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Thursday, June 10, 2010

What Happens in Post 9/11 America to a "Coconut" Who Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Seventeen-year-old Samara "Sam" Ahluwahlia never gives much thought to her Indian heritage. Sure, she indulges in a little curry-flavored takeout now and then - who doesn't? - but, other than that, her ethnicity has nothing to do with her everyday life. She talks like everyone else, dresses like everyone else, and acts like everyone else. The assimilation her mother has always encouraged is so complete that Sam's shocked when she arrives home one day to find a turbaned man ringing her doorbell. It's September 15, 2001. Who is the dark-skinned stranger? A terrorist? A traveler in need of directions? A door-to-door salesman?

None of the above, as it turns out. The stranger is Sam's uncle, Sandeep. Although Sam's heard stories about her mother's ultra-strict, totally traditional family, this is the first time she's actually met one of the infamous Ahluwahlias. Gentle Sandeep hardly seems capable of the kind of narrow-minded chauvinism that pushed Sam's mother away from her family almost 20 years ago - in fact, he's patient, thoughtful and sensitive. Having him in her life makes Sam realize just how much she's missed having an extended family. Despite her mother's protests, Sam desperately wants more. The grandparents she's never met live a mere 90 minutes away - she won't let anyone keep her from meeting them.

When a classmate accuses Sam of being a "coconut" (brown on the outside, white on the inside), she realizes how little she really knows about her Indian roots. With the help of Sandeep, the Internet, and some of the Indian girls at school, Sam begins to explore Sikhism, bhangra music, and the online Indian community. Not everyone understands or supports Sam's quest to find herself. Digging into her past means alienating some of the people in her present. Is Sam willing to upset her nice, quiet, assimilated life in order to embrace the more unique aspects of herself? Can she find peace with the family and culture her mother spurned? Or will the paranoia of the post-9/11 world scare her away from the heritage she longs to explore?

Hundreds of stories have explored the tumultous clash between cultures that occurs whenever a person dares to step outside the bounds of traditional thought or behavior, but Shine, Coconut Moon is the first I've read that examines a teenager's self-searching in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Neesha Meminger brings the uncertainty of that time to vivid life through straightforward storytelling. While I would have preferred more nuanced prose, it's hard to dismiss the power of passages as direct as this one:

I suddenly feel like I've entered a bizarre parallel universe where everything is flipped around and makes no sense whatsoever - like all things American and all things Indian wee thrown up in the air and landed back in all the wrong places, just to confuse the hell out of me (89).

Sam's passion - which comes through in her spirited thoughts - makes her both sympathetic and admirable. Through her, we're able to sneak a peek at what it means to be different in a world that views any variance as dangerous. It's an interesting exploration, and one I, as a white American, don't think about enough.

I wanted more out of Shine, Coconut Moon (tighter writing, more developed characters, subtler preaching, etc.), but I enjoyed the book for what it did offer - a thought-provoking glimpse at the Indian-American experience, especially following the events of September 11.
Although it gets annoyingly heavy-handed, it's an important story, one that opened my eyes and helped me see the plight of others a little more clearly. And isn't that, after all, the purpose of all literature? Why, han, I believe it is.
(Readalikes: similar in theme to books like Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club; a little like The Sari Shop Window by Shobhan Bantwal)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, sexual innuendo and mature themes

To the FTC, with love: Another library


  1. I thought the questions raised in this book were really interesting. Both Sam's own discovery of herself and the treatment some Indians faced post 9/11 were really interesting to read about.

  2. I'm thinking I'll have to find a copy of this one.

    You are invited to add a link to your review to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon
    ( ). The Saturday Review happens every week, and it's a great place to find links to other bloggers' reviews.


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