Read how growing up as a first-generation Bengali-American influenced Mitali Perkin’s book, You Bring the Distant Near.
“Strong girls serve and empower the weak.”
Tell us about a time when your strength was tested.
I was born in Kolkata, India and we traveled the globe for a few years before settling in California. Suddenly, I was a brown Bengali girl in a middle school where everybody else was white and born in the USA. To intensify matters, my parents were as fresh off the boat as a media caricature of South Asian immigrants — heavy accents, sari-clad, forehead-dotted mother, strict rules about dating (AFTER marriage not BEFORE), right-handed curry eating, shoes discarded at the door, etc. etc.. Meanwhile, to survive school, I was desperately trying to turn myself into an “all-American” girl as fast as possible, whatever that meant. This constant code-switching required strength and courage.
More recently, just before YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR launched we lost my beloved Daddy. I had to go on tour during my season of grief. It was difficult walking through that valley while making so many public appearances, but the book itself explores grief and how it can also “bring the distant near.” I let the tears flow, made many dear connections, and received incredible comfort while journeying.
What is your favorite book about a strong girl and why?
I love the classic EMILY OF DEEP VALLEY by Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books. Emily has big dreams to change the world. She admires Jane Addams’ Hull House and longs to study sociology so she can help the Syrian refugees in her Minnesota town, but she can’t go to college because she must take care of her grandfather. In this redemptive story, Emily champions her Syrian friends, and as she does, she herself is empowered in return. I admire how Lovelace avoided an “outside savior” trope because of this mutually transformative relationship. As icing on the cake, when Harper Perennial re-issued this girlhood favorite of mine, I was invited to write the foreword to Emily’s story. A career high, definitely.
What is it about the main character of your story that inspires you?
That’s tough because my novel has four teen protagonists. At the core, Sonia, Anna, and Chantal are me and Tara is my sister. My sister is my best friend, so I’d have to say that Tara’s gentle, peacemaking spirit inspires me.
What is the best piece of advice you were given as a girl?
Get a library card and read.
What’s your superpower?
As I told you earlier, it was stressful growing up between cultures. I survived, however, and emerged with what I call my “hyphen” superpower. This code-switching skill enables me to cross borders much more adeptly than people who grow up monoculturally.
You write the Das family so beautifully, Mitali. I assume that you drew from your own experiences growing up as a first-generation Bengali-American girl. What were the parts of your own experience that you fought hardest to preserve in Tara and Sonia’s story?
Resisting colorism and sexism while celebrating the strong family ties, poetry, humor, and beauty in my culture of origin.
Why were those important to keep?
I grew up hearing that someone with lighter skin was more attractive than someone with darker skin. Reading widely helped me fend off this lie. Crossing borders of culture offers the opportunity to bring along the best of a heritage and escape the worst of it.
This novel features girls and their moms in a battle of the wills, especially when American culture comes clashing with Bengali culture. And, oh my goodness, Mrs. Das was one a tough cookie! And yet, I also felt that you wrote the story of how mothers and daughters grow to love and understand each other. What were the things that you took into consideration as you were writing each of the Das women?
In the journey to maturity, we are invited to offer grace to our flawed and failing parents. Writing this novel helped me take a step forward in this quest. In turn, our sons will have to face the challenge of forgiving my husband and me. And so on.
The novel spans three generations: Tara and Sonia as little girls when they move to the states; their teen years in New Jersey, and finally their own lives as mothers. And this is all in a YA novel, meant to appeal to teens. What was the secret to taking on a sweeping tale that teens could still relate to? What was the hardest part of capturing so much time within a single novel?
It takes decades for border-crossing to change a family system, and that’s why I wrote the novel to span that length of time. In low moments, I still think I was nuts to try it. It dumbfounds me that American readers are enjoying the book because it’s not a traditional hero’s journey — unless, of course, you see the entire Das family as the protagonist. Maybe that’s the instinctive counter-cultural twist in the novel: a family–not an individual–is the main character of any Bengali epic journey.
What are you working on next?
BOY WONDER & KAT GIRL is the story of a Boston boy and a California girl who take a “summer service trip” to Kolkata, India. Can’t tell you more because I’m in the throes of revision and I’ll kill the flow if I talk too much about the story.