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Five questions for Mitali Perkins

Photo: Bethany Carnes.

Mitali Perkins‘s latest novel You Bring the Distant Near (Farrar, 12–16 years) is a sprawling family epic that follows three generations of women in the Das family — matriarch Ranee; her daughters Tara and Sonia; and each of their daughters, Anna and Chantal. The story begins in 1965 and ends in 2006; as the family goes from being “Strangers” to “Travelers” to “Settlers” in their adoptive home of the United States, they experience devastating loss along with great joy.

1. Ranee is the rock of the family — and of the story. But she can be a tricky character to love. Did you feel any ambivalence toward characterizing her that way?

MP: It’s a bit odd that the rock of a novel labeled “young adult” is a senior citizen, isn’t it? Oh, well. We adults all stay sixteen or so in some corner of the soul. You say Ranee is a tricky character to love, but the USA, too, can be tricky to love for new arrivals like her. (Not so for me. I loved America from the time our plane landed at JFK airport.) My initial ambivalence toward her character may explain why her parts of the story are the only ones narrated in third person. But as I wrote the book, and Ranee’s heart opened and changed after 9/11, my compassion for her grew, and I loved her by the end.

2. Sonia and Tara are such individuals. You’d probably say you “love them both the same,” but do you feel more kinship with one sister than the other?

MP: I was/am Sonia. Books have always been my home. I ransacked the library regularly from the time we moved to the States. I read on the fire escape. I read at the dinner table. I read late into the night in my room. This unhindered foraging and feasting on books — away from controlling, condemning eyes — empowered me to identify and resist misogyny, xenophobia, shadism, and other forms of injustice.

3. The story spans continents, decades, and generations. How did you decide on this structure?

MP: I wish I could say that my left brain rationally decided on this structure. Maybe it did have some input, because I’ve personally learned how it takes many back-and-forth border-crossings through time and space for a family to realize the gains and losses of immigration. Truthfully, though, my right brain was in charge this time, writing memoir-cum-fiction. The story of my own family spans continents, decades, and generations, so what else could I write?

4.
How much research did you have to do, and how did you go about doing it?

MP: Research is always a high priority in my fiction. Songs, fashion, politics, television, movies, trends — I try to get those details right. But writing You Bring the Distant Near was a bit different. I did the research, but because I lived much of this story myself, memory played a bigger role than in my other novels.

5. What do you hope the Das family’s story — an immigrant story, and so much more — shows today’s readers about family, love, culture, and country?

MP: America inevitably “brings the distant near” because apart from members of the Native Nations, all of us originated in faraway places. Sadly, proximity within the United States doesn’t automatically generate friendship. But if we choose to cross borders that may at first bring discomfort and open our hearts to those who seem like strangers, I believe that we can be transformed and united as individuals, families, communities, and even as a country.

The title of this novel comes from a poem/prayer written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. My sister recited it in both English and Bangla during my California wedding (to a “foreign” boy!) at the request of our grandfather in Calcutta, India. It translates like this: “You have made me known to friends whom I knew not. You have given me seats in homes not my own. You have brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger…When one knows You, then there is no alien, and no door is shut.” I hope and pray that despite an unhealed past full of atrocities and deep divisions in the present, God can and will make “the distant near” and a “brother of the stranger” in America’s future.

From the August 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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