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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Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

This review appeared in the Asian Review of Books on July 3.

Bamboo People deals with a weighty topic — the oppression of ethnic minorities in modern-day Burma. Specifically, this book looks at the Karenni, a people who have been hounded out of their homes by the Burmese military and now live in refugee camps near the Thailand border. But Mitali Perkins must be one of the most readable young adult writers alive, and her excellent characterizations temper the gravitas of the tale without diminishing the very real plight of the communities concerned.

A young Karenni Tu Reh joins the local resistance movement, and is waiting to take revenge on the soldiers who burnt his home and fields. His chance arrives when he stumbles upon the wounded body of Chiko, a Burmese soldier. But Chiko turns out to be his own age, a bookish, soft-spoken boy who was co-opted into the army unawares.  Misinformation and prejudice struggle to survive in the face of their growing kinship.

The first part of Bamboo People is written in Chiko’s voice and the second in Tu Reh’s, and while Perkins evokes our equal sympathy for both characters, I found myself drawn in particular to Chiko, whose glasses and fondness for books make him an easy target in a hyper-aggressive military culture. Perkins knows how to make us care about her characters, and we easily identify with a boy who loves The Lord of the Rings and nurses a not-so-secret crush on the girl next door — and just happens to be a reluctant Burmese soldier. And Tu Reh’s predicament — to figure out the right thing to do, and to have the courage to do it — will resonate with readers an ocean away.

Bamboo People makes several references to Christianity — the Karenni are Christians, and the impetus/inspiration for the Karenni characters to act morally is often provided by their religion. In spite of the many Biblical quotations, this book never hits a preacherly note, and moreover, I can safely predict that the story will inspire readers of all religious affinities (if any) to learn more about Burma and the Karenni. In the final reckoning, Bamboo People is a tale so skillfully told that we realize only much later that we’ve been educated to boot — which is as should be. Recommended.

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Visit the book’s site to learn more about the Karenni–and how we can help.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Charlesbridge Publishing, 2010

Genre: Middle-grade fiction

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

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If I had to use just one word to describe Secret Keeper, it’d be “unputdownable”. The other time I locked myself into a bathroom so I wouldn’t be disturbed while reading, I was thirteen and clutching a Sidney Sheldon between damp palms.

1974: Engineers are getting laid off in India, and America’s doors have recently opened to well-qualified immigrants from around the world. When Asha Gupta’s father decides to look for a job in America, the rest of the family moves from Delhi to Calcutta to live with their relatives till they can join Baba in New York. While Asha, her older sister Reet and their mother wait for word from Baba, they must learn to cope with living as dependents in a house already bursting at the seams with an aunt and uncle, three cousins and a grandmother. The one place where Asha finds some privacy is when she writes in her diary, which she calls “Secret Keeper.”

Sixteen-year-old Asha is the sort of girl anyone would want as a friend—spirited, courageous, and dependable. And oh, fun, the sort who’d invent games and make up great stories. Asha loves to read, is a champion tennis player and cricketer, and dreams of being a psychologist. Reet is sensible and good and gorgeous, Meg to Asha’s Jo, as it were. And there’s an interesting boy next door too…

Perkins, an award-winning YA writer, knows how to construct characters so real you can see them breathe and laugh and cry and fight. She hurls you right into their lives, and you come up for air only when you turn the last page, and then only just, for this book has an ending that few YA novels match for heart-stopping poignancy (or Bollywood-style drama). Weeks after reading, I’m still thinking about the characters, wondering where they ended up five years hence. In fact, Perkins, I’ll do your dishes and your laundry all of next year if you’ll promise to write a sequel to Secret Keeper. Yes, I’ve got it baaaad.

Asha’s primary struggle is with the gender expectations of the time and place. Girls from “good Indian families” aren’t supposed to go outside unescorted, or play sports, or want to be psychologists. They’re supposed to value looks over intelligence, place obedience above freedom. And this brings me to my sole problem with the book.

The draconian gender roles and hidebound traditions Perkins describes would be the norm in a rural setting, but appear a tad extreme in the context of the family’s socio-economic category—Asha belongs to an educated, urban, middle-class family. For instance, there’s an incident where seventeen-year-old Reet gets a proposal. I found it strange that the family gives serious consideration to the suit even though there’s no pressing economic or social necessity for such an early marriage. Moreover, the girls’ mother married at eighteen–surely things have changed for the next generation? Perkins’s portrayal of Indian cultural norms isn’t inaccurate by any measure, but it could perhaps have been more nuanced. The theme of poor-brown-women-needing-to-be-saved often pervades fiction set in India, and while Asha does her part, I’m afraid it might not be quite enough to kill that bogeyman.

Furthermore, Asha wants to go to America because “in America, where women were burning bras and fighting for equal rights, they didn’t need curves to snare a husband.” Umm…there were plenty of liberated women in India in the seventies, and Asha wouldn’t have had to look far for Indian role models. The real–life Kiran Bedi, for instance, won the Asian Tennis championship in 1972 before going on to join the federal police force, the prestigious IPS. India’s national airline had a woman pilot back in 1966. Although Asha’s later actions do go some way in undermining her intial simplistic notions of American versus Indian women, I found this aspect insufficiently developed for my satisfaction. Now, I’m the first to agree that the examples I’ve cited earlier weren’t the norm, and my point is not to deny the truth of Perkins’s observations about gender roles in India–I just wish an author of Perkins’s giant talent had fleshed out her Indian scenario with a few more strokes, especially because this is the rare book that truly inspires readers to learn about another culture. One reviewer on Amazon mentions that by reading this book, she learnt “what it means to be a woman in India.” Just what I feared.

Anyway—enough whining! The bottom line: Secret Keeper is excellent story-telling, and the fact that it’s YA won’t stop you passing this book on to your mom—or your grandmom, for that matter.

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A much shorter, and much less India-centric version of this review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.

Perkins has written many other equally readable YA novels, and I recommend them all, especially The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. Visit her website http://www.mitaliperkins.com/ ” a safe place to chat about books between cultures” for a generous list of writing resources.