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 the choice made by her mother is not the only option. This new friend helps Sam realize that 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.
Shine, Coconut Moon on the web.
Neesha Meminger on the web.
(PS – Apologies for my recent radio silence! Things are calming down both at work and at home, so I hope to be updating regularly again.)