Tuesday, November 28, 2017

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring The Distant Near follows three generations of women from an Indian-American family who immigrated from England to America. The novel explores the challenges they face and is told from various points of view over the years beginning in 1965 until 2006. To aid her readers, Perkins has included a small family tree at the front of the novel. The novel follows Ranee Das who is mother to Tara (Starry) and Sonia (Sunny) Das and grandmother to their daughters, Anna (Anu)Sen and Chantal (Shanti) Johnson respectively.

The novel opens in 1965 with Sonia participating in a swimming race at the British Club in Ghana. They are the only dark-skinned people at the club. Sonia, in the lead, loses the race when Ranee pulls her prematurely from the water. The novel is then divided into three parts.

Part I Strangers skips ahead to 1973 and the Das family is enroute from London, England to New York.  Tara, lighter skinned, loves to pretend she's various famous people, her latest being Twiggy. Once in America, she decides instead to channel Marcia from the Brady Bunch. Sonia, who is darker, younger is the academic. They are met in New York by Baba who takes them to their apartment in Flushing, a part of Queens. Sonia's mother questions the safety of the area when she notices most of the people are black. The Das family settle in, with Ranee making her daughters "American" clothes to help them fit in.

The first day of school, Ranee accompanies her children dressed in a green sari and golden bangles on each arm. The girls are tested, and Sonia is placed in the gifted class in grade nine, while Tara is enrolled in grade eleven. Tara immerses herself in school, Sonia finds solace in her diary and starts an Equal Rights Club at school. However Ranee struggles to be happy and fights often with Baba. Sonia's entries about her mother's treatment of Baba lead to change and to Ranee and Baba moving to a new house in Ridgeford, New Jersey. There Tara enrolls in theatre and Sonia is placed in advanced math, physics, English and French.

Part II Travelers sees the Das family struggle to cope with the death of Baba who is killed in an hit and run accident. This part of the story focuses on the journeys the two daughters undertake. Although pressured to return to Kolkata, Ranee decides to stay in the house Baba bought for her. Sonia meets Lou Johnson, a football player nicknamed "Black Lightning". The two of them fall in love during a trip to Paris after winning an essay contest. Lou helps Sonia come to terms with her Baba's death by bringing her into a Catholic church in Paris where she discovers God and inner healing. Tara travels to Bangladesh to scatter her father's ashes in the Ganges. To help her is Amit Sen, the boy whose marriage proposals she has twice turned down. After scattering her father's ashes, Tara travels to her family's ancestral home which was a jute farm that they lost to Muslims after the Partition. There Tara makes her peace with what happened, giving the family gifts. She agrees to marry Amit. Sonia becomes estranged from her mother after eloping with Lou. Even the fact that she is expecting her first child does not move Ranee to reconcile.

Part II Settlers tells the story of Ranee's grandchildren, Chantal Johnson and Anna Sen. Chantal lives in Harlem with her parents, Sonia who is a freelance journalist and Lou who is a sculptor. Her cousin Anna lives mostly in Mumbai with her parents, her mother Tara is a Bollywood actress while her father Amit is a banker. They have a penthouse in Manhattan. Chantal's Grandma Rose (Lou's mother) and her Didu do not get along and when Chantal becomes upset over their fighting they decide to make peace. Anna is sent to Carver Independent School where Chantal attends. Anna finds school  very different from what she's used to but she enjoys her life at Carver -except for the locker room and its lack of privacy. With the help of Chantal and some new friends, Anna remakes the locker room. Chantal's life is marked by her relationship with a rich, white boy named Martin Larsen in her senior year. Chantal doesn't believe they  have a future because Martin's family is so wealthy and they seem to care more for things than people. But Martin proves Chantal wrong when she wrecks his Porsche.

Anna becomes overwhelmingly distraught when Ranee decides to become an American citizen after the 9/11 attacks. However, Ranee decides to remake herself entirely as a modern "American" woman much to the distress of her family and in particular Anna. She decides to attend Lou and Sonia's Catholic church where she finds friendship and community. The novel ends with Ranee living in an apartment on her own and setting up a meeting with her kind young neighbour, Darnell who is black and who is looking for an old-fashioned girl!


You Bring The Distant Near is a multi-generational story which deals with the themes of identity and prejudice as a Bengali family crosses from one culture into another. The focus shifts over time from new immigrants Rajeev and Ranee Das and their daughters Tara and Sonia to their first generation Indian-American granddaughters Anna Sen and Chantal Johnson and returns full circle to Ranee Das, the matriarch of the family. Each character struggles to understand their place within their own families and the world at large. Perkins has stated that the novel is about crossing borders, both geographical borders and the borders of life, from childhood to adult, from culture to culture - and the challenges that entails.

Ranee Das, mother of Tara and Sonia is a Bengali woman who was married at age eighteen in an arranged marriage. When she arrives in America she bears a prejudice against people with dark skin, even though her younger daughter, Sonia is dark skinned. Sonia is well aware of her mother's prejudice against dark skin, something she experiences on the flight to New York. "She...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 and Lively skin-bleaching cream, I know what makes her wince. The darkness of my skin." When they arrive in Flushing, New York Ranee sees the many black children and immediately considers their neighbourhood to be dangerous. She refuses to let the girls go anywhere alone and is eager to move from Flushing telling the girls, "I've seen how those Negro boys look at you girls." Sonia objects insisting there is no caste system in America but Ranee tells her,  " 'All people are not treated equally,...It's like that everywhere in the world. In India, people assume that if you have dark skin, you're from a lower caste. Here, it's the same..."

Sonia's elopement with her black boyfriend Lou seems to cement Ranee's prejudice and it isn't until the birth of Tara's daughter, Anna that Ranee finally relents. Ranee's feelings about dark skinned people change - she loves Lou and Sonia's daughter Chantal, who is dark skinned. And by the end of the novel, Ranee is good friends with a young, caring, black man named Darnell who is her neighbour in Flushing, New York. In fact, Ranee acts to set up Darnell with her granddaughter Anna.

Ranee's identity crisis comes well after she's settled in America. She's still not an American citizen when the 9/11 attacks happen but this tragedy motivates her to become one. Up until this point, Ranee has worn a white sari, the clothing of a Bengali widow and has always stated ,"I'll die and Indian." After the citizenship ceremony, Ranee westernizes her clothing, cuts and dyes her hair, learns to drive, attends a baseball game and even asks Chantal to have a slumber party. She joins the Catholic church that Sonia attends, finding that this makes her feel American because she finally experiences a sense of community. Ranee's family worries but she finally explains to them that the attack changed her and that the city began to feel like her home. "It came nearer to my heart, not so distant."

Both Tara and Sonia struggle to find their identity in America. Tara's strategy is to change her identity completely and model herself after famous stars. In London she took on the persona of famous model Twiggy; in New York she attempts to remake herself into Marcia Brady from the Brady Bunch. These identities help her hide her Bengali identity and allow her to fit in. Eventually she drops the personas permanently but Tara's struggle with her identity continues into adulthood. Tara's mother and an unrelated "Auntie" attempt to arrange her marriage to another Bengali, Amit Sen. Tara refuses Amit's proposals twice because "Then Amit and I would become a Bengali couple in an arranged marriage, playing the same roles as our parents and grandparents and Das and Sen family ancestors have for generations."Amit flees to Bangladesh and later invites Tara to visit so she can fulfil her promise to spread her father's ashes in the Ganges River. In Bangladesh Tara realizes that she's spent her youth repudiating her Bengali heritage, never wearing saris (which she now finds quite beautiful), quitting harmonium lessons and Rabindra Sangreet lessons. But after seeing her father's ancestral home, Tara finally comes to terms with her Bengali heritage and this frees her to acknowledge her love for Amit and to accept his marriage proposal.

Sonia's struggle with her identity as an Indian American is tied up in the women's rights movement of the 1970's. Sonia's activism likely began when she was pulled from the pool in 1965 so she wouldn't beat the white children in the swim race. Sonia views her Bengali heritage as patriarchal and considers her Ma's keeping of the Bengali restrictions for widows as being caught in a "patriarchal prison." Sonia is happy for her mother to become American but she also wants her to retain her identity as a Bengali too.

Perhaps the weakest part of Perkins story is that of Chantal and Anna. Chantal seems to be the most settled of all the characters regarding her identity but she judges him on the basis of his family's wealth and their perceived focus on material things rather than people. His love of his Porsche is a "symbol of how my family cares about art and love and justice, while his family cares about...rich people stuff." But when Martin takes the fall for the damage Chantal does to his car, Chantal realizes he does care first about people rather than things. In contrast Anna, who has grown up mostly in Mumbai believes they should preserve their Bengali heritage. She prides herself on truly knowing what being Bengali/Hindu means and this makes her very upset when Ranee undergoes her transformation. It is Uncle Lou who helps her come to terms with everything.
 " 'None of us have to be 100 percent American,' says Uncle Lou. 'What does that mean, anyway? Hyphens, for better or worse, are everywhere now. And the good old U.S.A makes space for lots of identities.'
Maybe he's right. Maybe 'being American' means you still have room in your heart for other things. Old things. Good things."

You Bring The Distant Near, takes it's title from a line from a poem, Thou Hast Made Me Known about welcoming those who are strangers or foreigners. It was penned by famous Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Perkins captures the complex family dynamics, the care and love each member of the Das family have for one another, and the struggle to retain their culture and beliefs while attempting to understand and adopt those of their new country. The result is a story with characters and situations that seem realistic and interesting, a story that sheds light on the immigrant experience, one repeated generation after generation in America.

Book Details:

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux       2017
303 pp.

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