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Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
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Shine, Coconut Moon

by Neesha Meminger

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11810147,688 (3.73)9
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A “coconut” is slang for someone who is brown on the outside, but white on the inside. After 9/11, seventeen-year-old Samar Ahluwahlia (“Sam” or “Wally” to her friends) finds out that living as a “coconut” doesn’t protect you from the prejudice of ignorant, small-minded people.

Sam and her mom Sharan have been on their own in Linton, New Jersey since Sam was two. Because Sharan refuses any contact with her Indian relatives, Sam has always taken part in the big family gatherings of her best friend Molly. Sam loves these celebrations because they feel warm and welcoming, but hates the way they accentuate the lonely dyad of her and her mother.

Everything changes when, a week after 9/11, her mother’s turbaned younger brother shows up on their doorstep. Although they hadn’t communicated for fifteen years, Uncle Sandeep looked at the turmoil in the world and decided he wanted to be close to the ones he loves. Suddenly, Sam has “family.” And suddenly, with the help of the very charming and loveable Uncle Sandeep, Sam learns about the Sikhism that is as much a part of her heritage as the hard-core atheism of her mom. But Uncle Sandeep wants Sam to be happy with whomever she ends up being. He tells her:

"The coconut is also a symbol of resilience, Samar. Even in conditions where there’s very little nourishment and even less nurturance, it flourishes, growing taller than most of the plants around it.”

Sam convinces her mother (after a struggle) to take her to meet her grandparents, who live only ninety minutes away, and finds out why her mother has resisted taking her all this time. But now she feels more torn than ever.

When white bigots, stirred up by the post-9/11 atmosphere of bigotry, target Uncle Sandeep as an “Osama bin Laden,” Sam experiences first-hand the “politics of identity.” In the wake of what happens, she knows she must decide which parts of herself to let go, and which are the most radiant parts that she should keep.

Discussion: Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world. There are over 20 million followers worldwide (estimates range from 20-27 million), with some three-fourths located in the Punjab province of India. There are approximately 650,000 Sikhs in the United States.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was an upsurge in anti-Sikh discrimination across the United States, including a number of incidents that involved physical attacks on Sikhs who were wearing turbans. (In addition, the long beards that many Sikh men keep have also been confounded with those of terrorists seen in the media.)

Although this book offers a small taste of what Sikhism involves, there are many interesting websites that have additional information, such as All About Sikhs and Sikhism Guide.

Evaluation: I appreciate books for young people about the problems of trying to fit into a culture when you feel torn inside about a “double” identity. Such kids can experience intolerance from both sides, and it can be very rough. But I didn’t connect well to Sam. I think that on some level I could pick up the authorial voice as well as Sam's. There was a sense of: well, being half American and half Sikh isn’t enough, so let’s throw in 9/11. And in case that isn’t enough, let’s add skinheads. And don’t forget to drop a single mom in the equation, with her own alienation problems. Irish girlfriend? Check. Black girlfriend? Check. Indian girlfriend you never talked to before? Check. And for the pièce de résistance, let’s have the perfectly fine boyfriend of one year suddenly morph into not only a racist but also a stalker!

All of these plot strands don't seem well blended together. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell writes about food known for high “amplitude”: "When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can't isolate the elements…" To me, a good story has high amplitude. This story’s notes were just stacked up, instead of coalescing into a symphony. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend in this book. ( )
1 vote nbmars | Aug 26, 2010 |
I liked the book well enough. It accurately portrayed the friendships of teenage girls, and it gave me a window into a culture I'm unfamiliar with. However I thought it was a bit too "problem novel" for me. We never really learn anything about Samar's uncle or grandparents other than that they're Sikhs and were estranged from her mom for a long time. I found myself wanting more than that, though I could see why the author chose to focus on the ethnicity issue, as that was her principal message. ( )
  meggyweg | Apr 20, 2010 |
I’ll admit, at first I was worried that Shine, Coconut Moon was going to be a little bit too after-school special for my tastes. But considering the dearth, Mitali Perkins aside, of really good books about Southeast Asian American teens, I was willing to give it a try. And while it does sometimes feel like a laundry-list of after-school special issues are being addressed (Discovering your personal history and identity, prejudice from friends and bullies, AND 9/11? That’s hitting the trifecta right there!), Neesha Meminger does the one thing that can raise an “issues book” above feeling like a Lifetime movie: she writes it very well. The characters are complex, the writing is tight, and the situations build on each other in a way that keeps them from being preachy or unbelievable.Apart from her mother, Sameera has never met any of her family. Sam’s mother is estranged from her parents and is determined to raise Sam as a “normal” American girl. Sam has never learned about her Sikh heritage, met her uncle and grandparents, or learned even a word of Punjabi. She has no Indian friends at school. And while Sam has always wanted to meet her family, she has never given much thought to her heritage. But like many Americans, Sam’s way of looking at the world changes after September 11th. She experiences prejudice for the first time since she was a small child – sometimes from unexpected places. And her Uncle Sandeep reaches out to Sam’s mother, bringing family and all the complications that come with it into Sam’s life.The characterizations are a strong point in Meminger’s novel, and Sam’s two closest family members are perhaps the most interesting, especially in terms of their changing relationships with Sam. Sam’s mother, Sharan, is conflicted about her own heritage because of controlling treatment by her parents. She has tried desperately to shield Sam from their influence, and in doing so she has completely seperated Sam from her history and heritage. But this treatment from her mother leaves Sam feeling just as controlled and unfairly treated as Sharan did as a child. Sam’s mother must come to terms with her daughter embracing the family and culture that Sharan has turned her back on. And as her mother’s attempt at protection backfires, Sam’s relationship with her Uncle Sandeep grows. He acts as a catalyst for her attempts to learn about her heritage, and to reconcile her family’s culture with her own life. Their relationship is a very sweet one, which makes the extreme prejudice that Sam witnesses against her turban-wearing uncle even more affecting.Sam’s search for self also affects her relationship with her best friend, her boyfriend, and others from her school in very realistic ways. Sam’s growth is often difficult for the people who are closest to her, and I love that Meminger acknowledges and explores that side of her journey. In some cases Sam comes to very difficult realizations about people who she cares about, and in other cases the relationships eventually grow stronger. Sam also starts tentative relationships with other Indian girls at her school, one of whom demonstrates for Sam that unlike her mother, she does not have to definitively chose either her Sikh heritage or her American culture – she can learn to balance both.I did find the first half of the book a bit difficult to get through – I didn’t warm up to Sam until her growth arc was really moving along. But by the second half of the book, after she has met Uncle Sandeep and become curious about her family and her heritage, I was hooked. Sam goes through the search for identity that every teenager experiences, but because of her estrangement from her family and her complete lack of knowledge about her family’s culture, Sam’s journey is condensed into a short, intense period of time, making it especially powerful for the reader. ( )
  twonickels | Jan 25, 2010 |
Following 9/11 Samar opens the door to find a turbaned man who happends to be her Uncle Sandeep. She doesn't know much about her Sikh culture as her mom has spearated herself and Samar from her parents and heritage. Now Samar yearns to have roots and a family like her best friend Molly. At the same time,Sikhs and Muslims are being attacked in the rage following 9/11. It's a great book about identity and multiple belongings, but it often turns preachy instead of letting the plot carry the theme. ( )
  cliddie | Jan 25, 2010 |
17-year-old Samar (known as Sam to her friends) knows very little of her Indian culture or Sikh religion. Her single mother has raised her to fit in as an American teen; her mother has also kept her from getting to know her uncle and “old-fashioned” grandparents. That was all before 9/11.

Shortly after that, a stranger arrives at her front door in a turban, startling Sam at first glance. It turns out he is her Uncle Sandeep, and he is eager to reconnect with Samar and her mother. When Uncle Sandeep drives Sam home from school and their car is pelted with bottles by Sam’s classmates who chant “go back home Osama,” her worldview begins to shift. Then Sam is at her best friend Molly’s house with Molly’s large, extended family, and Uncle Sandeep comes to pick her up. When he enters the house, Sam is acutely aware of the stares, of assumptions made about her uncle in his brown skin and turban.

Feeling adrift, Sam decides to learn about Sikhism, about her heritage, and spends time with her uncle and grandparents in spite of the differences between them and her mother. As she explores and questions her identity, she no longer wants to be a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside.
  yalib | Oct 18, 2009 |
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In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Samar, who is of Punjabi heritage but has been raised with no knowledge of her past by her single mother, wants to learn about her family's history and to get in touch with the grandparents her mother shuns.… (more)

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