Moving between cultures
Guerilla warfare, child soldiers and landmines: What do these ripped-from-the-headlines terms have to do with a coming-of-age story for young readers? As it turns out, quite a bit.
While displacement camps and military maneuvers are not the trappings of your standard touchy-feely “do the right thing” tale, they bring a sense of hard-edged reality to Mitali Perkins’ Bamboo People, an intriguing and insightful story about two boys learning how to become men in the midst of chaos.
The award-winning author of such internationally diverse books as Monsoon Summer, The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, Secret Keeper and Rickshaw Girl takes us, this time, to the border between Burma and Thailand—and into the eye-opening lives of children in the midst of a war zone. Bamboo People follows two boys caught in the crossfire of the ongoing border fight—a cultural and land battle that has been waged for decades, but in recent years has escalated dramatically through the forced enlistment of child soldiers.
Chiko, a scholarly and quiet Burmese teen whose father has been imprisoned for having anti-government sympathies, longs to be a teacher and avoids conflict at all costs. In an unexpected turn of events, Chiko is forced to enlist in the Burmese army, where he learns that education is more than the stuff of books. On the other side of the lines is Tu Reh, a member of the Karenni ethnic group displaced by the fighting, who would give anything to prove he is man enough to carry a gun. Tu Reh and his family have lost their homes, their loved ones and much of their sense of community during the many years of fighting, and his prejudice against everything Burmese runs deep. When Chiko is injured behind enemy lines, it is up to Tu Reh to decide whether this boy, his supposed mortal enemy, lives or dies. It’s a decision that changes both their lives.
Perkins was inspired to write the story during the three years she and her husband, a Presbyterian minister, spent on a missionary assignment near the Burmese border in northern Thailand. Here, Perkins witnessed firsthand the hardships, tenacity and hope of those affected by war. “These people are in conditions that seem nearly unbearable: They have been hunted, forced into labor, lost their homes, and many are hiding in the jungle,” Perkins explains. “You see them trying to perpetuate nationhood, trying to teach civility to a younger generation, trying to keep a hold on their culture and language. It’s fascinating and sad, but amazing to hear their stories.”
She also learned that war is never black and white. “When you think about the Burmese army from the Karenni point of view, it’s easy to think about them as evil. But Burma used to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and now it has the most child soldiers. So you have all of these soldiers who are really young and uneducated. They are trying to send money back to their families, trying to make ends meet, and they are desperate. It’s not always clear who are the good guys or the bad guys.”
Having traveled the world from an early age, Perkins knows a little about how diverse the world can be. Her father, a civil engineer who developed shipping ports, took the family from their home in India to live in such places as Cameroon, Ghana, Mexico and London. But it wasn’t until she landed in America that she felt a culture shock. “I was often between cultures,” Perkins recalls. To find refuge, she would sneak onto her family’s New York City fire escape—and there she also found her passion for writing. “I used to take my Sweet Tart candies, a pen and my journal and go out there to write,” she remembers. “It was in between the world of home and the world outside, and even today the fire escape metaphor really works for me.” Indeed, Perkins has a blog called Fire Escape where she invites her readers to join her for chats, discussions and a place to “explore hopes, dreams, and fears.”
Her own sense of being in between cultures is also why she is so interested in sharing stories from around the world with her readers.
“I like opening the eyes of children,” Perkins says. “They are much more open-hearted and aware than many adults believe them to be.”
“I think there is a lack of respect for what children do and want to know,” the author says. “They understand the human experience much more than they are sometimes given credit for.”