Indian American writer Mitali Perkins, who writes young adult fiction, talks about her works.
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK
(This interview appeared on the International Business Times website.)
By Isha Roy
The Kolkata-born Mitali Perkins is the author of seven books, all of them targeting young adults. Teenagers growing up with dual identities is a powerful theme in the California-based author's works. "A graceful exploration of the redemptive power of love, family, and friendship" was how the Publishers Weekly described her most recent novel, Bamboo People, which was published in 2010. Besides the United States, her books are widely popular around the world. Some 60,000 copies of Rickshaw Girl, published in 2008, have been sold in Japan. In a recent interview with Global India Newswire, Perkins spoke about her works, her peripatetic childhood and fellow South Asian American writers, among other topics. Here are the excerpts:
You have written several books for young readers, focusing on teenager girls growing up with dual identities and how they are able to overcome the multicultural and social complexities surrounding them and grow up into strong young independent women. Tell us about the inspiration behind these beautiful characters and their stories.
I say almost all my characters are based on me, maybe better versions of me because just like my characters, I went through the experiences of growing up between two cultures. It really does fuse a strong identity when you have to take the best of both worlds. I think if you survive that time as a teenager, you end up becoming stronger. You are able to cross borders easily, see the best in any culture and understand the nuances and non-verbals of many cultures. So, I am really experiencing that now on this end of it. But as you are going through it, it can be tough for teenagers.
Speaking of your characters, one of my favorite characters is Asha in Secret Keeper. Asha's story is predominantly set in mid-1970s' Calcutta and is based on her struggles and sacrifices of living in a joint family dealing with the dominating matriarch, the displaced wife, awkward teenage years, arranged marriage, and the lack of basic rights for young women. How did you develop the character of Asha and the intricacies of the typical joint family in Calcutta? Is it from your personal experience?
The reason why the story is set in the '70s in Calcutta is because I lived there in the '70s and I didn't feel qualified to write about modern-day India. My memories of living in India were from the '70s. Both sides of my family are joint families. I was always interested in the interesting things that happen when you put many characters in one situation and always appreciated the dynamics of that and always wanted to write about that.
Is there any particular reason why you prefer focusing on the young adult age group for your characters? Would you ever switch to adult fiction someday? For example, would you ever write the story of Asha from Secret Keeper as an adult and how her story evolves once she moves back to Delhi and is pursuing teaching as a career?
Good idea! The reason why I write for young adults is that a young adult novel is set in that time period with that voice. So an adult can write about a young adult, but it's in retrospect, as if they are looking back. So that's the difference between an adult writer who is writing for an adult audience, looking back on adolescence. So I really like the immediacy of being in that voice. A writer has to find their voice and I am sad to say that mine is stuck in age 14. That's kind of my level of maturity. I really like that age because that's the age when everything changes and you are really developing your own voice. There's that idea of the hero's quest being a part of coming of age, just like how an adolescent evolves into an adult. That intrigues me, how people face the challenge of becoming an adult. It's a natural story.
You were born in Kolkata and by the time you were 11, you had lived in several different countries before settling in California. How did you handle adjusting to so many different cultures and languages during the formative years of your life?
Not sure if I was successful at all times. I think you move across cultures very fluidly as a child. Children learn languages very easily and at the same time they learn cultures very easily. So the more that a child will travel, will cross borders, and will experience different cultures in their community, the easier it will be as an adult. So I think that as a child, it is always easier to learn how to read cultures. I learned that as a child and so I think that's something that has been benefitting me throughout the years. Understanding how adults relate to different cultures is the challenge. You are learning to understand not only the cultures but also how the older generation is reacting to those differences and that can be very confusing. Sometimes it doesn't make sense. For example, why is that person successful but not the other person? Why would it be ok for me to marry that person but not the other person? So trying to figure out all those nuances is also a challenge.
You have mentioned in other interviews how you were always really drawn to books when you were moving around so much as a child. Were you also drawn to writing from that young age and knew you wanted to become a writer someday?
Yes, I read all the time. I was a voracious reader. I was often scolded by my mom about focusing on my math as opposed to reading so much. But that was my pleasure. I also wrote in my diary. Just like in my book, Secret Keeper, Asha's diary played a huge role being her "secret keeper," my diary also played a key role. My dad would buy me diaries with locks on them and I would write in them. I have diaries from when I was 9, 10 and 11. I never thought it would be a vocation. Never thought that it would be the thing I did for my life's work. So that's been a really lovely surprise.
Your book, Rickshaw Girl is based on a village girl named Naina trying to help out her family, who is struggling financially, by using her Alpana painting skills to get a job in the village and how the concept of microfinance really helps Naina and her family out. What was the motivation behind writing a story based on microfinance and how effective has it been in addressing poverty in rural India and Bangladesh?
Well, I studied public policy in grad school and when I lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of my really good friends was involved with the Grameen Bank. I learned about what the Grameen Bank is doing. Like every initiative to battle poverty, Grameen Bank has had its setbacks. But as a whole, in parts of India and Bangladesh, it has been immensely successful because it gives women the chance to have a little bit more power, more choices. And anytime you are doing that, anytime you are improving the amount of power that a poor woman has, you are affecting an entire community. So because these women now have the chance to start their own businesses, it does affect entire villages. I have seen it and so it's a very powerful tool but like anything, it can be abused. Exploitation can creep in and all different kinds of abuses. But in that area, microfinance has been a key to fighting poverty.
What are you reading these days? Who are some of your favorite authors?
I tend to re-read a lot. All of my favorite authors are dead but I do a lot of re-reading. I re-read seasonally and I re-read my favorite stories, especially in stressful times. In terms of new books, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction which is interesting to me because I have always been a huge fiction person. But I think because of life's transitions and areas of emerging interests, I have been turning a lot to non-fiction and enjoying it. I love seasonal books like Harry Potter in November, Little Women in Winter, and, then in the spring, I will read books that describe a sense of place. I think because I was displaced so much, place is very meaningful to me. So any books that describe that seasonal change at that time especially through fiction are very important to me.
What are your thoughts on the works of your fellow South Asian writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni?
So proud and so delighted with their success, that they are introducing the culture to so many people outside of our culture. For a long time, at least in the children's book world, people tended to think that South Asian children will be the target audience for my books. But those two writers in the adult world have shown that there is much wider audience than South Asians for these stories. The legacy of storytelling in our culture is paying off considering we have thousands and thousands of years of good storytelling. A lot of us grew up learning and hearing stories and so just to see the wider audience of the adult realm has opened up doors for us in the children's realm. I think finally people are realizing children don't have to read books about people just like them. So the African children can read my books, Mexican children can read my books. It's not just the South Asian audience. So I really appreciate the success of the two authors spilling over to the children's book world. I love their books. It's such a delight to read them and I am looking forward to the next generation of South Asian storytellers.
What can your readers expect from your next work? What are some of your upcoming projects?
I love humor and trying to work on an anthology of young adult writers. It's called Open Mike and published in 2013 with a lot of humor, a memoir, fiction. The stories make you laugh and about growing up on the margins of life in North America. But it's a funny perspective. I feel like when we talk about race or ethnicity, it's often very reverential, very heavy. The generation of our kids has learned to bring humor into the discussions about race, which alleviates a lot of the stress. It's still uncomfortable to talk about race but when you bring in humor it lightens everything up and makes it easier. I'm working on my first picture book which is very exciting. I do a lot of social media including tweeting and making sure to keep everything to the 140 character limit. It's actually caused my writing to tighten up. When I tweet, I don't allow myself to use any abbreviations or any bad grammar. I'll always use full sentences so I think tweeting is a good writing discipline to say a lot in a short amount which is what picture books and poetry are about. I'm excited about the picture book concept. It's set in the Sundherbhan and is about the tigers and the families that live there.
Is there a growing interest in Indian American literature in mainstream America?
I think there is a growing interest. If you look at pop culture, watch Disney Channel Shows, what's in the movies, or even the dance shows, you'll see a Bhangra or Bollywood element to it. Most Americans now have heard of that and have a perception that Indian culture is fun and lively. I always joke that when many Americans find out that I'm Indian they will talk about their experience at an Indian restaurant, or with an Indian doctor in an attempt to connect with me. They may not know the difference between a Bengali or Tamil but do recognize such things as chicken tikka masala and Bollywood as distinctly Indian and [they are] definitely in the American culture now.
What is the interest level in your books among non-South Asians?
Yes and I've always found it quite delightful. Publishers expected South Asians to read my books but weren't expecting other kids to travel with me. In fact, I get letters from kids in rural parts of America that have never met an Indian, Bangladeshi or Burmese person before. Despite this, they are connecting with the stories and characters. It's always heartening to see them make that leap through fiction to connect across cultures like that. The next time these kids hear about Burma or Bangladesh, they can relate better because the stories provide them with a friend in that culture and that's always a delight. Children read just as widely as we do and, like adults, want to travel wide and far. That's the power of fiction, it takes you everywhere.
I went to some Boston area schools to speak to 4th graders who lived in the inner city and were from the Ivory Coast. Surprisingly, the kids loved Rickshaw Girl because they could relate to the main character in the book. These kids (including four who were homeless) didn't see the character in Rickshaw Girl as someone from Bangladesh and them being from the Ivory Coast but rather they are able to connect to the character by the fact that, like them, the character is someone who simply wants to help her family. So you're never sure what a child will find in the story but that's the power of the story.
What advice would you give to young aspiring South Asian writers?
The world of publishing is changing real fast. Content is still important. So keep working on being a better storyteller. There are a lot of different venues to get your works published like blogs and e-books. Also, don't forget to read, read, read!
Also, you have to keep the 3 Rs in mind. Be willing to take Risks, be willing to Revise — you have to be willing to change every single word you've written, even if it's something you originally thought was the pearl of a sentence — and, finally, be willing to face a lot of Rejection. There is no doubt that all writers will face rejection. It took 11 years and only after 22 revisions did my second book Monsoon Summer get published. So, be willing to take risks, find your voice, be willing to handle a lot of revisions and rejections, and don't give up. That would be my advice. (Global India Newswire)