You Bring the Distant Near is a book that really resonated with the experiences of my own family and friends growing up. Which may not seem on the surface, the highest recommendation, but as a UK national of South Asian origin, this hardly ever happens.
But hang on! Aren’t there a multitude of’British Asian’ authors? What about the Rushdies and Kureishis? What about Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru, Meera Syal? What about newer voices like Gautam Malkani?
There are a few reasons why I think this wonderful YA book is different.
First off, let’s talk about mangoes. It’s well-known that books about the subcontinental diaspora must contain exotic fruit, spices and food talk generally, lyrical writing, many saris (or salwars). Women are downtrodden, often enduring forced marriages leavened with the occasional extra-marital affair or running away. Men (young men particularly) are allowed to struggle with their cultural identity either rejecting it or becoming drawn towards fundamentalism or gangs.
This book is different.
There are four voices here and they are ALL Asian teenage girls or young women. They include a wannabe actress who wears miniskirts in 1960s London, an Indian girl who loves her Indian self and can’t understand what’s supposed to be so great about America, a feminist who shaves her head and marries ‘out’ and the gorgeous mixed Asian African-American daughter of radical parents who finds herself falling in love with a WASP who drives a red Porsche.
The book spans generations and continents and the tragedies that make up all our lives, from the death of a beloved father to the everyday estrangement that migration brings.
The womens’ identities evolve and shift as in real life–even the grandmother, the matriarch of the story.
This is us.
This is what we do, because forging an identity for yourself in the face of migration, racism, prejudice and cultural expectations is ongoing work. It never ends.
And this book expresses that beautifully.
12+, but this is one for all ages.
The Last Fifth Grade…would make such a great class reading text.
There are eighteen kids in the fifth grade at Emerson which is about to close for ever. Their teacher makes them write poems to be buried in a time-capsule and the voices of eighteen different kids and their differing situations (autism, family illness, bereavement, poverty, religious and racial identity issues, crushes) are beautifully captured in different styles of verse. As the poems unfold, telling the story of their fight to save the school, we get to know each kid’s voice and their own stories (aided by black-and-white illustrations).
There’s no single protagonist here and the multiplicity of voices provides the charm, there’s a character to appeal or resonate with every child. 9+
Save Me a Seat is the gentle, good-humoured tale of Joe, who has auditory processing difficulties and has been labelled as one of the ‘remedial’ kids and new boy Ravi, who has emigrated to New Jersey from Bangalore.
Ravi is super smart, a good cricketer and one of the popular kids back home. So it takes him a while to realise this counts for nothing in New Jersey and his accent and delicious South Indian lunches make him the butt of jokes and bullying.
It’s sad that this still rings true, forty years after I went to elementary school (born in the UK, I had no accent and ate school lunches, of course this didn’t stop either bullies or racial taunts).
The ‘twist’ here is that the chief bully is himself of Asian origin, an ‘ABCD’ or American born confused desi named Dillon. Ravi and Joe eventually bond over Dillon’s comeuppance and the tale is well told. I wished Dillon had gained self-awareness into the bargain, but perhaps that would have overcomplicated things.
Recommended for 8+ and a great jumping-off point for discussing bullying generally.
Thirteen year old Arturo Zamora is looking forward to a summer of shooting hoops, mango smoothies and maybe working a few shifts cooking in his Cuban-American family’s restaurant La Cocina de la Isla. But when a developer building a high-rise threatens the Zamora’s business and he develops a serious crush on Carmen, his mother’s goddaughter who is visiting from Spain, well, things go all kinds of wrong. Arturo finds himself stacking dishes in El Monstruo instead of cooking, experiencing all kind of weird new feelings about Carmen, dealing with loss and even reading…poetry???!!!
This is a really fun read for that tricky 10-13 demographic. I particularly loved the way that the Zamoras switch back and forth from Spanish to English in daily conversation, the importance of family to immigrants and of course the FOOD. There are even recipes, which are definitely the way to this reader’s heart. My 12 year old loved it too. 10+
This was a charming friendship-and-family based story with a central magic-realist premise and bonus elements of natural history and music.
Kai and Leila are different girls from different parts of the USA. Kai has recently discovered that she will never achieve her dream of becoming a concert violinist and Leila’s perfect sister Nadia has usurped her place in her erstwhile best friend’s affections. Leila is on vacation in Pakistan (where her father’s from) while Kai spends the summer with a distant great-aunt she’s never met. Both girls find a copy of a book named the Exquisite Corpse on the shelf of their holiday home and begin to read the tale which appears in it page by page. Leila’s story feels somewhat underwritten compared with Kai’s–perhaps because the magical tale told by the book is more closely connected with Kai’s own story. Nevertheless this is a cute, fun, magical read featuring a middle-class Pakistani family and a mixed-race girl as one of the protagonists and how often do we get to experience that? 8+
Genie Lo is a sixteen year old who just wants to get into a great college and escape from the Bay area where she’s lived in her whole life with her estranged parents. But a cute but weird new kid called Quentin Sun shows up and messes up Genie’s study plan. And when it turns out Quentin is none other than Sun Wukong, the infamous Monkey King from the Chinese mythology that Genie shelved unread AND he needs her help dealing with an outbreak of demons from hell in her hometown…
Things turn very strange indeed.
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a high energy romp through Chinese mythology grounded with the reality of Genie’s second generation Chinese-American life (try explaining to your mother you’re late home saving the Bay Area from a fire-shooting fallen boy-god). Great fun for adventure, manga and martial-arts loving kids from 11+
This Hugo-award winner is utterly absorbing science fiction set against the final insanities of the Cultural Revolution and modern China. Secret projects in China’s isolated countryside, theoretical physicists gone rogue and video games all combine to make this powerful first-contact story. Awesome. Though marketed for adults, would also be a wonderful read for older teens with a sci-fi bent. 14+