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.”
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.”
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.