Shine, Coconut Moon
By Neesha Meminger
Publication date: February 20, 2009
Samar and her mom have created a quiet life for themselves in New Jersey. Though her dad left when she was too young to remember him and her mom is estranged from her family, they have a strong family of two and friends they can count on. Still, Sam misses what her best friend Molly has with her huge, boisterous family-a sense of shared history, culture, and memories. This comes to the fore in the aftermath of September 11th when a stranger in a turban appears at the door. The stranger turns out to be her mother's younger brother, Uncle Sandeep, and he wants to bring the family back together. This unexpected arrival brings complications into Sam's life as she questions what she has believed about her family. It also brings turmoil as Uncle Sandeep is targeted by racists.
Coconut is a term for a person who is "brown on the outside, white on the inside." One of Sam's Indian classmates brings up the issue because Sam doesn't seem to identify with her heritage at all. She knows nothing about being Sikh and doesn't even know Punjabi. This idea is central to the book. Because of Uncle Sandeep and her Indian classmate Balvir, Sam starts to investigate her culture. She doesn't want to be a "coconut" anymore. Her uncle wisely says that a coconut is also a "symbol of resilience" because it flourishes in adversity. Both Sam and her uncle have gone through difficult times because of racism.
Sam has grown up not knowing any of her relatives because of her mom's bad relationship with her parents. Sharan was trying to protect Sam from going through the pain she endured while growing up but at the same time she is hurting Sam by not allowing her to know her extended family. I like that Sharan is portrayed as a good mom. She is protective of Sam but also allows her room to be herself. Usually in books Indian parents are portrayed as very strict but Sharan is pretty modern and they have a good relationship. It kind of reminded me of an Indian version of The Gilmore Girls but without the rapid and funny dialogue. Even Sharan's relationship with her parents is similar to that of Lorelai with her parents. They love their daughter but they have different cultural values that cause them to clash with Sharan. The scenes with Sam and her grandparents are really touching. It is obvious that they have missed having her in their lives too. I really liked Uncle Sandeep and how he is there for Sam and tries to bring the family back together. He is kind of a mentor to Sam and he helps her make sense of her confusion about her family, Sikhism, and who she is. He also is not afraid to be true to himself even when facing racism.
The secondary characters like Molly and Balvir also add to the story. Molly is a good friend to Sam even though she may not always understand what Sam is going through. I like how welcoming and accepting she is. Balvir is an interesting character because her life is what Sam's might have been like if she had grown up in a traditional Punjabi Sikh family. The one character I can't stand is Sam's boyfriend Mike. I don't really see why she puts up with him. He comes across as a complete jerk from the very beginning.
Aside from my dislike of Sam's boyfriend, I thought this was an excellent book. It explores a lot of deep themes (racism, ethnic identity, religion, family) while at the same time having quite a bit of humor. I found myself relating to the Sam as she realizes she is a "coconut" because I was one as a teen too and still feel that way sometimes. I liked how this issue was examined. You don't have to be a South Asian though to understand to what Sam is going through. Anyone who has ever struggled to be true to who they are would be able to relate. I also enjoyed learning about Sikhism, a religion I didn't know that much about. Shine, Coconut Moon is Neesha Meminger's first novel.
Readalikes: Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger, Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Blue Jasmine by Kashmira Sheth, Naming Maya by Uma Krishnaswami, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos