You Bring the Distant Near: Interview with Mitali Perkins
Mitali Perkins has been writing fiction for young adults and children for years. Her latest novel, You Bring the Distant Near, is a multigenerational story about matriarch Ranee Das’ family. Ranee, and daughters Sonia and Tara, are finally settling in New York City after a life on the move. Sonia is a superstar in the making, with dreams of being an actress, while what Tara craves most is peace to read and write in her journal. As they navigate through their lives, reconciling their Indian heritage with the American culture surrounding them, they have children of their own, who in turn face new struggles.
We sat down with Mitali Perkins to discuss the inspiration for You Bring the Distant Near and issues of identity and culture.
I couldn’t help but notice your upbringing mirrors that of Sonia and Tara a little—you’ve lived across the world, in India, Ghana, and the US. Did you draw from your own experiences to write this book?
I've described the book as "memoir on steroids" because so many of the moments that became fictional scenes started as memories. This makes You Bring the Distant Near the most personal and risky of all of my books. My cheeks get hot when someone says they've read it.
One thing that really resonated with me about You Bring the Distant Near is the idea that you can be two things at once. I am Indian, but I’m also American—I don’t have to choose. Why was this theme important to you?
I don't like being defined by one visible identity, especially by people who don't know me. So many of our dearest identities are hidden. I feel like all of us reside at an intersection of identities, some privileged, some more marginalized. I like exploring and expressing all of them, or none or them, or some of them, given the context and the level of trust and safety I feel in that context. That's why I talk about "hovering near my hyphen," so that I can exchange and choose identities as I see fit. I also see the hyphen between our identities as the core place where all humans are beloved.
You tell a multigenerational tale in this novel. Where did the seeds for it come from? Did one character come to you first, and you extrapolated from there?
The seeds came from remembering painful and beautiful moments in our family's life. When I look back at how we've changed as a system, it's not the big events that stand out as much. Deaths, moves, weddings, and births may be how we typically chronicle a family's history, but the so-called "smaller" moments in day-to-day life tell the actual truth of transformation. In this book, I sought to explore a few such moments in one family's everyday life that reveal the deep changes and redemption in their story. It takes time to change. It takes generations.
You write specifically about racism against black people within the Indian community. It’s a rampant problem, but something that isn’t widely discussed. Why did you decide to tackle this weighty topic?
It's one of the things I've always resisted in my village Bengali culture of origin—the rampant shadism against darker-skinned people, both black and Indian. When you write about your own experience, you have the freedom to celebrate the positives and not be as reverential as an outsider as you explore the negatives.
When you write about your own experience, you have the freedom to celebrate the positives and not be as reverential as an outsider as you explore the negatives.
The title You Bring the Distant Near refers to the immigrant nature of American culture, besides indigenous people, and how we all brought a little something here from where we came from. What does it mean to have your book come out right now, in this US atmosphere?
I have high hopes for America, even in these divided times. This is a country where we can be proximate to people with ancestry from villages all around the world, including citizens of Native nations with ancient ties in this land. Those people may start as strangers—distant—but if we open our hearts and homes, they can become neighbors, friends, and even our nearest and dearest family members.
You’ve been writing books for a long time and seen quite a bit of change across the literary community, especially in young adult and children’s literature. What has that been like as an author of color?
It delights me on behalf of young readers who lack power and privilege. They are now seeing authors who grew up on the margins of power gain power in society through storytelling. That thrills me beyond words, which is difficult to do since I love words so much!
What other books have you been reading lately that you want people to know about?
I'm reading the other books on the NBA [National Book Awards] longlist, slowly but surely. Please read them all! I'm also reading books by authors for panels I'm a part of at Festivals, so am enjoying books by Francisco Stork (Disappeared), Tochi Onyebuchi (Beasts Made of Night), Veronica Chambers (The Go-Between), Dusti Bowling (The Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus), Deborah Heiligman (Vincent and Theo), Nidhi Chanani (Pashmina), Gregory Katsoulis (All Rights Reserved) ... One of the best parts about all the traveling I'm doing is reading the books of these other wonderful authors.