Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Interview with Mitali Perkins (Nerds Heart YA)

This year thanks to procrastinating, a favorite hobby of mine, I missed the cut off date to be a Nerds Heart YA judge. But I learned my lesson so when Jodie asked if I could interview one of the shortlisted authors, I quickly said yes. Even better, I would get a chance to ask author Mitali Perkins a few questions about Bamboo People, one of my favorite books from last year.
My review Hi, Mitali and welcome. Can you please tell us a little about Bamboo People?

I really liked the description in Stanford Magazine.

Burmese boy soldier and an ethnic Karenni refugee narrate a thrilling jungle survival story about war along the Myanmar border. In an unsparing novel for middle-grade readers, Perkins sorts out the boys' complicated feelings about revenge, justice, freedom and loyalty. The title metaphor honors the strength and flexibility that individuals need when their simplest hopes are thwarted by geopolitical hatred."

How's that?

That is very good and it captures the heart of the story. One of the things that I loved about Bamboo People is the flow is never weighed down by facts. How were you able to find a happy medium between fact and fiction?

For me, characters come first in contemporary novels. Since Tu Reh and Chiko are fictional, it was easy to create their stories in a setting that I had experienced mostly firsthand. It's the same process I use when writing contemporary fiction set in the USA, with a bit more research to get the facts straight especially on the Burma side.

You did a wonderful job with the setting of Burma. How much research went into it?

I've never actually traveled into the heart of Burma. I've skirted the borders on all sides, traveling in Bangladesh, India, Thailand and China, but since I haven't visited the city of Yangon I did a lot of reading and research. I also have good friends who have spent a lot of time crossing the Thai-Burma border on behalf of the refugees.

I truly appreciate when an author creates strong secondary characters with no fear of over shadowing the primary ones. Chick and Tu Reh were great well rounded characters.

I liked them a lot, though I must confess that Tai was my favorite. What has reader feedback been to your characters? (I know I can't be the only Tai fan)

Young readers seem to like Tai and Sawati a lot. They often ask for sequels from the perspective of those two characters, so you're definitely not alone.

Last year you did full court PR press for Bamboo People, including a website. It looks like it worked the book was was selected as one of ALA Top Ten Books of 2011. What did you learn from promoting Bamboo People?

My books feature characters and settings on the margins of life. In order to reach mainstream readers, they have to be championed by savvy booksellers, bloggers, teachers, and librarians. Somehow, thanks to some key people I know through social media and in real life, Bamboo People got some of that amazing support (here I am on your blog and in this tournament, for example). I'm honored and humbled by the efforts of many gatekeepers to get this book into the hands and hearts of young people.

Fiction by South Asian authors is pretty popular. Unfortunately, that popularity doesn't cross over into YA fiction. Why do you think that is?

If I could answer this question, Doret my dear, I'd probably have more money jingling in my pockets. Novels, whether for grownups or teens, become bestsellers through the power of word of mouth and social circles. Who knows how the word spreads or why certain topics become red-hot for a season?

For some reason, South Asian settings and voices have captivated adult readers in recent years. Achieving this kind of trendiness is a matter of timing and good fortune, but it can't happen if a story isn't excellent, inspiring, mesmerizing, funny, and/or heartbreaking. I don't have any power over the winds of trends in the YA markets, but I do have the power to make my stories better, so that's what I try to concentrate -on improving my craft.

Mitali, thank you for your time and for writing such a wonderful story. Good luck in the tournament.

Thanks so much, Doret, and to all the wonderful bloggers shining light on stories that might be overlooked.

The first round of NHYA, a tournament that showcases underrepresented YA, started on June 13 and will run until June 29


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great questions, Doret! I love the line "the flow is never weighed down by facts." (I may have to steal that one for future reviews, but sometimes leaving out the word "never" LOL) And that is so true about the current taste for Asian fiction not trickling down into YA. I'd love to know the explanation for that as well!

Helen's Book Blog said...

I LOVED Bamboo People and am always recommending it to students. It's a tough sell because Burma seems so foreign to them. I also loved the Secret Keeper and have Monsoon Summer waiting to read this summer.

Thank you for the great interview

Jodie said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to put this interview together both of you. Mitali's book seems to have been on my tbr forever, although it's only been about a year, got to remedy that asap.

alana said...

Bamboo People is one of the books I read for the contest. Interesting interview.