I leapt at the chance to interview Neesha Meminger because she and her debut, SHINE, COCONUT MOON, are both luminous. I love stories with "heart", and this book has a big one. After talking to Neesha, I understood why.
With this book, you've managed to tackle some heavy topics without bludgeoning the reader (thank you). Where did SHINE, COCONUT MOON begin for you? With Samar? An idea? A memory?
SHINE began as a story about mothers and daughters weathering the sometimes harsh blows of migration and immigration. Mother-daughter relationships can be tough as it is without having language and cultural issues thrown into the mix! I wanted to explore generational rifts as well (through the relationship Sam's--the main character's--mother's relationship to her own mother). The things that keep us apart and how we fight to mend those was really the nugget for SHINE.
And, related: What out of your own personal experiences, past and present, did you draw on as you wrote this book? What were you like at Samar's age? Did you learn anything new about yourself as you wrote SHINE?
I was more rebellious than Sam is. I got in a LOT more trouble than she does (my mother, unlike Sam's, was not cool and hip). But, like Sam, I did a lot of stuff behind my parents' back that they always found out about.
The one experience I drew on from personal experience was the temple fire. When I was very young and we had first moved to Canada from India, the temple next door to us was set on fire. It was arson and there were racial slurs and "Go Home" scrawled on the walls.
The bullying scene by the three boys was a sort of amalgamation of experiences that I had, as well as experiences my friends and siblings experienced as we braved the schoolyard every day with our strange lunches and even stranger clothes :).
I love the title, and how it addresses more than one thing about the story and Samar. Can you talk a bit about that?
There was a short bit there that the publisher was questioning the name choice for my book. I just couldn't think of any other name, so I was a bit distressed. After a while, the questioning just seemed to go away and now everyone seems just fine with. Personally, I love it for precisely the reasons you mention: it says soooo much about what's in the book.
I really wanted the title to convey that this is a story about a young woman who learns to "shine" that little light of hers into the world. She learns to embrace the whole of herself through recovery and self-discovery that she, herself, initiates.
The coconut part is obvious once you read the book, and the moon part . . . well, I just absolutely loved writing the scene where Uncle Sandeep reminds Sam of her childhood blanket.
You've got everything here --romance, racism, spiritual seeking, prejudice, friendship, politics, lingerie, and mother-daughter drama -- I could go on! Did you consciously work to include or balance various themes? Did you start with a particular theme in mind, or did it develop and change as you wrote? Was there a particular aspect of Samar's story that was especially dear to you?
I really couldn't not write about all of those things because they were all so inextricably linked and woven through one another. Trying to separate the strands would be impossible. Samar's mother's decisions were based on her own experiences with racism and her relationship with her strict, traditional parents -- and these decisions had major impact on Sam's life.
The story definitely developed and grew through revisions. The 9/11 piece didn't come in until later when I realized how much that event would have affected someone like Sam. Our current day reality is a post 9/11 reality where terrorism is real, but also used as a political tool by all sorts of people. And all of this has to be not only confusing, but deeply distressing to those nearing voting age and becoming aware of the relevant issues of our time. They're deeply upsetting to people like me -- who have long passed voting age!
Influences of "Indian culture", particularly Bhangra, cuisine, Bollywood, etc. seem to have developed more of a presence in U.S popular culture in recent years. How do you perceive these phenomena? What do you think might be distorted or missing from, and accurate about the Western lens? And vice versa?
Well, you know, there are all the easy, fun things about difference: food, music, clothes, holidays and celebrations. And then there are the not-so-easy or not-so-palatable things about difference: racism, social and economic disparity, negative media images, etc. The easy and fun bits always make it into the mainstream first, of course :). Which is why stories that address the other parts are so important. They create a more realistic depiction and offer a more wholistic perspective of the people who are normally portrayed as "other."
On the other extreme, you have images of starving children in parts of Africa, India, Brazil; brutality, drugs, gangs, etc. in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. What's important is to take steps to begin to see one another as the complex, multi-dimensional human beings we all are. There are a whole lot of gray shades in between those two extremes, and people of all backgrounds run the whole gamut of that continuum. Stretching accepted definitions and stereotypes to include more of what we truly are is the real challenge for many artists who fall outside of the mainstream experience.
Belonging and identity are powerful presences in this book, and there's a moment early on that really resonated with me -- when Samar is surrounded by her best friend's loving, welcoming family, people she's known and loved forever, and who know and love her...yet: "...something about being in a room with so many people, so many generations that you belong to and who accept you without question as one of theirs, leaves me feeling like a hand is squeezing my heart, making it a little harder to breathe." Can you elaborate on the positive and negative forces that create moments like these?
Gosh, haven't we all had one of those moments? In that scene, Samar longs desperately to have what her best friend, Molly, takes for granted: a big, loving, extended family. She loves being in those gatherings where she is welcomed without reservation and loved as another family member. But always, inevitably, she comes back to the place of knowing that this is not hers, and being there is precisely what makes her see what she is missing.
So many immigrants and children of immigrants lead a sort of double (or multiple) existence. Samar is just beginning to navigate that, and later learns that one of her classmates, Balvir, has been doing it for some time.
Yes. Balvir was one of my favorite minor characters to write. She's tough and intuitively knows the truth, but living within the confines of tradition and custom at home. She lives a particular life at home, and outside of the house she is a completely different person. I knew so many girls in high school who changed their clothes, put on make-up, smoked, etc., once they got to school. Almost every South Asian girl, for sure, had her Secret Self that came out when she was far (FAR) from her parents.
SHINE surprised me throughout -- the characters, the plot twists -- there were so many moments that were wonderfully unexpected and the characters richly drawn. Can you talk a bit about two characters in particular, Mike, and Bobbie?
I had fun writing both of those characters. Mike was the toughest to get right for me. I really wanted him to be a decent guy at heart -- someone Samar truly fell for and enjoyed at one point. His situation has changed since he graduated from high school and he has had a glimpse of adult responsibilities that Sam could never imagine. In the end, that's what he really is: a decent guy who's being tossed around by Life and having to negotiate that in his personal interactions.
Bobbie was fun, too, because who she is comes to the reader as a bit of surprise halfway through the novel. One of the copyeditors wanted me to change that to make it clear from the beginning, but, luckily, my editor saw what I was trying to do and supported my decision to keep it out. She's a pretty complex character, too, Bobbie. She's struggling to find herself just as much as everyone else, but puts on this perfect face. She comes from an affluent family and, even though she enjoys spending time with Sam and Molly, she ends up sort of sticking with those who can "hang" with her lifestyle.
Have you gotten any responses to the book that have surprised you? Did your own feelings about certain story elements, characters, etc. change as you wrote?
I was very, very surprised by the Kirkus review of my book. I'd known that they can be very tough on authors and I was honestly terrified of reading it. The best I hoped for was that they wouldn't totally trash it. Well. They not only did not trash it, they wrote that it read like an "older, Sikh version of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." I was blown. Away.
The 9/11 bit, once I wrote it in, felt SO right and like it belonged to this story, that I was really stuck to keeping it. There was a point in there where my agent thought I should take out some of the race/9-11 parts, or at least lighten them up a little. I felt pretty strongly that the 9/11 bit would stay. It was the one thing I was willing to go to the mat for. Luckily, with my editor, I didn't have to :).
Also, the outcome of the hospital scene was different in an earlier draft. I won't say more to avoid spoilers, but that was a surprise.
What's your writing process and routine like? Do you have any special icons, tools, or other items that are part of that?
I really need quiet and I need no one to be home. Those are my only special requirements. I can write in noisy cafes and libraries, but my best work is when I'm home at my desk and everyone else is out. And there's a steaming mug of something milky and sweet next to me.
After writing, I always do some form of meditation. Most people do theirs before writing, I do mine after. It works for me. But it's an important part of my ritual. It reminds me of why I write and why I do anything, really. And it keeps me grounded in what's true and important. The sales and reviews and recognition is all wonderful . . . but the real reason I do this everyday -- sit down to write -- is to create and make manifest what is unseen and within. That's my job. It's all of our jobs, really. We're all like those light prisms, shining our different colored lights into the world. And if one of those lights doesn't shine, the world is a dimmer, less vibrant place.
The temple scenes were especially gripping, with a You-Are-Here feel, and you are fabulous at setting the scene and sensory details. How do you do that? :-)
Thank you! Those scenes have a special place in my heart, too. I really went there. As I was writing the scene, I was immersed. You do it, too. We all do it when we daydream. We immerse ourselves in this whole other world and everything but our bodies is there. I just do it with a pen in my hand or at a computer. Singers do it with their mouths open and their voices soaring. Dancers do it through their limbs. It's a beautiful thing, and one that our kids aren't encouraged enough to do.
Why do you write? Who do you write for?
I write to connect with people. I write to give the unknowable some form of expression. It feels like such an accomplishment when I find the exact, perfect sentence or word to describe what is inside -- that vast vat of roiling thoughts and emotions, all merging and colliding into a mess within our selves. Trying to pick through all that and give it shape and form and then refine it and polish it and throw it up . . . and hope it grows wings. I think that's why I write, mostly.
It's funny, as I was beginning to type my answer to the second part of this question, I felt my heart fall. I had a flash of insight into why writing might be such a passion for me. My parents didn't speak English when we moved to Canada. So, I became an interpretor at a very young age. I interpreted not only words for my parents, but also culture -- and most of this was as *I* was learning it myself. When I began to answer your question, "Who do you write for?" I almost immediately responded with, "those who can't find the words themselves." And right after that, this memory of translating for my parents. I think part of that is true. I write myself and those I love into existence in a way. Does that make sense? ;-P
Your readers will be surprised to know that....
I used to think I'd be a famous Punjabi folk singer. Everyone is SO lucky I'm not.
Food: rice. samosas.
Song: I love spiritual music, regardless of its origins. Gospel, sufi chants, Muslim prayers, Sikh prayers, Buddhist mantras . . .
Childhood book/story: Loved Rumpelstiltskin, and then Are You There God... and also Tuck, Everlasting. (You didn't think I could really list one, did you?)
Outfit: jeans and a t-shirt.
Birthday: quiet dinner out with Hollis.
What's next for you?
Hopefully lots more writing and connecting with amazing souls out there working, always, to improve themselves and our world :).
And thanks again, for such a lovely book.
Thank YOU! This interview has been a pleasure.