This weekend marked nine years since the September 11th attacks, and in so many ways, we're still reeling. It's something I think about often. Something impossible to escape or forget (as it should be). With each passing year, I remember being in New York City that day. Being unable to leave when they shut down all transportation and roads, in or out. Being afraid of what might happen next, what target, what destruction...
But unlike so many others, when the dust cleared, I got to go home that day, alive and unharmed. Unlike so many others, I got to hug my family again and eat ice cream and drink wine and write books. And unlike so many others, in the wake of the attacks and the wars that followed, I've never been harassed or beat up for "looking" like a terrorist, for practicing the "wrong" religion. I've never been eyed up suspiciously in a public place or made to feel uncomfortable or afraid because of my clothing or hairstyle. I've never had to fear for my life because my skin is the wrong shade -- the shade of "the enemy."
The Qu'ran burning fiasco and all the protest over a Muslim temple near the WTC site got me thinking about these things a lot this year, and it gave me a nudge to pick up Neesha Meminger's 2009 debut, SHINE, COCONUT MOON.
The story takes place in the days and months following the 9/11 attacks. Samar Ahluwahlia, known as Sam to her friends, is a seventeen-year-old Sikh Indian teen living in suburban New Jersey with her single mom, a therapist who has all but renounced her own Indian family and culture. When Samar's long lost uncle Sandeep comes back into their lives looking to reconnect, he awakens Samar to a whole new world -- the world of her Sikh Indian cultural and ethnic heritage.
After an Indian girl at school jokingly calls her a coconut -- brown on the outside, white on the inside -- Samar enlists her uncle's help and sets off on a journey of self-discovery, searching for the truth about her family, about her heritage, and about the post-9/11 world in which she's growing up. Though her mother had always tried to shield Samar from the harsh reality -- from encouraging her daughter to essentially shake off the occasional childhood racism and bullying she endured at school to protecting her from her overbearing, judgmental grandparents -- Samar must now confront that reality head on as her turban-wearing Sikh uncle becomes the target of anti-Muslim violence.
While SHINE, COCONUT MOON is not about 9/11 specifically, the story parallels the national tragedy with Samar's personal struggle to find out who she really is in such a heartbreaking, intimate way that it immediately brought me back to the days and weeks following the attacks. Not because of the grand scale of violence and loss of life that day, but because of the people -- the people whose loved ones died and who can never escape their grief. The people who continue to fight in wars overseas, so long and endless. And the people who were and continue to be blamed and attacked or even killed because of how they live their lives in this country -- the so-called "land of the free" -- because of the actions of a few extremists to which they've no connection other than skin color, country of origin, or the name of their religion (and in some cases, like Uncle Sandeep, not even those things).
Now, nine years later, I want to think we're all better for our shared struggles. That we've all learned something about diversity and freedom and connectedness. But when I see things like the Qu'ran burning and the mosque protests, I wonder if that's even possible. I wonder whether 9/11 sparked such hate and fear, or if it just shined a bigger spotlight on stuff that was always there in our world, shoved under the rug until we suddenly had a "common enemy" to fight and a national expectation to take sides.
I don't know the answer, but Uncle Sandeep's words to his niece are a good reminder for all of us as we struggle to figure out who we are and watch our friends and neighbors do the same:
"We're not humans on a spiritual journey, Samar. We are spirits on a human journey. Remember that."
I hope you'll check out SHINE, COCONUT MOON. In the mean time, what are some of your other favorite contemporary stories of self-discovery and cultural heritage?