Review of “Shine, Coconut Moon” by Neesha Meminger

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 important 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 have led to confusion among would-be hate criminals, who don’t tend to be all that discriminating about victims in any event.)

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

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. This story’s issues were just stacked up, instead of coalescing into a symphony. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend in this book.

Rating: 3.7/5

Published by Margaret K. McElderry, 2009

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17 Responses to Review of “Shine, Coconut Moon” by Neesha Meminger

  1. JoV says:

    You have a point there. Your introduction to the book bodes well and made me want to read it until you get to the point of the book trying to throw in too many racial / discrimination elements into it and produce a distasteful cocktail.

    The book should have taken one of the elements, like being Sikh and developed the story and characters to its depth.

  2. zibilee says:

    I am sorry to hear that this story was so overblown and crowded. I agree with the above poster who said that there should have been less plot elements, and the ones that were there should have been more developed. I am thinking that I will probably pass on this book, as it kind of sounds like it’s all over the place. Great review, though!

    • JoV and Zibilee,

      I still feel this is a book worth reading, especially because there don’t seem to be many on the market addressing this particular niche. And “Uncle Sandeep” is a warm and endearing character, worth getting to know!

  3. Julie P. says:

    It probably didn’t help that you couldn’t relate to the character. I admit it’s probably not one that I would have picked up anyway. Thanks for sharing!

  4. bermudaonion says:

    I’m glad you defined coconut because that’s a new term for me. It does sound like the book tries to tackle too much.

  5. Alyce says:

    I wouldn’t have realized what coconut was referring to either. It does frustrate me when so many issues are thrown at a character, and you can tell it’s the author’s agenda and not a natural flowing of the story.

  6. Nymeth says:

    It’s too bad the voice didn’t sound quite authentic, as this sounds like it could have been great otherwise, and also if it were a bit more focused. About “coconut” – sometimes it feels that humans spend most of their creative energy coming up with new ways to be horrible to each other :\

  7. amymckie says:

    Sorry you didn’t like this as much. I can see what you mean about their being a whole lot going on, I still really enjoyed it though.

  8. Trisha says:

    It’s too bad the book tried to inject too much; if a book tackles one issue well, it’s powerful, but if it tries to handle too much, it can come across as being nothing more than sensationalism.

  9. Lisa says:

    What was really interesting to me in the wake of 9/11 and people targeting Muslims and Sikhs was that the terrorists that attacked us had done their best to fit in. They didn’t look like what we thought terrorists would look like. So why did people think that the people they targeted, whom they thought were terrorists, wouldn’t do the same thing. Why ever in the world would they want to stand out? Certainly anyone else out there setting up to become a terrorist was not going to want to draw attention to themselves.

  10. Amanda says:

    Hm. All those parts of the story really came together for me and I really enjoyed the book. But i did feel like I could relate to Sam and the things she went through, and I understood the transformation of her boyfriend very, very well.

  11. Staci says:

    It sounds like it has possibilities but yeah…there’s a bit thrown in there.

  12. I like the title of this book and I appreciate your explanation of the term coconut. Well thought-out review. Just wondering what the age group would be?

  13. Jenners says:

    It does seem like a bit too many ingredients in this particular stew.

  14. Bookjourney says:

    This sounds interesting Jill. I too like books like this.

  15. stacybuckeye says:

    I love the description of this book and am disppointed to see that it had a little too much going on. I’ve never heard the term coconut before, so that’s a new one for me.

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