We live in a world of hundreds of cultures and ethnicities, religions and races and countries of origin. Sometimes it can be hard to find your place among people whose background is different than yours. Sometimes it can be hard to be biracial when it feels like the world is forcing you to choose a side. Everything that is unfamiliar can seem distant.
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins explores culture, tradition, and family over three generations of a family of Bengali immigrants. Each faces its own struggles, with identity, relationships, and finding a place in a world designed to confuse.
We start the story with a vignette from the perspective of Ranee Das, the matriarch of the family. She’s at a country club in Ghana with her two daughters, Tara (or Starry) and Sonia (or Sunny), at which they are the only people besides the servers who are not white. The younger of the pair, Sunny, sits in a pool float, while her older sister Starry prepares to compete in a swimming race. Halfway through the race, Ranee suddenly pulls the girls out of the pool and leaves.
We then jump to about ten years in the future. The Das family has moved from India (where they were before the start of the story) to Ghana to London, and now they are on a plane to New Jersey, where they are moving for their father’s latest job. This portion of the story chronicles Starry and Sunny’s struggles at integrating with their American-born classmates, learning the divides of race in their city, finding out what it means to be truly American, and where exactly they fit in. The rituals of their Bengali upbringing follow them through ceremony and tragedy, and while Sonia eventually chooses to eschew tradition entirely, Tara settles into the comfort and familiarity of it while still pursuing her own ideals.
The third portion of the book focuses on the third generation of the Das family, the daughters of Tara and Sonia. Anna, Tara’s daughter, has grown up in Kolkata, shy and quiet, perfectly content behind her sewing machine. Chantal, Sonia’s daughter, lives for the spotlight, though internally she’s struggling between her black side and her Bengali side, because it feels like everyone is forcing her to choose. Anna moves to New York to attend Chantal’s school, and their worlds collide as both of them learn that maybe the completion they’ve been missing is each other.
This book was magnificent and captivating. It discussed culture, family, and breaking the rules in ways that even those who have nothing in common with the main characters will identify with. The Bengali culture, too, is well explained and yet not explained at all, delivered in a way that feels like you’ve known it all along.
Something about this book really spoke to me- I’m mixed-race, and sometimes there’s a definite identity struggle for kids like me. This is commonly portrayed in the media, and the book drove home the way I’ve always felt. It’s okay not to choose a side. Sometimes just being you is enough.