A multigenerational story of a family that combines and stands out with so many common traits and differences that it’s hard to keep up with who resembles whom and who’s going to defy cultural and family expectations and strike in a new direction.
The Das family is Bengali to begin with, immigrants from India/Bangladesh to the United States, via England and Ghana for brief stays in both of the latter places. Over the years in the U.S. the Das girls, Sunny and Starry, find their own connections to their Bengali heritage while forging a new connection to the United States and to its many peoples and varied cultures. And their children, the third generation, also have to negotiate the sometimes delightful and sometimes treacherous decisions that come with upholding tradition and opening oneself up to change at the same time.
I found this book to be both insightful and challenging. I am plain bread white Texan (with maybe a little bit of Native American heritage that’s been mostly lost in the annals of time). I have no cultural heritage except for the culture of white Southern/West Texas country folks. My family never expected me to square dance or two-step or enjoy certain books or music or dress is a certain way. And yet. I understand the pull of family expectations, both the ones I felt from my parents and the ones I have for my own children. I get the difficulties of combining very different families and learning to accept each other’s differences while appreciating the commonalities. Families are a great joy and a great challenge, and this book speaks that truth in a Bengali/American context.
It’s also a great book about growing up, about appreciating your family and their strengths and weaknesses while at the same time working to differentiate yourself from them. Sunny and Starry grow up to be just like their parents, except for the many ways that they are not at all like their parents. And the book also takes socioeconomic differences and challenges and decisions into account as yet another set of intricate cultural influencers that make the characters in the book look at themselves and and others in disparate, sometimes conflicting, ways.
Don’t get the idea that Sunny and Starry and their parents and their children are simply flat, stand-in characters representing Every Immigrant or the “immigrant experience” or AnyTeen who has a journey to make to “find herself”. The people in You Bring the Distant Near are memorable, well-rounded people who make choices that are sometimes surprising and sometimes predictable, always thought-provoking and endearing. Not all of the people in the book make the best decisions, but they are all trying, and as a reader I was rooting for them to succeed in building strong families and strong connections, the same things I want for my own family.