You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins – Review by Kacy Smith
What do you keep, and what do you leave behind? This is the question that shapes You Bring the Distant Near, the latest YA novel from Mitali Perkins, a sweeping, multi-generational, female-centric story of a family immigrating from Ghana to London to New York City. The title is taken from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and idea of “bringing the distant near” is the central theme as three generations of Bengali women find home and family from 1965-2006. The Das family moves from London to America early in the novel and most of the narrative takes place in New York. Each generation, each female, tackles challenges in a different way. The novel is divided into three sections: “Strangers, ” in which the young Tara and Sonia assimilate to America while trying to remember – and keep – their Indian heritage. The young students are in jeans and tee shirts watching The Brady Bunch, and also practicing the harmonium and Tagore songs. In “Travelers,” Tara and Sonia voyage unto adulthood. Sonia joins the fight for equal rights and falls in love with an African-American classmate, which divided her family for years; and Tara, an actress, journeys to Bangladesh to deposit her father’s ashes in a tributary of the Calcutta, and surprises herself by falling in love. Finally, in “Settlers,” Sonia’s and Tara’s daughters, Chantal and Anna, grapple with hyphenated identities. Chantal is Bengali and African-American, and Anna is American, but has lived most of her life in Mumbai. Both are young students working through advanced classes, seeking relationships, and grappling with macro and micro-aggressions.
Mitali Perkins has created nuanced, believable characters- every reader will see themselves somewhere. Perhaps the dancer and athlete Chantal or the introverted, environmental Anna, or their grandmother, the matriarch of the family, Ranee, who has perhaps the most impressive story arc of all? I am not Bengali or of Bengali descent, and I still felt very connected to the storylines and characters which Perkins crafted. As the characters tangled with past traditions, present demands and future hopes, I found myself turning page after page, well into the night. I worried about Tara’s grades, I rooted for Anna to get her Fashion-Design Club, and when Sonia mourns her father, my heart broke in memory and sympathy. I longed for the Hindu rituals of remembrance and memorial, as my heritage has none. However, please don’t write this off as a drama- there so much humor and triumph in these 303 pages. I would also add that while this is a story of a family rooted in India, regardless of where they live, that this is not a story of stereotypes and predictable reading. In the detail and sweep of these plotlines, we see the possibilities and impossibilities of those who immigrate- what they can bring, what they can leave behind.
There is so much strength is this writing, and the balance between plot movement and detail is beautiful. Mitali Perkins brings near this Bengali family, whether in 1970s Flushing or 1980s Bangladesh or 2000s Harlem. You will be immersed in the times, the places, the characters. When Chantal is squeezed between arguing grandmothers (one African-American, one Bengali) and is torn between two identities (one African-American, one Bengali), I squirmed in discomfort. When Ranee transforms herself as a reaction to 9/11, I cheered and worried over her choices. I read the novel once straight through, and then a second time, character by character, to get a deeper insight into Ranee, Tara, Sonia, Anna, and Chantal. While some novels of a different culture and time require significant background knowledge, You Bring the Distant Near does not. There is reference the Partition of India, which plays into one chapter strongly. It is not a prerequisite for reading this wonderful novel.
So, what does bring the distant near? These layered storylines balance this question with time, travel, or tragedy, using multiple points of view. It is an epic, generational story, a coming of ages, and it is an ode to both India and America. I recommend this novel for upper middle to high school students. This book is similar in theme and mood to the adult novels The Joy Luck Club, Fried Green Tomatoes or Homegoing. The relationships between females recalls Julie Murphy’s beautiful work, Dumplin’, and the complex, realistic characters will resound with readers who loved Angie Thompson’s The Hate U Give. This is the book to put into the hands of those who are searching for identity or meaning in a new town/school/situation. This is the book to put into the hands of a reader who lives with sibling/family rivalry; this book brings hope that rivalry is permanent neither in time nor harm. This is the book for readers searching for strong, female protagonists, as this book is full of them.
Kacy Smith is a Secondary ELA TOSA who works with students and teachers, focusing on reading and writing workshop, as well as professional development. While it is change from twenty years of teaching, it is the closest Kacy could get to reading and writing for a living. When not working, Kacy reads, raises Mason bees, and gardens; runs after two large bulldogs, and looks forward to family dinners with her daughter, Chloe, and (much better) half, James.