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.)
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.
Published by Margaret K. McElderry, 2009