Shine, Coconut Moon Shines Light on Post 9/11 Sikh Experience

Soon after 9/11, a friend of mine told me that her college roommate’s home had been visited by the local police in their town in upstate New York. The police wanted to search the home of this family because they’d heard they had a picture of Osama Bin Laden hanging in their living room. The cops were mistaken. This was the home of a pious Sikh family and the picture was of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

I’ve often thought about this story. There are so many more like it — incidents of mistaken identities, faulty detentions, stereotyping, and violent acts in the wake of September 11th. We’ve read about them in the press and slowly, literature is beginning to tackle this dark period of recent American history as well; a time that unfolded in what Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist, Art Spiegelman, described so aptly as “in the shadow of no towers.”shinecoconut.jpg

A few years ago, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos was one of the first young adult offerings to address the challenge of growing up South Asian and Muslim in an America altered by 9/11. First time novelist Nisha Meminger takes on a similar theme in her new YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon, just published by Simon & Schuster.

When her turbaned uncle appears at the doorstep of her suburban NJ home just four days after the 9/11 attacks, 16 year old Samar is caught off guard. Raised in a single-parent household by an Indian-American mother who cut off ties with her Sikh family many years before, Samar has no connection to her cultural roots and traditions. She is skeptical of this man, Uncle Sandeep, who claims to want to reconnect with his estranged sister because “we’re living in different times now … and I want to be close to the ones I love. The world is in turmoil–we’re at war. Anything could happen at any moment.”

As Samar gets to know her uncle, she begins to learn about Sikhism and gets to know her grandparents. She even visits a gurdwara for the first time in her life. This prompts her to start questioning her mother’s decision to raise her to think of herself “like everyone else.” She begins to question her identity; wondering whether she is a coconut — someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside–someone who may physically appear to be Indian but doesn’t know who she really is. At the same time, she is shocked and saddened by a series of troubling events in her community that affect her personally: her uncle is attacked by a bunch of teenage boys who goad him to “Go back home, Osama!” and the local gurdwara is set on fire.

In his compelling Guardian article “The End of Innocence” Pankaj Mishra writes, “‘Post-9/11′ fiction often seems to use the attacks and their aftermath too cheaply, as background for books that would have been written anyway.” Shine, Coconut Moon does not fall into this category. Most definitively shaped by the effect of 9/11 on minority immigrant communities, this is an ambitious coming of age novel for young adults that seeks to demonstrate the effects of fear mongering on the lives of ordinary minority teens who saw themselves as American before 9/11.

Below the fold is an excerpt from the novel, as well as a Q&A with, Neesha Meminger where she talks about her novel writing process and the real-life incidents that inspired it. And, for those in the NYC area, there is a book launch party and reading this Saturday, March 14th at 7 pm at Bluestockings Bookstore. EXCERPT

Shine, Coconut Moon tackles the complicated subject of minority groups defending and distinguishing themselves from the “terrorists” after 9/11. In this particularly poignant scene, Samar finds herself engaged in a conversation with a Sikh student and a Muslim student at her school:

Balvir’s words pour out, like a faucet suddenly turning on. “Sammy, I was just telling Shazia that the temple I go to with my family was set on fire yesterday.” … Her face is tight. “I wasn’t there, but my grandmother was. She said a window was smashed and a burning ball came flying through. It hit the drapes and they burned straight up to the ceiling.”

Shazia shakes her head. “I’m so sorry, Balvir. It’s amazing that whenever there’s social or political unrest, it’s the churches, synagogues, and temples that get targeted first.”

“But why?” I whisper. “Why those places?”

She sighs and shakes her head again. “I don’t know. …”

Balvir continues as if she hasn’t heard a word. “What’s wrong with people?” she demands, her eyes becoming teary. “Sikhs are not Muslims!” She turns quickly to Shazia and says, “No offense.”

Then she continues, spitting words like a machine gun. “Sikhism has only been around for the last five centuries, with over twenty million followers in the world! It has nothing to do with Islam.” She wraps her arms around her bent knees …

After a lengthy pause, Shazia clears her throat. “Balvir, you want to distinguish between Sikhs and Muslims because of .. what? Do you think that the violence will be less if you do?” … Shazia shifts uneasily but continues. “Please don’t be upset by my saying this, but if you think your family is targeted, imagine my brothers Khalel and Ahmed.”

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Q & A with Neesha Meminger

Q. How much of this story is semi-autobiographical (sans the 9/11 connection, of course)?

Some parts of SHINE are, indeed, semi-autobiographical. For the parts that are not, I drew upon personal experience to flesh them out and lend them authenticity. The experiences with racism are certainly based on my own clashes as a teen and child as well as those of friends and relatives.

I try to write everything based on Truth as I know it — to get as close to that tiny glowing ember of Truth that is at the center of everything, and use it to guide me through my scenes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. But I think readers can tell when that nugget isn’t there. So each of my characters has a bit of me in them; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t breathe on the page.

Q. This is a novel much prompted by the events following 9/11. Was it difficult to write? Did you purposely start out wanting to write a book with this theme, or did you find that a coming of age novel shifted its focus as events started unfolding?

This novel definitely did not start out with a 9/11 theme. It originally was an epic about the relationship between Punjabi, Sikh mothers and daughters weathering the rifts and chasms of migration — both geographical and emotional. But as I wrote and delved deeper into the story I really wanted to tell, the 9/11 theme kept simmering to the surface in the oddest of ways.

I kept having flashbacks to Canada, where I grew up in the early 1970s, when there was a huge backlash against the wave of South Asian immigrants. Then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, had flung wide the doors of immigration to India and Pakistan and people poured into the the major Canadian cities looking for work. The backlash, of course, was because these new immigrants were taking jobs away from “real” Canadians, and not only that — they couldn’t even speak English.

I was very young then, but scenes from those days have obviously been seared into my memory. The burning gurdwara scene is one from real life. The gurdwara next door to us was set on fire with the words “Pakis Go Home” painted on the sides of the building. A Sikh man was hung from a lamp post with his own turban. Turbaned men were clear targets and beatings were regular occurrences. I remember at least two incidents where South Asians in the apartment building where we lived threw their children out of their balconies and leapt to their own deaths behind them. It was a time of despair, alienation, isolation, and fear. This is a part of history that doesn’t often get exposure in mainstream Canadian media, but it is alive and kicking in the memories of a whole generation of South Asians.

I drew upon those experiences and that time of backlash and hostility as I wrote about the 9/11 experience in the novel. During the 70s, we were all busy trying to make the distinction that we were from India and not Pakistan, or Sri Lanka and not Pakistan and we were, therefore, not Pakis. And those of us who were from Pakistan were busy inventing stories about where our families were really from. It was an immediate response not only to the ignorance around us, but to our fear as well.

During the 9/11 backlash, everyone was busy proclaiming “I am an American!” and American flags were draped around every single South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African shop window. Sikh websites went into “educate” mode, showing what the difference was between Sikhs and Muslims and that Sikhs were not Muslims — again making that distinction that I remember trying to make all those years ago as a child. As if any bat-wielding ignoramus full of rage and hostility would even care, or would pause for a moment to consider, “Oh, crap; I think I have the wrong brown person!” But it’s a natural reaction to living in a brutal or hostile environment. There’s the hope that disassociating yourself from the object of hatred is going to offer some sort of protection.

That same fear that I grew up with was palpable once again after 9/11, and I realized how very rooted SHINE was in that experience.

Q. I don’t know of any other YA books with Sikh protagonists. Do you? Was that part of your impetus in writing this book – to fill a gap?

I know Shauna Singh Baldwin has written beautifully about the Sikh experience during Partition in What The Body Remembers, but I’m not aware of any YA novels with Sikh protagonists. Would love it if there was. I wasn’t really thinking about filling gaps when I was writing, honestly. I wrote about the Sikh experience because it’s what I know; I wanted to tell this particular story and I couldn’t move on to any others until this one was out of me.

Q. Samar’s mother raises her without any knowledge of her religion – not ever taking her to a gurudwara or telling her about the ten gurus. Why did you choose to have your protagonist’s lack of knowledge about her cultural traditions imposed upon her rather than something she was averse to?

That was definitely a conscious choice. I think children rebel against the things that don’t make sense to them, if only to explore the “other side” — what has been kept from them, or hidden. If religion is thrust upon them and is a stifling experience, it would make sense for them to rebel. If anti-religion is thrust upon them, the same thing is true I would imagine. A lesbian friend of mine raised her daughter to be critical and wary of religion, taught her to redefine “family,” and created a very left wing, progressive environment for her children. Her daughter grew up to become a Jehovah’s Witness, had a child early, and began zealously converting “the Gays.”

In SHINE, Samar’s mother rebels against the religion she was raised in, only to have her own daughter rebel against the “anti-religion” she embraced instead. I loved that twist, and the idea that, as parents, we often think we have the answers — only to have those answers unravel into a million new questions.

Q. Uncle Sandeep and his sister (Samar’s mother) were both raised in the US. This, to me, represents a shift from other South Asian YA books which always depict culture clashes between generations of parents and children, where parents are immigrants. I’m curious about your thinking on this.

This was also a very conscious decision. I have cousins and nieces and nephews (not to mention my own children) who are growing up with parents like me — people who grew up here in the west. We have a very different experience than our parents. Some of us are in mixed marriages, some are single parents, some of us are redefining marriage entirely, and we are now raising our own children. I was born in India, but my experiences are deeply rooted in the adjustment. My parents were completely informed by their experiences in India. So I wanted to write a novel for the children of the children of immigrants — the next generation, so to speak.

At the same time, I also wanted to speak to the experience of these parents who are trying so hard to help their kids assimilate (so as to avoid the kind of racism OUTSIDE the home and strict controls INSIDE the home that they, themselves, might have experienced) — well intentioned folks who know the pain of not fitting in and getting wedgies and bullying (or worse), only to go home to expectations of straight As and a certain level of perfection. Though, clearly, the assimilation route has pitfalls of its own.

Q. What was the toughest part of this writing process? Tell us about your path to publication.

The toughest part of this process was getting the durn thing published! LOL. Seriously — I think I am too thin-skinned for this part of the process and have had to develop a far thicker skin in response to the feedback I received from agents and editors as I sent SHINE around.

But it was a great process and one that strengthened me as a writer and as a person, overall. The hardest part is finding an agent and editor who not only “get” your story, but are not afraid to champion it amongst their colleagues and peers.

63 thoughts on “Shine, Coconut Moon Shines Light on Post 9/11 Sikh Experience

  1. okay.. first i haven’t the nussbaum article and not particularly tempted to.

    But, i have question emanating from the previous’s commenter quoting from a line in the article

    This year, in the eastern state of Orissa, members of the Bajrang Dal have murdered scores of Christians who refused to reconvert to Hinduism. (Most Indian Christians are descendants of converts, often from the lowest Hindu castes.)

    and saying,

    Second, Nussbaum implies in the article on Mumbai attacks that Hinduism is a horrible wicked religion.. See the implication here. Low castes are escaping horrible Hinduism by converting to Christianity. Even then Hindus are killing them. And this is for reporting an incident when the jihadis specifically targeted Jews and let a couple of Turkish Muslims live because of their religion.

    So you are saying that bajrang dal and hindus mean the same thing, Coz as far i read, martha said “members of the bajrang dal have murdered”. Or maybe you are implying that all hindus from east to west, north to south, without any exception, are all members of bajrang dal.

  2. I didn’t realize anyone still tried to trot out the “cutting off an adolescent girl’s clitoris is JUST LIKE cutting the foreskin off an infant boy” absurdity.

    Some dont cut off the clitoris completely but cut off a part of the hood on the clitoris.

  3. Martha Naussbaum v. Daniel Pipes

    I think Manju is correct that the hostility to both Pipes and Martha is premised on their alleged tendencies to conflate and over-generalize.

    I have read a lot of stuff from Daniel Pipes and a few articles from Naussbaum. The target of Naussbaum’s writings are the right wing Hindus in India. The primary target of Daniel Pipes are the right wing Muslims living in the US. Yes, Naussbaum might conflate, over-state or cast too wide a net on Hindus in India but I think Hindus in India will mostly not from suffer from Naussbaum’s journal pieces. The primary target of Daniel Pipes, the Muslims living in the US dont enjoy the same luxury. To give a small example, almost all Muslims in the US who go to college in the US are members of or have associated with the ubiquitous Muslim Student Associations on campuses. Daniel Pipes and his ilk have now designated MSAs across America as fronts for Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas*. So any Muslim in the US who has attended college in the US who wants to run for or appointed to any public office is now effectively barred from participation (like Obama’s attorney friend from Chicago who was supposed to do Muslim outreach but had to resign). I think Pipes can and has caused a lot of mischief which Naussbaum with her occasional appearances on NPR is not capable of formenting.

    • MSA might have its origin in Muslim Brotherhood and out of hundreds of MSAs across USA a few of them might have a few over-zealous religious nuts, but anybody who has attended any MSA event/social will claim that membership/association in the MSA warrants a certificate of radicalism.
  4. You know I read the post and I see no mention of Nussbaum or Pipes. Can someone remind me who highjacked this thread with the typical bullshit? Let’s stick to discussing the subject of the post from here on. Thanks.

  5. Wow. Way to perfectly demonstrate what I was talking about with my last paragraph! BRAVO!

    Thankyou. (takes a bow)

    You know as well as I do that alot of what passes for “Hinduism” in the Desh is a bunch of cultural backage and dysfunction. I’m not singling Hinduism out. Take any religion and the region it arose from… The New Millenium has ushered in a new type of spirituality. Spirituality without boundaries and without dysfunctions. Well, at least without the OLD dysfunctions, new ones may arise, and so far the new dysfunction might be commercialization, but hey, it gets the word out. One need not be a card carrying member of the “bahu institution” and all that represents in order to appreciate the universal truths of yoga and the Upanishadic view of life or the 4 Noble Truths.

    I didn’t realize anyone still tried to trot out the “cutting off an adolescent girl’s clitoris is JUST LIKE cutting the foreskin off an infant boy” absurdity

    BOTH are problematic and completely unneccessary.

    Full Stop!

    Back to original topic which had something to do with glistening Parachute coconut oil….

  6. I just wish people would stop fetishizing desi culture. This phenomenon has really hit a fever pitch recently with the slumdog, jindal, and chopra-esque leanings, but I’m tired of it.

    I also wish someone would explain to goras that ‘chai’ actually means ‘tea’ so saying chai tea is ridiculously redundant.

    Sigh.

  7. I also wish someone would explain to goras that ‘chai’ actually means ‘tea’ so saying chai tea is ridiculously redundant.

    If that’s the extent of your worries, you’re doing pretty darn well. I don’t think anyone is “fetishizing” desi culture. People are into “spiritual stuff” no matter from where. The cultural baggage of Desh they surely don’t want to take on for themselves. Just the spiritual stuff.

    We desis need to get over ourselves. I don’t see anyone breaking down doors to marry us or become live-in bahus.

  8. for the same reason people hat daniel pipes…and suki dillon,

    Wow being a fan of Daniel Pipes and to see my name in the same sentence, more then made my day and also gave me some street cred among more more far right thinking friends. Thanks Manju.

  9. Now back to the topic

    Uncle Sandeep and his sister (Samar’s mother) were both raised in the US.

    Since Samir was 16 during 9/11 making her born in 1985, so uncle and mom must have born in the 50′s or early 60′s. So they must have grown up in time in which there was not a big sikh community in the United States.

    Samir single mom didn’t raise her Indian there could be a few reasons for that. - Samir mom may have been in abusive marriage to punjabi man who treated her like crap. It’s been know to happen and her own family wanted her to stay in the marriage to save the family honor. - Samir mom grow up in America, but had very strict parents who did not give her the freedom when she was going up that her white friends/classmates did when she was a teenager, and she didn’t want her daughter to grow up that way.

  10. well since it came up, let’s clarify about female “circumcision.” I work in an agency that has missions in countries where this occurs. Cutting of the hood is analagous to male circumcision, but is hardly ever done in societies practicing this. What is done is clitorectomy or, well–check out google for “Pharonic circumcision.”

    Although this horrible custom is not Islamic, it does get especially extreme when native traditions meet Islam. Something about the chastity demands. At least Hinduism does not demand that children of either gender have their genitals carved up.

  11. 62 · lamy said

    well since it came up, let’s clarify

    No. Let’s not. That would be off-topic, no matter how educational.

    The topic is NOT circumcision, FGM, Hinduism, Islam or anything else. The topic is a book about SIKH people. If none of you have anything to say about it, I can close this thread.