Mitali Perkins’s You Bring the Distant Near was released on the same day it was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It’s a gorgeous novel that twines the tales of three generations of women in one family, taking readers on a beautiful journey that includes heartbreak, love and, of course, familial strife and reconciliation.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written because there’s so many characters… whether it be faith or politics or friendships or marriages or whatever, I wanted people to change.”
I had the chance to chat with Perkins over the phone, and was both encouraged and awed by her words. You Bring the Distant Near is her most personal and autobiographical work to date.
“This is the scariest book I’ve written because it is so much out of my memory and my life,” Perkins said. Many of the things her character Sonia does — like write — came straight from her own childhood. “I’m usually really tough, I just think ‘oh well, it’s not her cup of tea, no big deal,’ but this time it’s like it’s my heart out there…”
Perkins has fond memories of her own childhood. She has two older sisters, Sunali and Rupali – yes, all three have names which rhyme – and grew very close with them because they were, in many ways, alone in their experiences of being immigrants to America. They were the only ones each other could relate to. But the family also just straight-up enjoyed each other.
“We laughed a lot as a family, we always laughed.” One time, the apartment flooded, and “I just remember all five of us just laughing hysterically as the water was rising around us.” She credits this to one of her sisters, whose laugh was incredibly contagious.
Her father gave her diaries with little locks and keys — “he knew privacy was so important to me” — and she would write poems and stories.
Although writing was important to her as a child, she didn’t think of it as something that would be a viable career until after her second novel was published. That’s when, she says, she decided to really embrace that part of her identity.
“It was time to say, this is my calling, I wanna be a writer, I wanna be an author,” she said, recalling a time of prayer she had during which she felt convicted to stop waffling about whether or not she was a writer. “It’s not an easy career, but because it was intentional and a calling, I just felt like I’ve had a lot of strength to endure through the hard things cause it’s not about those things, it’s about being faithful to the vocation.”
Perkins is the author of 10 books for young readers. You Bring the Distant Near was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2017. It has also received starred reviews from places like Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. Many of her other novels, including Tiger Boy and Bamboo People, were critically acclaimed.
All this doesn’t change that Perkins is often on the receiving end of something like scorn from people who think less of her for writing children’s books.
“They dismiss it,” she says. “But I think, ‘do you know how much power I have, I write for children! You should be like, ‘wow!’
“As adults you read with your mind and your heart, but as a child you have much more access to those deep places of the heart that last you for life, that we continually have to root out because some of it’s so bad. When you learn a language as an adult, it’s hard and awkward and your accent stinks; [but]you learn a language as a child and you’re so fluent and it’s fast and you never lose the accent…well, that’s the same thing with stories, they help you imagine other lives, and so if you exercise your imagination as a child in a good way to cross borders, you’re set.”
And so, Perkins writes. She writes to influence young people and encourage empathy in them; and she writes in a way that truly brings stories to life. I’ve read You Bring the Distant Near; it made me cry on the subway, of all places. It’s an insanely good book, and deserves all the praise it has gotten and will continue to get. I can’t wait to see what Perkins writes next; I’m on the edge of my seat in anticipation.