Interview With Mitali Perkins, Author Of Bamboo People

4784685823 c1f786ee48 m Interview With Mitali Perkins, Author Of Bamboo PeopleBack in July, 2010, Mitali Perkins released her first novel with two male protagonists. Two young boys on opposite sides of the conflict between the Burmese and the Karenni ethnic minority tell their stories through her in Bamboo People. When I read and reviewed this novel, I felt a strong connection with each of the voices, and think that the alternating structure allows readers to get a nuanced look at the conflict.

Today, I’m happy to share my interview with Mitali Perkins and to let my readers have the chance to ask their questions or share their comments with her. You see, all day long, she’ll be popping by YABookShelf.com to respond to any questions you might have about BambooPeople or any of her other novels. But first, check out what she said to the questions I posed….

YA Book Shelf: Were there any books that spoke to you as a child growing up and trying to bridge different countries and cultures?

Mitalit Perkins: There weren’t too many books featuring other cultures and countries when I was growing up as an immigrant kid here in the States. I love the All of a Kind of Family series by Sidney Taylor because the girls were cultural outsiders, like we were. And Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace is the story of one girl reaching out to Syrian newcomers in her Minnesota town, which meant a lot to me as a newcomer and inspired me to do the same for other “foreigners.” (Full disclosure: the book is being re-issued October 2011, and HarperPerennial asked me to write the foreward!) Any book that represented and explored the feeling of being an outsider was helpful — that’s what I primarily read, whether fantasy, contemporary, or historical fiction.

YABookShelf: I’m reading more and more alternating POV books, like Bamboo People, and I wonder what it was that drew you to this form?

Perkins: I started with only one POV, Tu Reh’s, who is the Karenni character fleeing from the Burmese Army. An editor felt that the book seemed too one-sided, and made the Burmese soldiers seem like unequivocal bad guys. I added Chiko’s voice (a Burmese boy forced to fight in the Army) to make the conflict more nuanced because it’s not necessarily easy to identify real “bad guys.”

YABookShelf: You started Bamboo People 10 years ago as a picture book, and now it’s in a completely different form. Did the lengthy revision process make you more excited to finally have it out in the hands of readers than when you published books that were accepted more quickly?

Perkins: Yes! it’s so exciting. But on the other hand, I hoped that there would be peace in Burma by now and am sad that the situation has actually worsened over the past decade.

YABookShelf: The images of two soldiers, bamboo and barbed wire are featured on the cover of Bamboo People. Did you play any role in the final look of this book? What did you think when you first saw the way it turned out?

Perkins: We had some brainstorming sessions, but then I backed off and let the design team at Charlesbridge led by the talented Susan Sherman have their way. When I saw it I loved it, but at first the boys looked too young to me, so the designer widened their shoulders to match the age of the protagonists.

YABookShelf: While in the army, Chiko teaches a few other characters to read and write. How did you first learn to read? Have you ever had the pleasure of passing on this knowledge to other people, whether they were your ex-students or your sons?

Perkins: I learned to read when I was three, so I skipped right over picture books and didn’t learn to appreciate art in books until much later. I especially enjoyed savoring picture books as I read aloud to my sons through the years.

YABookShelf: Most of your novels feature strong female characters who are trying to bridge different cultures, but Bamboo People focuses on young male child soldiers and refugees. Was it more difficult to write in these new voices?

Perkins: Being the mother of sons really helps. I hope that my boys in the book sound like boys. What do you think?

YABookShelf: I completely agree with you. Both Tu Reh and Chiko seemed to speak with an authentically male voice. Your question to me makes me wonder what other readers think about the authenticity of these voices. It is subjective after all.

One of the female Karenni characters in Bamboo People, Nya Meh, experienced something unthinkable by the hands of Burmese soldiers, which is never revealed explicitly to the reader. How important is it for young women to have a safe place to discuss the traumas they experience in war?

Perkins: It’s crucial. If you have a chance to see Children Of War, you can watch expert trauma counselors try to help bring healing to young people who have experienced atrocities in conflict.

YABookShelf: Civil wars and ethnic tensions occur in many places throughout the world. Do you think that dialog between cultures, like the Burmese nd the Karenni, has the power to heal old wounds? Or do you think this may only be possible in particular situations rather than in the general one.

Perkins: Yes, dialog and peacemaking can and has happened. I have friends trying to facilitate this along the Thai-Burma border.

YABookShelf: I had a discussion on YA Book Shelf about whether authors use an outline or if they allow their subconscious to guide some actions of their characters. Do you follow a strict outline or do you let characters decide some things for themselves?

Perkins: I start with an outline, but it’s a pushover, and the characters usually run amuck.

YABookShelf: Do you have any advice for my readers who aspire to be a published author one day?

Perkins: Keep reading and writing, learn how to revise, and push through rejections. My second book, Monsoon Summer, was rejected over 20 times and finally came out 11 years after my first book! I’m glad I didn’t give up. Neither should you.

On that note, please feel free to add your questions and comments for Mitali to the comments box below. Stop back again later to see her response to your questions. Let me know what you think about this style of interview, and perhaps I’ll have some more interviews like this in the future.

  • http://www.medeiasharif.com Medeia Sharif

    Great interview. I recently purchased Secret Keeper, and this one is intriguing too. I’m always on the lookout for different POV.

  • http://www.yabookshelf.com Melissa

    Thanks for your comment Medeia! I’m sure that Mitali might have something to say in response too, but I just wanted to say that I’m glad you enjoyed this interview. :)

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Thanks for stopping by, Medeia. I hope you like SECRET KEEPER. A different POV is one of the best gifts fiction can offer.

  • http://www.yabookshelf.com Melissa

    I have a couple of questions for you Mitali. First, what was your favorite book to write so far?

    Next, what character did you like developing and writing so far in any of your novels?

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    RICKSHAW GIRL was the easiest to write. I wrote most of it curled up on my leather recliner by the fire during a long New England winter.

    Characters? I enjoy developing and writing my old people. Sunita’s grandfather, the nuns at Asha Bari in MONSOON SUMMER, the healer’s grandfather in BAMBOO PEOPLE …

  • http://bermudaonion.wordpress.com bermudaonion (Kathy)

    You’ve probably been asked this before, but what made you decide to write YA rather than “adult” fiction? Also, why do you think YA books have become popular with adults?

  • http://www.yabookshelf.com Melissa

    I could definitely see how special the healer’s grandfather in Bamboo People was to you while reading it. Now that the population in most western countries is aging considerably, there needs to be more reverence for elderly people both in narratives and in reality. I think it speaks very highly of a writer who understands that and acts on it. :)

  • http://www.bobbimillerbooks.com/index.html Bobbi Miller

    What a wonderful interview! I loved your discussion on your process, especially as you had began the book as a PB, then extended it to a novel, then revised it to include two points of view. How many revisions do you think you had to go through? Did you outline during any part of the process? Did you ever feel like quitting the story (although the characters seem so strong, they wouldn’t let you quit)?

  • http://melissasbookreviews.blogspot.com Melissa (Book Nut)

    Great interview! This one is on my list of things I really, really, really need to read (I loved Secret Keeper when I read it last year); since I know very little about the conflict, Mitali’s book would be a good introduction. (I hope.) Plus, it’s bound to be a good story.

  • Riley Carney

    Hi Mitali and Melissa,
    This is an excellent interview. I just finished Bamboo People last night, which I loved, and it was wonderful to read your comments. I loved the boys’ voices – you did an excellent job of conveying their perspectives and emotions. Which leads me to my question. I know that you visited some of the refuge camps in Thailand, Mitali, and that you’ve spent a lot of time in that part of the world, but the boys’ voices are so genuine that I’m wondering if you’ve had any first hand experience with the conflict and/or if you have interviewed adults or children who have?

  • Amy Benoit

    Always a treat to read about you, Mitali! Great to see you present as well.
    Thank you for the advice to aspiring writers. :)

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Kathy, my voice is naturally YA. I tried writing adult short stories, but never was too successful. I think adults relate to YA because they are “bildungsroman,” or coming of age stories, and we all are still processing that stage of our lives. They also tend to end with hope, unlike adult novels, which have the potential to wreck a perfectly good vacation thanks to a tragic, unhappy, stark ending. Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your review!

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Bobbi, I lost track of the revisions during all the rejections. I don’t usually outline. I never wanted to quit the story because of how much it needed to be told — there’s hardly any awareness of the tragic situation happening in Burma right now. Also, once I create characters, they are real in my mind and I never want to “kill” them by stuffing the manuscript in a (virtual) drawer. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Melissa and Amy, thanks for your encouragement! So glad you came by.

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Riley, I’m so glad you liked the book! We have dear friends who have spent the past decade organizing relief teams to go into the jungles and serve internally displaced people. I have listened to hours of their stories, spellbound. We also have other friends who spent 20 years living and working with the Karenni, translating the New Testament into Karenni and creating other literacy material. Thanks for asking!

  • http://janflora.wordpress.com janflora

    I just read BAMBOO PEOPLE, it is my first book of yours. Do you expect to continue the story? I like the way it concluded, but as a mom I can’t help but be concerned and care for these characters still.
    Also do you have any relatively kid-friendly resources to learn more?

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Hi! No plans to continue the story at this point. So glad you care about the characters. Not sure if this site is as kid-friendly as you need, but you can follow the links in the sidebar for more: http://bamboopeople.org.

  • http://www.twentybyjenny.com Jenny Brown

    Mitali, did you say that you also had a chance to meet a group of Karenni teens who came to this country? Your BAMBOO PEOPLE has brought to light a situation that so few of us in the U.S. know about.

  • http://www.yabookshelf.com Melissa

    I have another question Mitali – one of your tweets made me think of it.

    Do you think that authors need to promote multicultural books in a different way from mainstream YA literature? What type of things would you do differently than the average YA author?

    Do you think it’s easier or more difficult for authors writing about multicultural subjects to get published?

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Yes, Jenny, I did. It was amazing. They had just arrived in Portland, Maine. Here’s the description of the day: http://www.mitaliblog.com/2010/03/talk-about-power-lunch.html

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Great questions, Melissa. Social media helps a ton these days to promote multicultural books in the mainstream. It was tough before that. Twitter and Facebook help me to connect and express my voice, helping overcome barriers that may or may not be there when it comes to reaching readers who don’t normally read books set in other places or featuring characters of other races.

    If it’s a well-written first book, it doesn’t matter if it’s multicultural in the publishing world. Many editors seek fresh debut voices. Selling books, though, is another matter altogether. And if your first book doesn’t sell well, it won’t be easy to get another contract. So that second book is the tougher one.

  • Kathleen Armstrong

    Mitali, I began Bamboo People with no preconceived notions or expectations. I just heard a lot about it. I couldn’t put it down. What an amazing story. My heart goes out to the people of Burma and to the children whose childhood has been stolen. Thank you for bringing this story to the forefront. While it is sad, it is hopeful. I hope they never give up.

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Thanks, Kathleen. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. And thanks so much, Melissa, for hosting me all day today. I had fun! You’re the best.

  • http://www.yabookshelf.com Melissa

    It was my pleasure, Mitali! I loved Bamboo People, and getting to talk with you and seeing all the great questions that my readers asked makes it fun for me too! Thanks so much for agreeing to try this interview format out with me. :)

  • http://www.JoAnnYhard.com Jo Ann Yhard

    What a great interview! I am looking forward to reading Bamboo People!

    I was wondering how you, as an author for YA, decided what level of detail to use to describe the more difficult situations the characters face?

  • http://www.mitaliblog.com Mitali Perkins

    Great question, Jo Ann. That’s when it comes in handy to have an imagination that can only handle PG and a few PG-13 situations. I do it instinctively, I guess.

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