Interview with author Mitali Perkins
Mitali Perkins was born in Kolkata, India and emigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven years old. She writes fiction for younger teens and chats about books between cultures on the Fire Escape. She is the author of several books, including Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl (winner of a 2008 Jane Addams Award) and Secret Keeper.
PaperTigers last interviewed Mitali in 2005. Since then she has written many books and received much recognition and numerous more accolades for her work. In this interview we focus on Bamboo People, her latest book, set in modern-day Burma.
Mitali lives in Newton, Massachussets with her husband, twin teenage sons and a menagerie of animals.
We lived for three years in Chiang Mai, Thailand and visited refugee camps along the Burmese border. Good friends were working with the Karenni, and as I listened to their stories, the desire to shine light on the situation grew, especially as this area of the world isn’t often a focus of the media. Bamboo People started as a picture book, was rejected countless times, and morphed into a novel through the years.
What were you hoping to accomplish when you decided to tell the story from the point of view of two fifteen-year-old boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni (an ethnic minority in Burma)?
As the story was becoming a novel, I told it at first only from my Karenni protagonist Tu Reh’s point of view. The Burmese Army was definitely the “bad guy.” But the situation is more complicated than that, given the high rate of child soldiers conscripted by the Army. Many young Burmese teenagers don’t want to fight but have no choice. Writing Chiko’s half gave the book more of a balance and helped me refine the themes of forgiveness and peacemaking.
In a podcast interview for BookExpo America you mentioned that you partly modeled Chiko, the bookish character who is forced to join the army, on yourself, and Tu Reh, the Karenni refugee boy who is looking for revenge against a government that despises his people, on your grandfather. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Chiko struggles with courage and has to overcome fear, which is also a struggle for me. I like to “play it safe,” just like Chiko was tempted to do. He’s bookish-smart but not street smart, like me.
As for Tu Reh, who battled anger and hatred, I drew on the memory of my grandfather who had to flee from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to Kolkata, India as a refugee. He died a bitter man, unable to forgive the people who took the ancestral jute farm. I sought to imagine in this novel what it might have been like if he’d had the chance to forgive as a young man. Tu Reh’s character gave me the scope to do that.
What about the fact that the two characters, in spite of being on opposing sides of the conflict, are so similar? Our PaperTigers reviewer Abigail Sawyer said that “as a reader, it felt as if Tu Reh and Chiko could have been the same person had circumstances not shaped their lives so differently.”
That wasn’t intentional, but in retrospect I can see why my subconscious writing mind was creating such strong parallels between the two characters. For example, they both respect their fathers and look up to them as heroes. I hope that readers will see how someone defined geopolitically as my “enemy” could be my friend under different circumstances.
Chiko and Tu Reh are your first male characters. How was it different, trying to get into their psyche, compared with creating your previous female characters?
I couldn’t have written this book five years ago, but I have firsthand experience with teen boys now since I’m raising two. Basically, I’m immersed in guydom. I tell young people that I watched a lot of Call of Duty and other video games to write the book. I also asked a couple of guy readers who live and work along the Thai-Burma border for input. One kept asking me to toughen the characters and eliminate introspection, and I took much of his counsel to heart.
The part where Chiko is injured and it becomes clear that it is up to Tu Reh to decide whether “his enemy” will live or die is very poignant. The story conveys very well the idea that all our choices, difficult or not, have consequences. Can you tell us more about that?
Life is made up of small decisions, and as we’re faithful with the small ones, we’re often led to bigger, heroic moments. Courage, honor, love, forgiveness – these character traits are like muscles. We build them bit by bit so that when the time comes for heavy lifting we’ll be ready. I tried to show that in many ways in Bamboo People.
Tu Reh’s father tells him, at one point in the story: "I'm going to stay like the bamboo, Tu Reh. I want to be used for many purposes." Can you tell us about your use of the bamboo plant as a metaphor in this book?
I was amazed by the bamboo along the Thai-Burma border. It’s lavish, ecologically efficient, and used for almost every aspect of life in the refugee camps. The flexibility and resilience of the plant seemed to echo the flexibility and resilience I saw in the Karenni people.
Something else you said in your BEA interview that really struck me was that “Burma used to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and now it has the most child soldiers.” How do you make sense, or how can we help our young readers make sense, of such a shift?
A repressive government like the one in Burma relies heavily on armed might to enforce policies. It’s easier to control people without freedom of the press, freedom to read, and widespread literacy. The pen is mightier than the sword, as President Wilson said, so often those with the sword will try and diminish the power of the pen by limiting access to reading.
I hope young people can weigh the fact that in the US and the UK, they don’t have to fight against their will, and that having the freedom and training to read is a huge privilege. Reading and writing are both political acts.
Do your two sons read your books? Are they curious about your work? Do you find yourself writing for them, in a way?
One is reading Bamboo People right now. The other listened to drafts and offered input. And I did write the book for them in that I tried to make it a page-turner, action-oriented, with shorter chapters – more like the kinds of books they read.
When we look at the many problems in the world today, what issues affecting children do you think we should be paying particular attention to?
It’s hard to believe that children on this planet are going without water, shelter, food, health care, physical safety, love and nurture. Let’s fight for them on all fronts. If I had to pick one place where I’ll battle especially hard, it would probably be literacy. As I said before and tried to show in this book, literacy is an empowering, life-changing gift that can never be taken away.
I don’t manage it very well, but it’s all fun, and relates to my overall mission statement: getting good books into the hands and hearts of young readers.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m sitting back a bit and letting ideas take shape in my mind. I’ve had a busy writing and speaking schedule so this summer is set aside for reflection, reading, and scribbling without pressure.
Thank you so much for your questions, and for the support, encouragement, and resources on this great site!
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers' Managing Editor and Producer
Posted August 2010
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