I first met Mitali Perkins when we shared an editor at a Big Five publishing house. Her early novel, The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen (2005), which was first published in 1993 under the title The Sunita Sen Experiment, was a book I wish I had in my library when I was a teen, and I cherished it even as a 20-something adult.
Since, I’ve followed Perkins’ career closely, and read everything she has published. My particular favorites are Monsoon Summer (2004), in which mixed-race Jasmine visits the India of her mother, and finds herself on a journey that is more illuminating and inspiring than she had ever imagined; Secret Keeper (2009), in which Asha, growing up in India in the 1970s, escapes to the rooftop to confide her woes to a diary, and makes some rebellious and resolute choices as a result; and Rickshaw Girl (2008), in which Naima challenges the traditional role of women in her village in Bangladesh so that she can help her struggling family. (Rickshaw Girl is now a particular favorite of my five and a half-year-old daughter!) I love the way she writes the female characters; they are always very confident and strong, yet deeply flawed.
“Her latest novel is a multi-generational story of the girls in a Bengali family struggling to find identity and acceptance in the United States.”
Her latest novel, You Bring the Distant Near (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a multi-generational story of the girls in a Bengali family struggling to find identity and acceptance in the United States (via Ghana and the U.K), and was inspired by her own experience as the youngest of three sisters who arrived in America with a wave of immigrants in the 1970s. Its prose is lush, and as in all of Perkins’ previous novels, it crosses borders of geography, time and culture.
I spoke to Perkins about writing, family expectations and social justice via email on the eve of publication of You Bring the Distant Near. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your latest novel is a multi-generational story of the girls in a Bengali family struggling to find identity and acceptance in the United States (via Ghana and the U.K), and was inspired by your own experience as the youngest of three sisters who arrived in America with a wave of immigrants in the 1970s. What was the experience of writing this novel for you? How was it different than work you’ve done in the past, emotionally and/or from a craft perspective?
This book feels riskier than any of my other novels. It’s so close to home. My mother is reading it now, and she called recently to offer her first response: “Did you put all of our quarrels into your book?” Part of me wants to crawl into a cave after it releases because I know I will feel exposed. I’m quite a private person despite my big social media presence. Writing You Bring the Distant Near felt like offering up excerpts from my teen diary to my readers, and I know the teenaged Mitali would have been mortified at the sharing of our secrets. Should I ask her for forgiveness?
“Writing You Bring the Distant Near felt like offering up excerpts from my teen diary to my readers.”
In a way, You Bring the Distant Near is a love-offering of forgiveness to the me I once was and also to my parents and sisters. It is a way of seeing and honoring the borders we all crossed so bravely years ago as we acquired the hyphens that widened and deepened our identities.
On your popular blog, “The Fire Escape,” you have written about how the Queens Library system and finding a literal space on your fire escape empowered you as a young immigrant. One of your narrators, Sonia, also finds “home” in the library and on her fire escape. Can you talk about how you came to this character specifically? Which experiences influenced your writing of Sonia?
Of all five women in the Das family, Sonia is probably most like me. Stories have always been my true home and refuge; they provided a strong foundation of balance and clarity as I came of age while straddling cultures. They led me to pursue justice and equality, just as they did for Sonia. As a third daughter in a culture that prized sons, I heard how everyone (except my father) cried when I was born. That might be why I embraced the women’s liberation movement during my teen years in the late seventies — as does Sonia.
“Stories have always been my true home and refuge…They led me to pursue justice and equality.”
And grief launched my own spiritual search much like it did Sonia’s. I studied in Vienna during college and visited cathedrals to seek solace. When Sonia feels the hands of the “Great Liberator” encircling her own in a Parisian church, I’m describing one of my own memories that took place while I was in Vienna. I wish I’d had someone like Lou there in that moment, thoughtful and caring (and hot), but I was alone. I gave Sonia the company of Lou as a gift.
Another of your narrators, Ranee the family matriarch, expresses anti-Black racism throughout the book, and, without giving too much of the plot away, she suffers for her bigotry. What was your intention in writing Ranee in this way?
Shadeism permeated my culture of origin like salt in the ocean. It’s still everywhere in South Asia — just watch the number of commercials for Fair and Lovely skin cream. To this day, dark skin is considered and declared ugly; “fairer” hues are seen as more attractive. Cultures, like people, have their strengths, but are also always flawed and in need of redemption. Ranee’s transformation in You Bring the Distant Near is written to underline the hope that change is possible.
There are very big themes and ideas in You Bring the Distant Near, from the Equal Rights Amendment to Bangladeshi independence to the effects of global climate change, and yet it’s a slim, YA novel. How did you manage this, while still centering the personal lives of those affected?
These themes and ideas reflect my deeply-held passions and personal history. A writer’s convictions and experiences will naturally inform a work of fiction and shape her characters. Because You Bring the Distant Near is so personal, this process felt more organic than it has in the past.
One of my passions is the proximity required for ancestral peacemaking. I traveled back to my father’s ancestral village in Bangladesh so that I could meet the Muslim family who now reside on the jute farm. My grandfather died a bitter man trying to get some money he felt he deserved for the property. I was able to write the scene for Tara, who takes a similar trip back to her Baba’s village, and describe how healing it was to be pulled into the house by a circle of loving Muslim women. To receive their blessing was a gift after generations of enmity between Hindus and Muslims in that village.
“One of my passions is the proximity required for ancestral peacemaking.”
One thing I didn’t write in Tara’s scene was what I saw as I pulled up to the house — two white doves flew out of the sky and landed on the door frame of the house. They stayed perched there during the entirety of my visit. I’ll always treasure that sign of peacemaking. I cut it because it seemed too dramatic and contrived in the scene, but reality is sometimes more perfectly orchestrated than fiction.
What kind of story did you want to write before you started? Which writers have inspired you?
I love stories about families, especially those that chronicle the interactions and changes between generations. I relished series books where girl characters grow up to become strong women, like the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery and the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. I always read Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys together to watch Jo change from being a teen to a leader in the community.
Do you write with an awareness that you are the representation for a future generation of South Asian American writers and/or writers of color? Does that inspire you or terrify you?
No and yes to the first part of this question. No, I just want to write my stories. And yes, I hope and pray my work will serve and inspire future, better writers than myself, especially those who are now brown girls fresh off the boat reading books on fire escapes. And yes and no to the second part of this question — the vocation of writing is simultaneously life-giving and scary.
You’re currently working on your next novel. Can you talk a little bit about what this one is about?
It’s a love story told in the voices of two teenagers who travel to Kolkata, India to learn how to fight child trafficking. Ravi was adopted from that city years ago but raised in Boston; Kat is a girl from Oakland with secrets of her own to guard.
* * *
Pooja Makhijani is a New Jersey-based writer and editor. Visit her online home at poojamakhijani.com.