Seventeen-year-old Samar has never thought about “Isms,” but 9/11 changes all that. When Samar’s long-lost uncle visits her New Jersey home a few days after the attacks, the two are pursued by racist taunts and shouts of “Osama” from boys who’ve known Samar since kindergarten. For Samar is Sikh, from an Indian community whose religion (Sikhism) requires its followers to not cut their hair; Samar’s uncle hence wears a turban.
Samar’s mom Sharan, an atheist who has long been estranged from her family, has always taught Samar that race and religion are inconsequential—good grades and good decisions lead to success in America. But 9/11 rams Samar’s “happily assimilated Indian-American butt… into the cold seat of reality.” Samar no longer believes Sharan’s wisdom, but wonders about her too-convenient ignorance of her roots. Is she a coconut—a wannabe white person, brown on the outside but white inside?
As Samar tries to explore her Sikh heritage, her social circles come undone. Mother, BFF, boyfriend—every relationship seems to sour as Samar wonders what her ethnicity could mean to her. Samar’s boyfriend Mike, for instance, pretty much tells her to pass as Hispanic:
“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.”
“Who has to know?” he says.
I look out the window on my side.
“Me. I know.”
What is the cost of assimilation? What are the penalties for not conforming with the norms of the majority culture? Is there more than one way to be American? Meminger spells these questions out in as many words, and her clean prose and unfussy approach are perfect for Shine, Coconut Moon’s weighty themes. When Samar decides to learn more about her religion, she doesn’t go to some generic wise crone, but Google. She finds answers to her questions about Sikhism in a chatroom (her handle is JerseyCoconut). I can hear hundreds of Indian-American teens sighing in gratitude as they read this book. Someone out there actually understands! All adults aren’t idiots!
Meminger’s agenda for her work is evident from about the fifth page. In no way is my observation a criticism—I’m glad, glad, glad to see a YA novel tackling this topic head-on. And for all its apparent simplicity, this tale is beautifully nuanced. Sharan is a single mom, a self-confident rebel who turned her back on her heritage for understandable reasons—uber-controlling, parochial parents. When Samar starts looking to her past, Sharan is bewildered, and cannot help viewing her daughter’s actions as a betrayal of her hard-won independence. (Yay, an Asian mother who isn’t an arranged marriage-promoting kitchen goddess of spice!)
The novel has too many layers to unpeel in this review, but I must mention the author’s quiet rebuke of those who refuse to ‘see’ racism because they consider themselves color-blind. Shine also has many interesting subtexts. For instance Samar’s class is reading The Great Gatsby, and the reader can’t help but compare that story of the failure of the American dream against the present moment, notably Samar’s realization that her own American dream—the assumption that race does not matter—may not be completely true.
I cannot stress strongly enough that Meminger never champions the primacy of religious identity over other loyalties or affiliations. Sharan’s rejection of her heritage is presented as a reasoned and hence valid decision; Samar is now making a similar informed choice. Meminger’s ultimate vision is for Samar to possess the knowledge and the courage to choose her identity—whatever shape that might take.
And what could be more American than that?
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.)