Cultural diversity, Harry Potter and the power of the printed word
Mitali Perkins moved so often as a child she had to live up to her name, which means “friendly” in Bangla, to make new friends. Born in Kolkata, India she eventually settled in California with her family and studied at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley.
Books were “her rock” while growing up, says Perkins, who later worked as a teacher and lived in India, Bangladesh and Thailand before putting down roots in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband and twin sons. Today she is the author of award-winning titles for young readers including Rickshaw Girl, Monsoon Summer, Secret Keeper and her latest Bamboo People for ages 11-14.
In between writing she enjoys tennis, hiking, going to church, traveling (still) and is a self-confessed social media freak. Her favorite authors include M.H. Lovelace, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and she is a devoted Harry Potter fan. Her motto: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Ten Minutes with Mitali Perkins
Karen Jones: What was your inspiration for writing Bamboo People?
Mitali Perkins: I wrote Bamboo People because of what I saw and learned during the three years we lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We visited the Karenni refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border and heard about how they are enduring what is basically an attempt at genocide by the Burmese military.
Given this, it would be easy to cast the Burmese soldiers as “bad guys” in any story about the situation, but Burma has the largest number of child soldiers in the world. These young people are taught that tribal people like the Karenni are causing most of the problems in their country… The story deserved to be told from both points of view.
KJ: What do you want readers to learn from Bamboo People?
MP:I could have written a non-fiction piece about this overlooked, desperate situation, but I know the power of fiction to engage not just the mind but also the heart. I hope readers connect with my two main characters, Tu Reh (Karenni refugee) and Chiko (Burmese soldier), so that when they hear about Burma in the news, they’ll feel as if they have close friends who are affected. My goal in writing any novel set in a “foreign” land is that not only will readers find windows to a different culture but also discover mirrors in the story reflecting our shared humanity.
KJ: You are known for your strong female protagonists but Bamboo People is your first with male protagonists. Why was it time for a change?
MP:It was high time to write about a guy. Bamboo People features two male protagonists–one Karenni young man and one Burmese young man. The real reason for the change was because we have twin sons, and I wrote the book when our boys were coming of age.
KJ: What life lessons do you want to impart to your young readers?
MP: Stories are mysterious in that their meaning is shared between the story giver (the writer) and the story receiver (the reader). As a writer, even if you want to “impart a message,” your readers may derive something completely different from your story. That being said, I hope my readers of Bamboo People take heart when they read about Chiko’s courage in a crucial moment and be encouraged as they identify with Tu Reh’s struggle to forgive an enemy.
KJ: What is your advice for aspiring writers?
MP: I like to talk about the three “r”s of writing. First, take risks–ignore the trends and discover what you alone are designed to write. Second, revise, revise, revise–be willing to change words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, even the whole plot. Great writing is the result of courageous revision. Last, endure rejection–my second novel, Monsoon Summer, was rejected over 20 times for 10 years before it was published, and I still get sweet letters from tweens and teens who love that story.
For more information on Mitali Perkins and her books visit
Follow her on twitter @mitaliperkins
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