Friday, December 5, 2008

Living Between Cultures

This week our special guest is author Mitali Perkins who talked about her writing life and her last novel Rickshaw Girl published by Charlesbridge. Mitali attracts our attention to important issues related to life between cultures. Born in Kolkata from a Bengali family and raised in New York since she was seven, Mitali used to borrow books from the local library every week spending her time reading and reading, feeding her fantasy and creativity. At eleven she moved to California with her family and that time she was the only kid at school not born in America and the only kid who was not "white". This background inspired Mitali's writing life, her books explore and focus on the "strange place" called life between cultures.
We love her vision of stories saving lives... Mitali says that "stories have a mysterious power to help us process hard experiences and believes that "giving your kids stories, sitting side by side with them , reading them stories sometimes is a lot more effective than a face to face conversation." We believe in these words. Thank's Mitali for sharing with us.

KABILIANA - Mitali, you were born in Kolkata and raised since the age of six in the USA. What did it mean to you living in a different place from yours?
MITALI - I have learned how to make myself at home in many places, but sometimes, on harder days, no place feels like home.

KABILIANA - What did you family do to maintain your original traditions and culture alive far from home? Did they leave you a strong Bengali cultural heritage?
MITALI - Yes, we were a very traditional household, and my parents brought Bengali art, music, dance, and poetry into our home.

KABILIANA - Can you choose five adjectives to define your childhood far from India?
MITALI - Lonely, creative, rootless, inventive, private

KABILIANA - How did you start writing? And why did you chose to write for children and young readers?
Because I was lonely, I started writing as a child. And because I started writing as a child, and books helped me so much in this strange new world, I decided to write for young readers.

KABILIANA - You have a blog “Mitali’S Fire Escape”. It’s a virtual place where you discuss on multiculturalism and related issues. This name suggests that “ discussing, confronting each other, dialoguing means avoiding ignorance, misunderstanding” , is that what you intended for this space?
MITALI - I see my blog as a safe place where anyone, teens and adults alike, is welcome to chat about cultures and books and writing. It’s not a place to run away, it’s stepping out of the heat for a bit to sit and reflect and learn through good conversation and congenial company.

KABILIANA - Many migrants face big difficulties in living in a new place, job, housing, schooling etc… As identity is a process of metamorphosis, how is it possible according to your experience to create a connection between one’s original culture and the new adoptive one, dealing with daily practical issues?
MITALI - Children can creatively fuse cultures when they have a community of people nearby who are also living between cultures, and also by expanding their imagination through stories. Traveling to the culture of origin, if possible, can be a big help, as are connections with grandparents and other members of the child’s extended family.

KABILIANA - You have written several books for young readers, let’s talk about Rickshaw Girl. What inspired you setting a story in small traditional village in Bangladesh?
MITALI - My parents grew up in Bangladeshi villages.

KABILIANA - Naima, the main character, is a 12 years girl living in a traditional Bengali village with her family. She is the best alpana's painter in her village and wants to use her artistic talent to help earn money for her family. Her father is a rickshaw driver and is getting sick and tired, she wonder if she was a boy she could have helped her father. She believe she can do something, she doesn’t know how but her faith in her talent will make her succeed in her purpose. Naima it’s a strong, ambitious girl and the beginner of a new change in her family . Does this story represents what is really happening in countries like Bangladesh or India? What are the main big changes in this direction?
MITALI - Yes! This is beginning to happen in Bangladesh and India, starting in the cities in India, and in the villages of Bangladesh, thanks to organizations like Grameen.

KABILIANA - Your novel introduces us to another important theme: microfinance. We remind our readers that the founder of Microfinance , Muhammad Yunus, was awarded the Nobel Prize. From your report at the end of the book and general statistics, microfinance has more success with women in developing with success their socio economical status. How do you explain this success?
MITALI - Generally, when women earn money they are more likely to invest it into the household for the children’s sake. Also, if a woman is educated, it is more likely that her children will be educated.
KABILIANA - You frequently meet children in schools and libraries. What are their most frequent questions about diversity, living between cultures, understanding the other?
MITALI - Children are quite open to learning about different cultures. They really connect to the feeling of not fitting in — that’s what they tend to focus on. And when they get a bit older, they ask about dating and marriage since I grew up in a really strict, traditional home.

KABILIANA - What would you say to parents of mixed culture's kids and teachers to encourage their children to build a solid identity made of their full multicultural background?
MITALI - Travel if you can afford it. Invite friends in your home from many cultures. AND READ THEM STORIES!
KABILIANA - Can you list some children’s books you read in the last year you enjoyed?
MITALI - "North of Beautiful"by Justina Chen Headley (YA novel), "Amadi's Snowman" by Katia Novet Saint-Lot (picture book), "Lady Liberty"by Doreen Rappaport and Matt Tavares (nonfiction story of the Statue of Liberty, which was built by many immigrants).

KABILIANA- As a writer what would you say to a beginner writer who means to write about diversity? What to avoid and what to deepen in order to break common stereotypes?
MITALI - I would send them to browse around my blog, and to these posts in particular: “Straight Talk on Writing Race” and “Six Critical Questions To Ask About A Story”.

Mitali's new novel Secret Keeper will be issued on January by Random House .


Anonymous said...

very emotional and learning interview.when i was reading i saw my sweet and loving daughter was looking at me. mitali;s mom

Soggetto Nomade Kabiliana said...

Thank you Mrs Perkins, was nice sharing Mitali's experience. I'm a mother of three bi-racial daughters and every day I'm connected with the "living between cultures" issue and confronting with Mitali was definetly interesting.