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Interview with author, Mitali Perkins
By Laura Atkins*

You were born in India, but your parents left when you were a child. Can you tell me a bit about your growing up and where you lived?

My dad was a civil engineer, so he worked to develop ports and harbors in different countries. We lived in Ghana, Cameroon, London, New York City, and Mexico before settling in California when I was 11 years old.

What was it like for you to live in these different countries and cultures? How did you find a sense of your identity between the influences of your family combined with the societies in which you lived?

I always loved living and traveling in other countries and cultures, but my parents never "went native" in a foreign culture—nor did they allow us to (that is, until we settled in California, when the three of us became teenagers, and they lost the ability to insulate us from foreign influence.) My parents were proud of our Bengali heritage. They spoke Bangla at home and read Bangla literature, stories, and poetry. Mom always found and ground the spices to prepare Dad's favorites, no matter where we lived, using mustard oil and black pepper, turmeric and yogurt. She sang "Bangla-gan" (Bengali songs) while she cooked, and danced Manipuri dance at Bengali festivals. They always sought out other Bengali people and socialized with them, even though we lived in international communities and mingled with expatriates from around the globe. So I grew up with a strong sense of my heritage, and yet learned early on how to live along the border between two worlds.

Did the books you read growing up affect the way you saw yourself or found your own identity?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Stories were my lifeline, my rock, my stability. They were what I clutched for balance in that sometimes confusing place between cultures.

Looking back, there were three types of books that made it into the "favorite, read, and re-read" category. First, I was drawn to stories about orphans; children who didn't have the help of their parents to help them negotiate life. As an immigrant kid, was I seeking strength to survive life in a world that my parents didn't understand? Second, I devoured books with a strong sense of place, perhaps to compensate for my family's displacement.

And finally, I loved old-fashioned fiction that taught values and morals while offering me characters to love and care about—isn't that strange, given that the trend now is to avoid preaching at all costs? Youth culture in America at that time was all about rebelling against authority, but stories about America's past written by Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Maud Hart Lovelace resonated more with the values I was taught at home—respect for older people, hospitality, generosity, selflessness. These writers also helped me to understand the fiber of the country where I would eventually pledge my allegiance. There weren't too many books about the immigrant experience while I was growing up, although I remember my deep enjoyment of the All-Of-A-Kind-Of-A-Family series by Sidney Taylor and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when I was a bit older.

How do you think your experiences with moving and migration affected your own writing for children?

I write as the kid that I was, and still am, because I am about thirteen years old in my soul even though my body isn't convinced. My stories explore the stresses of life between cultures as well as the strong sense of self that can emerge in a child who grows up between cultures.  I try to show how immigrant kids often have a sharper cultural vision—we develop the ability to see both good and bad within different cultures thanks to the detachment we feel from all cultures. And I always spend time on the details of place; the setting is as vivid in my mind as the characters. Part of me will always hunger for a place to call home.

In your book Monsoon Summer, you have a teenage girl character who has grown-up in California, and who goes to visit India with her mother, who was born there. What was it like to write a book that reversed your own experiences—was it difficult to translate seeing the US as an immigrant to a similar experience in India?

Not really. I left India when I was a baby and only visited once when I was six. India felt like a foreign country to me in many ways when I returned at age fourteen. And yet, and yet—it was home, too. I spoke the language. I looked like the people, although I was a lot taller and stronger-looking than most Bengali women. Back in California, I felt overlooked in a school full of white kids because of my dark skin, and I felt beautiful in India for the first time. My main character, Jazz, experiences that strange sensation of returning to a foreign place that feels familiar.

Do you prefer writing for any particular age group?

Grades 6-10. Like I said, I am actually thirteen years old or so. I believe that most of the crucial soul-shaping in a person's life takes place between the ages of 11 and 15.

How did you go about getting your first book published? How do you feel that publishers have responded to you writing books which focus on the Indian and Indian American experience?

Getting my first book published was a piece of cake. I wrote it as a hobby, sent it to Little Brown, and they called me in three weeks with an offer. I thought,"Wow! This is the life!" Then came Monsoon Summer, which was soundly rejected by most publishers for years and years. The appetite for a book based in India was slowly growing, though, and when adult consumers began buzzing about Indian fiction, Random House made me an offer. Now there's a cornucopia of good books about Indian-Americans (including authors like Uma Krishnaswami, Narinder Dhami, Anjali Banerjee, Pooja Makhijani, Kashmira Sheth, and others), along with a fantastic magazine based in New England for South Asian kids called Kahani, which means "story" in Sanskrit. I also have signed contracts for four books coming up in the next few years. After all that rejection, this series of acceptances feels like a dream. But (pinch), it's not, so hooray! And kudos to my wonderful agent, Laura Rennert!

Your website, FireEscape, provides a great resource to anybody interested in books that feature the immigrant experience. What inspired you to put this together, and why do you think it is important to call attention to these books?

When we arrived in New York City as new immigrants, life was tough. Finances were limited, my parents were under pressure, my sisters were becoming teens, and the small apartment where we lived felt hot, crowded, and tense. I would head to the New York Public Library every Saturday to get my allotment of seven books per week, stop by the store to pick up a roll of Sweet Tart candies, and then sneak out to the fire escape to read, read, read. I also started keeping a diary out there, and that's where I wrote my first stories. I liked the idea of an "escape" for immigrant kids, and I wanted to provide a safe place on the web for them to come and discover stories about others who went through a similar experience, and even triumphed magnificently. That's why I provide lists of great reads, reviews, writing contests, and a chance for them to chat with me about their lives. Again, when I was growing up, there weren't too many books about life between cultures, and I often felt alone. So I hang out on my virtual fire escape with a selection of great reads, just in case today's immigrant kids need some company or encouragement, or want to write their own stories.

Your education is mostly in the area of political science. How was it to make the transition to writing fiction for young readers?

I've always longed to help the poor and the displaced, and to inspire others to do the same—that's why I studied political science. You'll find "development" themes interwoven into many of my stories—in Monsoon Summer, Jazz discovers the power of providing an interest-free loan to a young woman who wants to start her own business, for example. My forthcoming book, Rickshaw Girl, explores that theme a bit further. It's based in rural Bangladesh, where small-scale enterprise and access to credit are empowering illiterate women in a revolutionary way. I taught University students as well as high-school and middle-school kids, and the best way to teach is through the power of story. When I write, I don't ask myself: "Now I'm going to teach THIS political science lesson...Hmm...how can I stuff it into a story?" I focus on character, place, plot, like most writers. But heartfelt convictions are part of who I am, so they are bound to come out through my writing. At least, I hope so!

Are you working on a project now?

I am writing an older YA book called Asha Means Hope for Random House. It is tough to write because it is fiction-cum-memoir, and I am wrestling with how to write sometimes painful truths in a way that reflects my deep respect and gratitude for my parents. After I finish this novel, I will be working on a couple of books that will be lighter, fun reads, a series of sorts. I do love getting a chuckle or two from my readers.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

Dead, probably. No, seriously, I'd be a teacher or a librarian. They are my heroes, and they get to work with young people. Lucky them. And blessed me—I'm a writer of children's and young adults' literature. What joy!

 

*Laura Atkins is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey Roehampton in London. She is a regular contributor to PaperTigers.

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interviwee- Mitali Perkins


Mitali Perkins

Books by Mitali Perkins:

Monsoon Summer (Delacorte Press, 2004).


The Not-So-Star-Spangled- Life of Sunita Sen (Little Brown, 2005). Read a review of this book on PaperTigers.

More on the web:

Fire Escape is Mitali Perkins' website about books (and life) between cultures. Make sure to also check her "Notes to the Zero Generation" (there's a link to it at the bottom of her homepage).

 

 




Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Then take a look at the latest PaperTigers: Books+Water project, the online literary journal
WaterBridge Review.

 

 

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