If you are looking to gift this trilogy to your 12-year-old mighty girl, be warned: Carey’s protagonist Daisy has sex, with a different person, in each of the three books. There.

Daisy Johanssen was inadvertently conceived when her mom had a run-in with a Ouija board; her dad is a demon who wants to tempt her to the dark side. Daisy. Must. Resist. or she’ll cause Armageddon. Daisy is currently employed as the goddess Hel’s liaison with the mundane world in a small American town, where she solves paranormal crimes and banishes otherworldly evildoers.

The series is powered by excellent pacing and strong secondary characters, but Daisy’s tedious love life slows the books down, and her ultimate squeeze has all the appeal of week-old guacamole. Also, if you love Carey’s Kushiel books, note that the writing in AoH isn’t anywhere near half as good, and the romance is fathoms weaker.

3. Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas: Three books in this series have been published so far, with more to come, but let’s agree to call it a trilogy for the purposes of this post. Celaena Sardothien (yeah, I know) is the official Royal Assassin of made-up-name-kingdom–she won the Hunger Games in Book 1, see?  But Celaena is hiding a big (as in world-altering) secret, and her new position is fraught with an extra supply of supernatural danger.

Lots of political intrigue, painstaking world-building, a strong assassin heroine, and a thrill-a-minute plot make this series a true page turner. I did prefer the second and third book in the series to the first though–it’s like Maas stopped trying so hard to make her protagonist likeable and relatable, and instead trusted her enough to let her be. Maas’s strength lies in her kick ass action scenes that power her narrative–there’s an episode in the third book featuring a witch and a wyvern that is packed with surprises and intense emotion (and yep, lots of cliff falls and battles to the death). I flipped back and re-read that section immediately after I’d finished.  Yes, the writing is occasionally uneven, but when Maas is good, she’s phenomenal.

4. The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani : This is one of those free-on-Kindle short stories for which I had floor-level expectations, but oh, I was so wrong. Khanani’s disciplined, tight prose is a joy to read, her pacing excellent, and her setting and characters are executed with grace and ease. Oh, and the story features some very necessary (and refreshing!) diversity; most YA novels seem to be set in Europe with an occasional sandy desert thrown in, and their covers favor ethereal blondes holding phallic weapons.

Rae, the oldest of three sisters, is hard-headed and sensible and wary of things that seem too easy. When a supernatural visitor threatens to inadvertently reveal the secret the sisters guard, Rae must put her formidable common sense to use to protect her family despite the danger she personally faces.

It’s a very short short story, be warned! But it’s good enough that I immediately bought Khanani’s novel Sunbolt for the princely sum of $ 1.99, and I’m going to start reading this weekend. Go buy this indie author’s books here!

5. His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers: LaFevers cleverly incorporates mysticism and romance into a slice of real-life fifteenth century history, wherein the young duchess of Brittany sought to protect her domain from enemies within and without–powerful France sought to gobble up the region, and many in the duchess’s court would have been glad to see it happen. In LaFevers’s imagining, there’s a Brittany convent serving Saint Mortain, the God of Death, which trains young girls (who are said to be marked as Death’s Daughters) in the art of killing. Each novel in the trilogy features a young assassin who helps the duchess maintain her position–and finds love on the way. The books are a satisfying marriage of political intrigue with an assassin-coming-of-age arc, and I enjoyed the (historical) happy ending; perhaps *you* don’t need Wikipedia to learn that  Anne of Brittany finally married Charles VIII of France, and managed to ensure a measure of independence for her duchy?

LaFevers is a very fluent writer, and I zipped happily through these books. (If I found the last instalment a tad too precious, it’s probably because I passed Young Adulthood many moons ago.) But oh, that series title. None of the books prioritize the appearance of the protagonists over their skills or character; calling the series “His Fair Assassin” make the books sound shallow, and does a significant disservice to the plot and the writing.

6. Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch:  Published late 2014, Snow like Ashes is the first instalment of a planned trilogy. The Kingdom of Winter was conquered several years ago, and its citizens’ magic stolen by Spring. Eight survivors, including the heir to the throne, escaped, and have been working to regain their magic and their kingdom. Young Meira is one of the eight, and she hopes to be the one who’ll steal the magic locket that’ll help the Winterians rise again. Meira’s weapon of choice in her battle against the occupiers is the chakram (pictured below).

Serious points for the cover, which dares not to showcase the blonde skinny heroine, but I’m afraid I found this book derivative and bit ho-hum. The big plot twist was hugely predictable, there are too many info-dumps like “The Feni river gurgles off to my left, marking the northern border of Spring before it flows out to the Destas sea”, and fatally, the world-building is borderline silly. The evil guy is called Angra, the capital of Winter is Jannuari, and the Autumn Kingdom’s capital is Oktuber. Am I the only one who reads the last as an acceptable potato? The characters didn’t grab me at all, and so I flipped to the end to confirm my plot twist thesis before quitting this book midway.  One DNF out of 14 reads doesn’t seem too bad though.

Tomo: Friendship through Fiction (Japan), for Asian Heritage Month

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, and while it doesn’t exactly nudge my blog in a new direction (at least half my content is Asian), I thought I’d formally acknowledge it by posting this review of Tomo, an anthology of Japanese teen stories.

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Tomo is a collection of Japan-themed young adult short fiction commemorating the March 2011 earthquake; proceeds from the book’s sales support relief efforts in Tohoku. The anthology’s contributors are all connected to Japan via their heritage or lived experience.

The thirty-six stories are very loosely connected (in terms of both style and content) and have been grouped together thematically. Only five of the stories (gathered under the heading “Shocks and Tremors”) overtly deal with the earthquake, but tellingly, most of the stories embrace hope, positivity, and the possibility of new beginnings. The book emphasizes the normal preoccupations of teens everywhere—identity, belonging, the first stirrings of romance, the longing for supernatural powers, Facebook…  Tomo means “friend” in Japanese, and the editor envisions this book as way for teens around the world to understand their kinship with teens in Japan.

Several pieces deal with protagonists who are half-Japanese (haafus), often with conflicting loyalties; in some cases, the events of the earthquake exacerbate their conflicts. Other stories reach back in history—we hear voices from the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII, for instance, while in another piece, the post-earthquake radiation scares evoke the aftermath of atomic bombing half a century ago. To paraphrase a character from the story “Paper Lanterns”, a story about grieving and remembering, this collection is a group memory bank, with varied accounts of teens growing and evolving in Japan.

The wide-ranging nature of this book inevitably implies that the reader will take some stories more to heart than others. I have a weakness for ordinary-meets-odd, and one of my favorite pieces was Alan Gratz’s “The Ghost who came to Breakfast”, a well-paced ghost story with an end-twist that characterizes the best in this genre. The linear storyline of Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s “Kodama” is elevated into greatness by her anything-but-linear sketchbook format, in which handwritten sentences writhe on the page in unexpected tangents (you have to turn the book ninety degrees in some instances). And then there’s “Yamada-san’s Toaster” by Kelly Luce, where the manner of a person’s death is etched onto a slice of bread by a very special toaster.

There’s plenty for seekers of more realistic fiction too, in the sections titled “Friends and Enemies”, “Insiders and Outsiders”, and “Families and Connections”. The teen protagonists are written with sympathy and intuition, and the stories are all executed with confidence. Sure, a few of the pieces feature some heavy-handed symbolism and could have used a lighter touch, but there isn’t a single dud; this collection was divided into ones I liked, and ones I liked more.

The stories also provides fascinating vignettes of contemporary Japan—the story “Signs”, for instance, is an Amelie-style mystery featuring a Purikura (photo) booth, a strange salariman, and a winning teen lead. From Pasmo travel cards to harajuku girls to face-offs between a Kendo club and a dance group at the school gym, Japan is placed vividly in the reader’s heart and mind. And that heart would have to be made of the proverbial stone not to feel for the people affected by the earthquake. But Tomo inspires more than sympathy—it ignites us to empathy.

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Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction,  Holly Thompson (editor).

Stone Bridge Press, March 2012

This review appears in  The Asian Review of Books. Read more about the genesis of the book and its contributors at the Tomo blog.

My new publications, and other bookish news

It took over a year from query to publication, but my feature article on YA literature for girls is finally up at the Canadian feminist magazine Herizons. The piece, which examines the kind of messages conveyed by contemporary YA lit. for girls, includes a list of my recommendations of (mostly Canadian) YA novels of all kinds from historical to paranormal to issue-based works. I interviewed several people for this piece–Canadian YA authors Courtney Summers, Neesha Meminger and Y.S.Lee, teen and youth services librarian Kat Drennan-Scace, YA bloggers (including Audrey from holes In My brain), and publishing industry insiders including as Amy Black, Senior Editor at DoubleDay Canada,  amongst others, and they all had wise and interesting things to say about girls and reading. The article isn’t available online, but  I hope you’ll take a look at it if you find a copy of Herizons at your bookstore or library.

I also have a review of Farzana Doctor’s new novel Six Metres of Pavement  in the latest issue of This magazine. Farzana, who is also a psychotherapist and a queer activist, is a wonderful writer, and I URGE you to check out this novel. This piece isn’t available online either.

And I’m going to be talking bout books–on TV! (Many thanks to my fellow blogger Amy for making all this happen.) There’s a new show about books on Rogers Television called Book ’em TV, and I’m the featured guest for the second episode of the show. The guest for the first episode is, um, Terry Fallis. Who just won Canada Reads. And is awesome. No pressure, what? Please wish me luck (lots of it).

Finally: my feature profile of Mitali Perkins is up at Fusia, a new Asian-Canadian magazine. Fusia contributes to the charity Because I am a Girl, which empowers young girls all over the globe, and I’m very glad that Perkins, who writes books featuring strong MG and YA girls, is featured in this magazine. She’s in good company–the  women profiled in this issue include Lisa Ray (on the cover), Devyani Saltzman (whom you may know as as Deepa Mehta’s daughter, and the author of the memoir Shooting Water), and many other impressive women.  The feature may appear online after the issue hits the stores (on August 10th, I think), and I’ll link to it then.

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

It’s always interesting to see patterns emerge in a writer’s work. Neesha Meminger’s debut novel Shine, Coconut Moon offered a nuanced account of a seventeen-year-old Indian Sikh girl’s exploration of her identity; the catalyst for  Samar’s journey was post 9/11 America’s reaction to her color, race, ethnicity, and religion. In Jazz in Love, seventeen-year-old Jazz is figuring out who she is, but this time, the catalyst is her inner world–first, her hormones, and then, her (Indian Sikh) family. Jazz’s story is hence more universal and simultaneously, more particular than Samar’s.

Jazz, who’s formulated her romantic philosophy from the bodice-rippers she hides from her parents, is curious and a little scared when it comes to love. All she really wants is to experiment a bit to see what works for her, before she settles down. And every seventeen-year-old can relate to that. But Jazz’s conservative parents want to pair her up with a suitable boy so as to remove any opportunities for experimentation. Their respect for tradition runs very deep, and not just in opposition to American ways; I saw the central conflict more in terms of generational differences than immigrant-versus-American culture. This book could, with a few changes, have been set in modern-day India, for there isn’t really an “American” angle to the plot, other than the fact that “modern” is so often conflated with “westernized”.

The story is simple. When her parents catch Jazz hugging Jeeves, her best-friend-from-kindergarten-who-happens-to-be-male, they quickly fix her up with a “suitable” boy so as to pre-empt any romantic forays. But the suitable boy has a secret which makes him unsuitable–and which leaves Jazz free to sigh over Tyler, the one who makes her hormones froth and buzz. And Jeeves, meanwhile, morphs into hotness too.

It’s the standard love triangle, but the issues herein are quite particularly Sikh/Indian. Jeeves is Indian and Sikh too, but unsuitable because he’s not of Jazz’s caste; quelle horreur! Tyler is Indian, but from the Caribbean, so he’s apparently not considered “Indian” Indian by some. Meminger balances this emphasis on ethnic specifics with vivid details of Jazz’s emotional and sensual experiences. We’re with Jazz as she tries to fathom her impulses, and we’re there as she figures out that with freedom comes the possibility–no, certainty– of making mistakes.

Meminger is very good indeed at describing the madness of seventeen; she had me alternately wishing I were young and hot again, and then, thanking the pantheon that I’ll never have to revisit this part of my life. She’s also scarily at ease with teenspeak, and I had several LOL moments (see, I’m learning!), as when I read about bindi-bos (bindi-sporting bimbos), and when Jeeves suggests that a thirty-something man is old, and hence “not good with the internet.” Damn, is that what they think of us?

Jazz… isn’t quite as accomplished as Shine— some of the scenes had an explaining note to them, and, as might be expected from this genre, the plot follows a predictable path.  The ending, though, was entirely satisfactory, avoiding a neat resolution (and perhaps, in the process, setting up the possibility of a sequel?) And props to Jazz… for providing me a longed-for break from the self-conscious gravitas of much contemporary South Asian literature. This book rejoices in the sensual, it’s light-hearted and witty, and you can tell that the author had fun writing it. Not as much fun as I did reading it, Neesha!

Note: Neesha self-identifies as Canadian, so I’m counting this one towards the Canadian Book Challenge.

Ban PopcORN, Mr. Scroggins!

Most of the bookblogging community knows by now that Wesley Scroggins, a professor in Missouri, tried to ban Laurie Halse Andersen’s YA novel Speak claiming that it was porn.  FYI: Speak deals with a teenage girl’s rape, and her subsequent inability to speak out about this issue; Scroggins essentially wants to censor a work on the dangers of (self-)censorship.

I have read Speak, and there isn’t a single sentence that could remotely be considered prurient. Obviously, Wesley Scroggins needs to redirect his attention to something that truly has a pornographic element. How about PopcORN? Look at the word–it contains porn (and it almost has core). Popcorn is  often consumed (and sometimes even shared) in dark movie halls, and we all know that such environments are hotbeds of sexual activity. PopcORN’s expansion when in contact with heat is an obvious sexual allusion. And don’t forget, butter often lubricates the popcorn’s passage down our throats. Worst, popcorn comes in suggestive shapes that can resemble a woman’s ovaries.  To think this “snack” is marketed at families… Mr. Scroggins, do your duty now. Ban PopcORN  and save the Western Hemisphere.

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Here is Andersen’s latest post on the subject.

And here is a list of Speak giveaways in the virtual world.