This elegant young adult novel captures the immigrant experience for one Indian-American family with humor and heart. Told in alternating teen voices across three generations, You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture--for better or worse.
From a grandmother worried that her children are losing their Indian identity to a daughter wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair to a granddaughter social-activist fighting to preserve Bengali tigers, award-winning author Mitali Perkins weaves together the threads of a family growing into an American identity.
Here is a sweeping story of five women at once intimately relatable and yet entirely new.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||838 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Mitali Perkins has written several books for young readers, including Between Us and Abuela, Forward Me Back to You,You Bring the Distant Near (a National Book Award Nominee, a Walter Honor Book, a South Asia Book Award Winner, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a Shelf Awareness 2017 Best Book of the Year), Rickshaw Girl (a NYPL Top 100 Book), and Bamboo People (an ALA Top 10 YA novel). Mitali was born in India and currently resides in Northern California.
Read an Excerpt
Home Is Where the Stories Are
Starry is channeling Twiggy, the British supermodel, as we board the BOAC plane in Heathrow Airport.
"We're moving to New York," she's saying to her audience at the front of the cabin. Eyes watch and ears tune in. "Father's found a fabulous post there."
I've had a front-row seat to my sister's chameleon act for years, but it still amazes me. Tara ("Starry" to me) is Indian with black hair. Twiggy is white and blond. Yet the resemblance between them is uncanny. It's more than the trendy bun, slender body, slightly Cockney accent, and clunky earrings. It's even more than the striped red, blue, and yellow dress and red tights — an exact copy of Twiggy's Vogue cover outfit that Ma sewed on a neighbor's borrowed machine. There's something Twiggy-ish coming from inside Starry that colors how she moves and talks and breathes.
"Oh, that's lovely," answers the stewardess. "You'll have to visit the theater. And the shopping on Fifth Avenue is smashing. Where are you from?"
"London," Starry responds, without hesitation.
I'm not sure I'd answer that question with just one word, like my sister. Where are we from? It's complicated.
Ma nudges me to enter an empty row of two seats. I settle into the one by the window and she plops down beside me. Blimey. I wish she'd let Starry sit there. I want to write in my diary, and my sister's presence is the next best thing to being alone. With all the packing and paperwork, privacy has been hard to find these last few weeks.
The stewardess is checking out Ma's sari and the red teep on her forehead. "But where were you born?" she asks my sister.
"In India," Starry answers. "But we moved to London when I was nine."
The pilot's voice crackles through the intercom, telling us that the plane is now fully boarded. Starry takes the empty seat across the aisle from Ma, and the stewardess pats her shoulder. "Well, love, we're all leaving London now. Fasten your seat belt, why don't you? I think the nice fellow next to you wants to help."
I lean forward. Sure enough, a young American soldier is showing my sister how to operate a seat belt — something she's known how to do since we were tiny. I have a surge of hope that Ma might tell Starry and me to switch seats. It's always safer for me to sit next to anyone male. But Ma listens for a minute to the soldier's voice; observes his gestures, medals, stripes, and uniform; and says nothing. Oh, that's right. If he's a "posh" young man (read: educated) raised in a "good family" (read: white or Bengali), Ma doesn't mind when Starry gets his attention. Baba always minds. He doesn't want boys around either of us, and would have taken that seat if he were here.
Ma's eyes close as the stewardesses busy themselves with preflight chores. The older-Starry-like lines of her face look tired. Maybe she'll fall asleep. If this move to New York has been exhausting, she has nobody to blame but herself. She hasn't been content anywhere we've lived. Baba faults her for making us leave India. We joined him once for a few months in Ghana, but she hated it. After that, we stayed in London while Baba traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, Cameroon, and the Philippines on short-term engineering contracts. His income wasn't steady, and landlords didn't like letting flats to "curry-cookers." So we had to shift within London three times. And our application for British citizenship kept getting denied. Baba came and went, came and went, and the fighting between them got worse. Especially when Starry started attracting men as well as boys.
While Baba was in Malaysia, a drunk neighbor banged on our door shouting, "Marry me, my Indian princess!" Baba was so upset when he heard, he wanted to move us back to Calcutta. I was furious. Calcutta?! Where my grandmothers cried because I wasn't a boy? How can you give a strange middle-aged British man that much power over our lives? I demanded. I'm sorry the world is like that, Mishti, Baba answered. But my job is to protect you girls from those kinds of idiots. Thankfully, for once Ma agreed with me. I'm not moving in with your mother, she argued. I'll be judged right and left. No privacy. No freedom.
It was the middle of the night — their favorite time to fight. I tossed in my bed and my sister stuffed fingers in her ears. Find a permanent job! Ma yelled. Move us to America!
And now he has.
I don't blame Ma for not wanting to return to India. She doesn't talk much about her girlhood in the village. But Baba describes his ancestral jute farm with bright eyes: coconut and mango trees, perfect for a small boy to climb; a sparkling pond full of tasty fish; lush fields, green after the monsoon. But that land was taken during the war and isn't even in India now, thanks to Partition. All we could return to is a rented, joint-family flat in the overcrowded city of Calcutta, where Ma's inability to have a son would be a constant subject of conversation for other women.
The plane begins to rumble along the tarmac, picking up speed. I glance at Ma. She's definitely asleep now. My thoughts are about to boil over. Carefully, so I don't wake her, I reach for my satchel and pull out my diary and pen. There's something about putting words on a page in private that makes me feel powerful in public. It's funny, even though I love stories so much, everything I write about is real. Thoughts, emotions, ideas, and beliefs. It's weird how writing them down gives them weight. Baba gifted me a new notebook just before he left for New York. It's only half full because I've been writing in small letters. Shifting the satchel to block the view in case Ma's eyes open, I turn to a blank page.
Here's to a new life in New York! A fresh start for the Das family! Maybe we'll have more money. Which means maybe Ma and Baba won't fight as much. Dig, nag, dig, nag, goes Ma, and then BOOM! Baba explodes. I don't know why she can't see him the way Starry and I do. Maybe it's because she was only eighteen when her parents married her off. Baba got to pick her out of three possible brides, but she had no choice.
The plane takes off and I watch London disappear beneath a bank of clouds. Forever? I wonder. After making sure Ma is still asleep, I keep writing.
It's sad that I'm not sadder to leave. I'll miss Samantha and Elsa, but they promised to write. I'll miss my visits to the library, and Starry's and my tea parties with scones, clotted cream, and cucumber sandwiches. I loved our strolls with Baba along the Thames and the times he took us to the zoo or Trafalgar Square.
I'm hoping for more solitude in the Land of the Free. To write, to read, to think. In London, I was only allowed to go to the library and the park across the street alone. I'm better off than my sister, though. Since that midnight visit from the drunken neighbor, Starry's not allowed to go outside by herself at all anymore.
I lean forward again. Now that Ma's head is drooping with sleep, the flirting across the aisle has intensified. I don't worry much about Starry — she's good at protecting herself — but I like watching her in action. I study the soldier's face: blue eyes; tan skin; nice, defined jaw. You'd think my stare would draw his gaze, but he pays no attention to me. Not with Starry laughing and chatting next to him. Growing up with a beautiful older sister is like wearing a veil. Doesn't it bother you at all? Elsa and Samantha used to ask. Not really, I answered, and left it at that. I go back to my writing.
I wish I could stay invisible in boys' eyes. Lately, the few that notice me don't focus on my face, anyway. My stupid breasts seem to be getting bigger by the month. I've been trying to make them look smaller by squashing them into bras that are two sizes too small. I support American bra-burners fighting for equal rights, but I don't think I'd have the courage to take mine off. Thank God for loose T-shirts. One day, someone special is going to look past all of this exterior stuff to see the inner me. No chameleon skin required. He'll likely be an American, but I'm hoping he'll still be a bit like my Mr. Darcy. Mysterious, reserved, kind, honorable. Those qualities last longer than a nice jawline. Although Darcy probably had that, too.
Ma stirs, so I tuck my diary back into my satchel and pull out the secondhand copy of Pride and Prejudice Baba gave me. Is this the ninth or the tenth time I've read it? I don't keep track. Why keep reading the same book? Ma always asks. What a waste of time. She doesn't realize how easily I can make myself at home in the Bennet family's drawing room. And how much I want to feel that way in our home.
Elizabeth's good company and the sizzle of Mr. Darcy make the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic go by in a flash. I stay in Regency England as meals are served, while Ma sleeps on, and throughout Starry's chatting and laughter. It's only when the stewardess announces that we're about to land at John F. Kennedy International Airport that I put the book away.
Our plane descends through the clouds and my new city sparkles below, dazzling in the morning light. We soar over tall spires and blocky buildings, over a wide river jeweled with boats and spanned by bridges. Then, suddenly, there she is — that famous coppery green woman, raising her torch high in the harbor.
Welcome, Sonia Das! she seems to call up to me.
Thanks, Ms. Liberty! Is that a sari you're wearing? I hope not.
She doesn't answer, but I'm almost sure she's smiling. If it's a sari, I'm almost certain there's no bra under it.
The wheels come down, and we hit the tarmac with a ta-da! bang and a long glide. The soldier is trying to get Starry's contact information, and my sister is sweetly but firmly refusing him. "I don't know our address yet, John," she says, pulling out a mirror to adjust her bangs and add more lipstick. John gives up, watching my sister wistfully. Poor fellow. Join the queue.
Ma wakes up with a gasp, then straightens the blue silk sari Baba bought for her in Singapore. She glances across at Starry, and then swivels to take stock of my appearance. I brace myself. Sure enough, that familiar twitch of displeasure passes across her face. It's gone in a moment, but after years of rejecting her Light & Lovely skin-bleaching cream, I know what makes her wince. The darkness of my skin.
Which idiot in history decided that lighter pigment was more attractive than having more melanin? I have no idea, but somehow he managed to infect the whole world with his stupidity — including my own mother. I just don't understand it. My skin is soft and smooth and the color reminds me of rain-drenched earth. But it's as if the darkness of it keeps Ma from noticing my assets: curly hair, a round face that makes babies smile, deep dimples in both cheeks, big eyes that notice details other people miss.
I like my face, even if Ma doesn't. I resemble Baba, and he's got presence.
We collect our carry-on luggage. Blue-eyed Soldier tries to hug Starry goodbye. Somehow my sister manages to avoid his arms — and Ma's eyes — as we disembark. Admiration from the "right" kind of boy is okay with Ma. Physical contact, though? Absolutely forbidden by both our parents. And we need our mother to be in a good mood. Starry knows this, too. Ma's about to see Baba for the first time in six months.
After a last longing look at Starry, her ex-seatmate flashes his U.S. passport and leaves customs and immigration. It takes us forever with our Indian passports and visas, but finally we make it through the blur of lines, paperwork, and questions from security agents.
And there, outside the opening and closing doors, is Baba.
Tall, robust, cheerful.
I barrel into the smell of pipe tobacco and the scratch of his tweed suit. "Mishti!" he calls. It feels like forever since I've heard that nickname.
Oh, how I've missed him! The Das family, reunited again!
Starry hugs him next. As he draws her close, Twiggy vanishes and she's herself again. My sister. "Star!" I hear him whisper.
That's his nickname for her — what "Tara" means in English. When I was two, I started calling her "Starry" instead of "Didi," which is what most Bengali girls call an older sister. Bengalis are famous for nicknames — we each end up with about a dozen. Only outsiders call us by our proper names. I'm "Baby" to Ma (even at fifteen), "Sunny" to Starry, but I've always been Baba's "Sweetie."
Our father is wearing his hair longer, curls brushing his collar.
"You grew sideburns!" I say.
Starry and I stick to English with our parents, each other, and everybody else. Baba and Ma, though, always use Bangla at home, and speak English only with outsiders. This time, though, Baba uses English with us.
"Like them? They're all the rage. Your Baba's become a stylish young American." He smiles. "Everyone thinks I'm a pop star."
Starry and I laugh. We're hanging on to him from either side, but even if one of his arms were available, he wouldn't touch Ma. It's not proper for a married couple to show affection in public. I can see his eyes, though, taking in the graceful lines of Ma's sari and searching her face. She gives him a small smile, and hope simmers in my heart.
Baba tells us he's borrowed a car from another Bengali family who live in the building where he's rented a flat. We head to the airport garage, towing our suitcases. "The flat's not big," he tells Ma, in Bangla, of course. "New Yorkers don't call them flats, by the way. They say 'apartment.' I've already started saving to buy a house."
"That is good news," Ma says, smiling at him for the second time in a half hour. It's a record. Starry and I exchange a quick glance to mark the significance of it.
The car's old and beat up, but roomy. The upholstery smells like fenugreek and mustard seed. In London, Baba didn't drive much, and I can tell he's still not used to it. As we leave the airport, he concentrates in silence while the three of us take in the sights: tall, dark buildings that block the sun; that same gray river I saw from above; bridges coated with rust; and dented yellow taxis racing by on either side. It looks less magical than it did from the sky. I can't see the statue at all. Will this place become familiar soon? When people ask me where I'm from, will this be my answer? I'm a New Yorker. From Flushing, Queens.
"Almost there," Baba says as we pull off the main road. His hands are clenched on the steering wheel and the back of his neck looks sweaty.
The car stops in front of a large brick building that looks deserted. "This will be your school, girls," Baba tells us. Starry leans across me to get a glimpse.
"You'll be able to walk here from our flat, I mean, apartment. And that lorry is a truck here. The suitcases are in the trunk, not the boot. You'll have to learn how to speak American."
He starts driving again. One more block and we stop in front of another building. Adults and children both are entering and exiting through the open doors. I read the sign beside the steps: QUEENS PUBLIC LIBRARY, FLUSHING BRANCH.
"This is for you, Mishti," Baba says, smiling at me in the rearview mirror. "Five blocks from our new apartment."
Libraries. How I love them. My source of stories. And solitude. Where the musty smell of books greets me like the perfume in our grandmother's embrace. My old branch was two blocks from our London flat, and I went almost daily. The librarian and I both got teary when I said goodbye. And this library is almost as close! I'll get a library card tomorrow and carry back my first installment of books. Maybe I can also find a quiet corner to write in peace.
Ma is watching the patrons come and go. "Do these people live in our neighborhood?" she asks.
"Some come by train, I suppose," Baba answers. "This is the branch for Flushing."
He starts driving again and we pass a playground full of children playing on swings and slides. I'm sitting behind Ma, so I see her profile as she surveys the scene. She's not smiling. After one long, wide-eyed stare, she turns to Baba. "Is this a dangerous neighborhood?"
"Not at all," Baba answers.
The children are laughing, shouting, running. Acting like kids in playgrounds everywhere. There's nothing dangerous in sight. It's only when I imagine how it looks to Ma that I notice what I missed with my own eyes: every child in the playground is black. Some are as dark as me, some lighter. They remind me of the kids in Ghana who used to play outside the gates of the British High Commission club.
Baba drives on, turning a corner.
"You'll have to stay inside the flat after school, girls," Ma says. "And that means both of you."
Starry glances over at me. That's been a rule for her, but not for me. Baba gives Ma a quick look, and I know he's surprised, too.
"I walked to the library by myself in London," I say.
"You can go out with your sister," Ma says, and her voice is stern. "But I can't let you wander around on your own in a place like this."
Excerpted from "You Bring The Distant Near"
Copyright © 2017 Mitali Perkins.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Race at the British Club | 1965,
1: Strangers | 1973–74,
Sonia: Home Is Where the Stories Are,
Tara: Marcia Magic,
Sonia: The Queen of Bargaining,
Sonia: Fire Escape,
Tara: Flushing Forever,
Tara: Star Quality,
2: Travelers | 1976–81,
Sonia: A Daughter for Life,
Tara: Land Where My Fathers Died,
3: Settlers | 1998–2006,
Chantal: New Rules,
Anna: United Cousins of Carver School,
Chantal: The Porsche Factor,
Anna: Off the Deep End,
No Dot-Com Needed,
About the Author,