Staying Hyphenated

 By Mitali Perkins

My dad—technically a refugee from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)—became a harbor engineer, traveled far and wide, stood in the presence of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Queen Elizabeth, and settled his family in California when I was in the seventh grade. He died this year, and I’m grieving hard, mourning the loss of his humor, loving company, and joyful spirit. I also miss his stories of Poshora, the village where seven generations of my family lived on a jute farm. Thanks to Dad’s deep roots in that particular place, no matter how people saw us, we didn’t identify ourselves as Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, or even Bengali-Americans. I knew as a child that the Bose family was from Poshora in Faridpur, East Bengal.The problem is that now, without Dad’s witty, adept use of the Bangla language, recitations of Tagore’s poetry, and reminiscences from his childhood, it feels like the hyphen connecting my identities has taken a blow. Will it be fatal? My parents’ shift from country to country—something that I didn’t choose—has already cost me, leaving me to grow up far away from a supportive network of relatives and grandparents. Dad’s life and stories provided my particular connection to that faraway village in East Bengal. With Dad gone, will I tilt even more to the American side?

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I don’t like the thought of that.

Apart from the peoples who originated on this continent, we are a nation of hyphenated folk. As time passes and generations come and go, our connections to the villages of our origins become more tenuous. We forget languages spoken by our ancestors, we lose the stabilizing power of traditions when it comes to rites of passage like birth, marriage, and death. Soon, we may come to identify primarily as Americans, a nationality that has nothing to do with race or culture. Is it all loss? Or are there gains, too?

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My new novel, You Bring the Distant Near (Macmillan | FSG), tests and refines the hyphen acquired by the fictional Das family. (It’s based, of course, on the experiences of my family, the Bose family, when we immigrated here in the 1970s; I’ve described it as a “memoir on steroids, with freedom to fabricate.”) The novel is multi-generational and spans more than two decades. I’ve written it in three parts, describing the changes in the family when they first arrive as strangers, when they try to balance the old and new as travelers, and when they eventually define themselves as settlers in this new world.

There are losses to becoming hyphenated, as I sought to chronicle in this novel, but I hoped also to show the gains. Some village traditions rightfully should be discarded—like shadism, which values lighter skin over darker, and the practice of throwing widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands, as was done in olden-days Bengal. And leaning into your “American” identity brings you into proximity with people with hundreds of different identities, some of whom might become friends, or even family members. Isn’t that a gift? It has been for me.

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In fact, these days, I hover close to my hyphen, adding and discarding identities to the right and left of it like a crazy lady. Back in the 1970s, my newly acquired hyphen sent me fleeing to the Queens Library, and I became a devourer of stories, learning how to imagine other lives. My hyphen is also one of the only things about me that will never change. The village culture in which my dad grew up is long gone, and “American culture” (oxymoronic, perhaps, in a nation of immigrants?) is constantly in flux. My hope is that You Bring the Distant Near will inspire you to embrace the small dash between identities that connects us all as humans. Find your hyphen and stay close by. I’ll meet you there.

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Photo by Bethany Carnes

Mitali Perkins (mitaliperkins.com) has written many novels for young readers, including Rickshaw Girl (chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years), Bamboo People (an American Library Association’s Top Ten Novels for Young Adults), and Tiger Boy, which won the NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor Award and the South Asia Book Award. Her newest is a young adult novel called You Bring the Distant Near.. She has been honored as a “Most Engaging Author” by independent booksellers and selected as a “Literary Light for Children” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. Mitali was born in Kolkata, India before immigrating to the United States with her family. She has lived in Bangladesh, India, England, Thailand, Mexico, Cameroon, and Ghana, and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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