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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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.

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.

Writers Against Racism: Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami is the India-born, New Mexico-based author of several widely-praised children’s books (Chachaji’s Cup, The Broken Tusk ).  She talks about how racism has impacted her writing:

“A long time ago, I left a writing group in tears when someone in the group suggested I assume a pseudonym and write stories about “regular” kids. As if my name, and the South Asian kids in my stories were, you know, irregular! And I had to wonder, when I began to submit work to publishers in the early 90’s, whether there was some rule that people from my part of the world could only be shown as illiterate and barefoot-and far away.”

This interview is part of Amy Bowllan’s excellent blog series “Writers Against Racism” on School Library Journal.  Other South Asian YA authors Bowllan has interviewed include Neesha Meminger (whose YA book I’m currently reviewing), Mitali Perkins, and Rukhsana Khan.

You can read the complete author interview here on Bowllan’s Blog.