Mitali Perkins is the author of nine books for young people, many set in far flung lands or featuring characters who straddle two cultures. Her titles have won great acclaim and earned starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus. She blogs at Mitali’s Fire Escape, safe place to think, chat, and read about life between cultures. She is also a lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Mitali was born in Kolkata (Calcutta), India and she lived in Ghana, Cameroon, London, New York, and Mexico before settling in small town California when she was in middle school. She married a minister and continued to travel widely, only recently returning to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Mitali is here today to talk about her illustrated novel for intermediate readers, Tiger Boy. When a tiger cub escapes from a reserve in West Bengal's Sundarban Islands, Neel is determined to find it before the greedy Gupta can kill the cub and sell its body parts on the black market.
Welcome, Mitali! Tiger Boy combines mystery, suspense, and a marvelous cast of characters. What sparked the idea for Tiger Boy? Did it begin with Neel, the main character? With the issue of protecting Bengali Tigers? With the setting in the Sundarbans? Or something else?
Place came first. I was fascinated with the Sundarbans, a unique ecosystem where animals have adapted to drink saltwater, roots poke upwards through the mud in their search for oxygen, and tigers attack and eat people on a regular basis – all only a few hours’ drive from Kolkata, the massive city that is my birthplace.
Setting is such an important element in many of your novels, such as Bamboo People, which is set in Burma. You do such a beautiful job of vividly evoking a sense of place. In Tiger Boy, for example, you describe the hiss Neel’s father’s boat as it slips through the deltas, the golpata branches swaying in the monsoon rains, and the evening smell of jasmine flowers. How do research your settings? Do you usually write about places you have been? Did you visit the Sundarbans when you were writing Tiger Boy?
I typically write about places I have experienced in person with all five of my senses. That’s probably why I don’t write fantasy or science fiction. I remember seeing photographs and videos of sights like the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon, but media can’t convey the smell of jasmine flowers, sounds that carry across the vastness of space, the taste of spicy peanuts bought from a vendor, or the feel of a cool breeze against your skin. I like to receive a place through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, and try to empower my readers’ imaginations to do the same as they read my fiction.
I found a photograph of you petting a Bengali tiger. Where were you? What was it like to be so close to such a powerful animal?
I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand visiting a tiger preserve. Unfortunately (for the tigers), the beautiful creatures were sedated heavily. We’ve heard that a tourist was recently mauled and the practice of skin-on-skin visits with the tigers is now banned.
Tiger Boy explores the intricate dance between the needs of struggling people and the needs of wildlife. You handled this so sensitively. How did you manage to capture the interplay of cross-purposes in a small Sundarban village so well? Have you met a boy like Neel?
Thank you. I hope I did. I read and researched widely and studied this subject in my graduate work at UC Berkeley. As for Neel, my father was a small brown boy trudging through a Bengali village to school.
What about your varied cast of secondary characters, Neel’s father, his friend Ajay, the headmaster…and so many more? Where did they come from?
My imagination! It is incredibly fun to create characters – you know what I mean. They leap into your mind and live there while you are writing. You come to love them and know them.
It amazed me that Neel cared so much about the tigers, even though they could be very dangerous. I wondered if Americans would be as protective in Neel’s situation. Do you see a difference between how first world and third world countries approach conservation?
That is a big question that deserves at least a Master’s thesis to answer. May I just say yes? And no? Generally the villagers in the Sunderbans understand how valuable the tigers are to their economy and ecosystem. Unfortunately, these impoverished communities are on the way to becoming “climate refugees” because of how fast the islands are shrinking, mostly thanks to deforestation and erosion.
You have lived so many places, straddled so many cultures. What have you learned about adapting to new places? How are people the same? How are they different? What advice can you give to young people struggling to bridge cultures?
I wrote an essay about this to answer such questions. It’s called “A Note to Young Immigrants,” and I invite your blog visitors to head to Teaching Tolerance to read it.
Are you working on something new? Could you tell us a little about it?
Yes! And no! This has been an exciting year in my career. I am about to make a couple of big announcements but I can’t say anything about them yet. Let’s just say I’m VERY encouraged after years of slogging away in this vocation.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
A cup of Darjeeling tea, scones, and clotted cream? Thanks so much for hosting me, Linda.
Thank you so much for being my guest today, Mitali!
If you’d like learn more about Mitali Perkins or her books, you can visit Mitali’s Fire Escape blog. You can also follow her on twitter or facebook .