Talk Time: The Code-Switcher
(Left) Mitali Perkins. (Photo: Bethany Carnes)
Mitali Perkins, who has been writing young adult fiction for years, switches seamlessly between the far and near, and between then and now, in her latest book, You Bring the Distant Near, which was longlisted for a National Book Award. She discusses how her experiences have shaped what she writes and the way she does it.
What drew you to write young adult literature?
I studied political science and public policy and wanted to change the world. During final exams I found myself sneaking into the public library and rereading all my favorite children's books and young adult books. My mind may have been shaped by college and graduate school but my heart was shaped by the books I read as a child. Young readers read more with their hearts than we do. You have a chance to help them develop compassion and understand justice. That's what I really love to do through writing.
What are the challenges involved in writing young adult literature that most readers don’t understand?
I think there's a bit of a greater responsibility in writing for children in some ways because they're more open, and so the conversations around what's appropriate for young adult literature—race, stereotypes, those questions—become very intense. The stakes are really high. We all want to protect and empower children, but then we get into these fiery discussions about what's appropriate, and that can get complicated and delicate.
I've always admired how your books are shaped by the Indian-American experience but they're also very universal. You don't get lost in the thickets. How do you walk that fine line?
I don't have an audience in mind when I write. I'm not thinking, ‘Oh, I'm writing for an Indian child’ or ‘I'm writing for an outsider to the culture.’ I am just writing a story. There is a universal mirror that everybody will be able to see themselves in. The key is not to worry so much about who's reading it but to really fine-tune your characters so well that everybody feels like they know them.
You have lived in so many countries outside of India: Ghana, Cameroon, the U.K. How has that shaped you and your writing?
I talk about ‘code-switching’ when you grow up as a kid between two cultures or many cultures. You learn fast, just like your fluency with languages. We also learn how to code-switch to succeed in a culture. I feel very blessed now because I code-switched as a kid. I am hyphenated, so for me it's not a stretch to understand what it's like growing up in a village in Bangladesh, so that's where the code-switching really helps in that research. I speak the language and that still helps, but I can also understand the nuances of the nonverbal ways we communicate.
Your latest book, You Bring the Distant Near, doesn’t shy away from discussions of race. One of the daughters falls in love with a black kid. What do you want readers to take away from how you handled that in the book?
When we come to a country like America, even the original people who are here, their culture has been ripped apart. Nobody really has an original culture here, and so when we come to this place, all these people originated from distant places, and America really brings us near to each other. I think we are given multiple chances to bring the distant near in our life. My challenge to readers would be: Are you going to bring the distant near every time we’re given an opportunity? Will you choose to open the door of your heart or will you shut it?
What has been the most memorable reaction you have received?
I was so touched at a recent event when a 92-year-old woman who had read the book and loved it had come with her best friend. Next to them was our local barista at Starbucks who's a trans kid. He's a poet and he really enjoyed the book, too. For me that is so touching that the book really does bring so many different kinds of people, from left to right, from old to young, together.
What advice would you give young kids who want to be writers?
They’re so good at social media. Use digital platforms they’re familiar with to tell stories, to play with words.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.
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