Dear Ms. Meminger,
On Saturday, September 15, 2001, seventeen-year-old Samar “Sam” Ahluwahlia encounters a man she doesn’t know at the door to the house she and her mother share. The man is wearing a turban, and his presence on her doorstep disturbs Samar. But he turns out to be not a menacing terrorist, but a loving uncle, part of the extended family from which Samar’s mother is estranged. Samar is surprised by how quickly she grows fond of her sweet, gentle uncle Sandeep.
That’s just one of the many changes Samar experiences in the wake of 9/11, an event during which, as she puts it, “my regular, sort of popular, happily assimiliated Indian-American butt got rammed real hard into the cold seat of reality.”
Linton, New Jeresy, where Sam lives, is close to the epicenter of the attacks, and many of the people there view Sam’s turbaned uncle with wariness or suspicion. Sandeep’s presence in her life also makes Samar wonder what she is missing by never having known her other relatives, her family’s religion of Sikhism, or anything about her cultural heritage. Sam envies her best friend, Molly, for knowing who she is:
If I had to describe it, I would say Molly’s family is a painting in bright, vibrant colors, while my family–meaning me and Mom–is bland neutrals and beiges in a taupe frame. Molly’s family is 100 percent, no question, without a doubt, Irish. They all know it, celebrate it whenever possible, and broadcast it with great pride.
When Molly encourages Sam to express her heritage through fashion, Sam observes that:
Molly’s way more into my “Eastern” heritage than I am. It’s not as if I’m not into it…it’s just that it was never really into me.
My mom spent a whole lot of time, when I was growing up, smudging the hard lines that made us different from everyone around us. She dressed me like everyone else, packed my lunch with all the same snacks as the other kids, and stressed the fact that we’re all more the same than different. “You’re American,” she’d say, “and that’s all that matters. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
But now Samar is beginning to become conscious of the differences her mom tried to erase. When some of Molly’s relatives react negatively to Sam’s uncle Sandeep, the girls’ friendship is strained and tested. A conversation at school with another Indian-American girl named Balvir leads Samar to realize that some of the kids view her as a “coconut.”
“A coconut?” I’ve been mistaken for Dominican and everything else she listed, but a coconut?
“Yeah, you know…brown on the outside, white on the inside.”
That catches me off guard. In grade school I was called plenty of names–paki, doo-doo skin …all kinds of things to let me know my brown skin was not coveted. This is the first time someone’s telling me I’m not brown enough. It’s true I’ve always been like the center of a daisy, if daisies had dark centers. Surrounded by all these white petals: Molly, my best friend, and her family; Mike, my boyfriend, and his buddies; and just about everyone else except Mom.
But that’s because whenever I tried to hang out with the Indian kids at school, they talked about things I knew nothing about, sometimes using words in languages other than English–which is the only language I’m fluent in. Things always got real awkward real fast when we realized we had nothing much to talk about other than school. In some ways, that was even harder than the obvious differences between myself and the white folks I surrounded myself with.
Just as Samar begins to realize that she wants to befriend other Indian-American kids, and to know her grandparents and cousins, even if they are as religious and strict as her mom has told her, she encounters another obstacle in the form of her boyfriend, Mike’s, lack of understanding.
Mike has graduated and is working in retail to help his mom pay off her credit cards debt, but the hardship he faces has embittered him. When Sam’s uncle is harassed by some boys Mike knows, he does not offer the kind of empathy he has sometimes shown Samar in the past.
“Look, I’m not saying what they did was right, Sam.” He turns to face me. “But maybe if you didn’t hang out with your uncle so much, you wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of crap.”
I’m stunned. Words slip through my teeth like smoke. I can’t look at him. If I do, I might burst into tears.
“You could pass for anything. When I first met you, I thought you were Mexican.”
My voice comes out as a gravelly whisper. “But I’m not. I’m Indian-American just like my mom…and Sikh, like my uncle.”
He turns the music up, and the lyrics of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ fill the little black Civic. “Who has to know?” he says.
I look out the window on my side.
Me. I know.
As all the quoting I’ve done in this review shows, Shine, Coconut Moon is a thoughtful, sensitive look at issues of culture and assimilation, diversity and self-knowledge.
The writing is at once delicate and penetrating, and Sam’s first person narration shines with her often painful honesty about her confusion. I liked Samar very much, and found myself moved by the challenges she faced in her quest to discover her roots.
The other characters were mostly sympathetic as well, even when they were at odds with Samar. Molly, Samar’s friend, wasn’t always in the right, but she was a good friend much of the time. Sharan, Sam’s mother, wasn’t always in the right either, but she clearly loved her daughter. Uncle Sandeep had a touching gentleness. Even the villains of the story, such as they were, weren’t without their own issues.
I do have a few criticisms. First, I felt that Samar’s ignorance about her own cultural heritage strained credulity at times. I found it hard to believe that at the age of seventeen she would not even know the correct pronunciation of the word Sikh, or that the people of the Indian diaspora refer to themselves as South Asian, even though she was one of them. I understand that her mother did not teach Sam much of anything about her background, but I still think that in seventeen years of life she would have picked the most basic things up.
Second, I also felt that Samar’s mother’s childrearing didn’t completely fit Sharan’s background as a psychotherapist. In my opinion most people with her grounding in psychotherapy could have foreseen the difficulties she was creating for her child by keeping her completely separated from any and all family besides herself and failing to teach her anything about her background. Had Sharan been a member of a different profession, I would have found her choices more believable.
The novel’s final chapter serves as a kind of epilogue showing a more assured and self-aware Samar than the one with which we’ve spent much of the book. I found it comforting, but at the same time, it felt a bit out of place.
But these aren’t major criticisms. Shine, Cocount Moon moved me and made me reflect about my own life, and the degree to which I have assimilated since emigrating to the United States; the things I miss about the culture of my native country and the large family I left behind. There are no easy answers when it comes to these issues, and so the book was not always easy reading for me, but I am glad I bought it, and got to experience Samar’s touching journey. B/B+ for this one.