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Interview: Neesha Meminger

August 2nd, 2009 (08:56 pm)
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Neesha Meminger's debut novel, Shine, Coconut Moon, was inspired by both tragedy and triumph, by national events as well as personal ones. In the story, a seventeen-year-old girl's life is forever changed when her uncle appears on her doorstep in attempt to reconnect with her mother, his sister. Though Sam (short for Samar) never really considered nor researched her heritage before, she begins to connect to her roots as she grows closer to her uncle.

Neesha worked on this book for years before it changed from a longtime work-in-progress to a completed manuscript, then a published novel. I learned a great deal more about the book's backstory and Neesha's own life when I interviewed her. She spoke of music, peace, writing, immigrating, and understanding.

Where were you on 9/11?

I was living in Harlem (New York) with my husband and our six-week-old daughter. I was headed downtown, right around what is now referred to as Ground Zero, when the phone rang. It was a dear friend. "Turn on your TV," she said, "the Pentagon is burning, the Twin Towers have been bombed. We are under attack."

I knew from the panic and urgency in her voice that this was no joke. I told my husband to turn on the TV. We were paralyzed with shock, much like the rest of the world. No one knew what was going on. I couldn't get any calls out, but thank goodness my friend somehow managed to reach me. My family in Canada was sick with worry and there was no way we could get in touch with them to let them know we were okay.

I'll never forget cradling my newborn in my arms and being terrified of this new world she had entered.

How soon thereafter did you feel compelled to write Shine, Coconut Moon?

SHINE had always been a work in progress. When I began my first manuscript in graduate school, parts of SHINE were embedded in it. It started as a story about the connections and fissures between three generations of Punjabi, Sikh women. I wanted to explore the complex bonds and rifts that come with generational divides as well as cultural and geographic ones.

After the events of September 11th, 2001, though, I couldn't not include them in this story of a Sikh, Indian-American family. In a post-9/11 world, the physical appearance of Sikh men often draws so much unwanted, negative attention that it would be unrealistic to avoid the issue, even if I wanted to.

It is a part of New York's history and is alive and well in the New York psyche. It is, of course, a painful memory for ALL Americans, but for New Yorkers, that day is significant for many other reasons, as well. Those of us who are old enough to have the images tattooed into our memories know exactly where we were, what we were doing, who we were with, and what we were feeling in those moments and days afterward. It was so, so close to home, and we were shaken in ways most of us had never been shaken before.

What's your heritage? Was your upbringing similar to Sam's?

I was born in India -- rural Punjab, to be precise -- to a Punjabi, Sikh family. My upbringing was similar to Sam's, to her mom's, to her grandmother's, to Uncle Sandeep's, and even to Molly's and Mike's and Bobbi's. :)

I grew up with both parents and was part of the Bridge Generation: we had to bridge old, Eastern world views, language and culture with new, Western values, language and culture. We all did the best we could as "bridges," but something was always lost. There were always painful compromises to negotiate, hostile territory to navigate (on both the private and public fronts), and an entire language to learn -- in all its nuances and complexities.

English was not my first language, I began learning it upon arrival, and I often would translate for my parents who spoke no English at all. I would translate directions from police officers, instructions from appliance manuals, street signs, teacher notes, etc.

Immigrant culture is formed in very similar cycles, whether we're talking about Jewish, Italian, or Irish immigrants in the early 1900s, or Sri Lankan, African, and Vietnamese immigrants of today. The processes of having to learn, let go, and rediscover are the same. That was what I wanted to explore in this story. How those cycles and processes affected this particular family.

At what point in the writing and publishing process did you select and finalize your title?

The story went through a few titles: My Life As a Coconut, Coconut Girl, Coconut Blues. I settled on SHINE, COCONUT MOON because of the scene with Uncle Sandeep where he tells Sam about her blanket. I really loved writing that scene and felt that it captured the essence of the story.

Once SHINE was acquired, there were rumblings of the title being "too romantic" and I was worried the publisher might change it. But after the cover was finalized, those rumblings seemed to subside. Whew! :)

I loved Molly's energy and creativity. Does she resemble any of your friends?

Molly is an amalgamation of many of my closest friends. I was lucky to have wonderful friends as I was growing up (and now!) and I wouldn't be who I am without their support and energy. I'm so glad Molly comes across as a creative and loving spirit.

Sam is surprised by the peace she finds at the gurdwara. Where do you go when you want to find peace?

I write. I always forget how necessary writing is to my soul survival until I'm stressing out and the pressures of Life have pushed me to a boiling point. That's when I start writing, out of sheer desperation, and remember that it has always acted as a balm for me. It truly is a part of my spirituality -- the way all true creative expression can be.

I also find peace in music. Usually spiritual music (of any faith), but really anything that moves me and transports me to a different place. Reading is another source of peace. Reading a work that speaks Truth, in whatever form, is absolutely vital for me.

I guess any kind of creative expression (that is not of the commercial, mass-market variety -- though that does have its place), whether it's me expressing, or being on the receiving end of the expression, is a sort of peace, or spiritual transcendance. When someone creates and you can just feel that they were surfing those ancient waves that connect us all and course through all time . . . that is what reminds me of what is important and what is real and true. And I feel at peace.

Did you ever have a friend or a relative who opened your eyes to culture or to another way of life, as Sam's Uncle Sandeep did?

Hmm, great question. I always feel like I am the one doing the eye-opening that I often forget all the times my eyes have been opened!

I have been lucky to have many friends and loved ones open my eyes to new ways of life. I had a Ukrainian boyfriend who taught me about the history of Ukraine and Ukrainian Easter eggs, an Irish best friend from whom I learned about the struggles of the Irish people, Caribbean friends and lovers who showed me the beauty and resilience of Caribbean peoples -- and, of course, many, many South Asians who taught me (not only about myself, but) about the vast and various South Asian histories, cultures, and peoples of South Asia.

What culture(s) would you love to research? Which (other than your own) do you find the most fascinating? I have always been completely taken with Ancient Egypt, ever since I was little - totally fascinated by every aspect of that life and time.

We must be brain twins! One of my current WIPs (works in progress) is set in ancient Africa, close to Egypt. :) I am utterly and completely fascinated with how Egypt came to be and which cultures contributed to its existence, how life was lived then, what was the cause of its demise -- all on a personal, microcosmic level; not what's in the history books and encyclopedias.

You have been writing since you were a teenager. Did you ever have any jobs, be they interesting or just-to-get-by, that were not related to writing? If so, how did you keep your writing (your dream career) alive while you got through your day job?

I've done all kinds of work, but teaching literature has always been my favorite. It's a great job for a writer because we're always examining and appreciating work that we admire -- work that we are constantly learning from. Because of that, I would go home and feel inspired to write for a couple of hours before turning in (I'm a night owl and couldn't wake up early to save my life).

But before teaching, I worked in many non-profit organizations. I worked at women's shelters, rape and sexual abuse hotlines for teen girls, organizations for AIDS education and support. In non-profits like these, I would get home at the end of the day and have absolutely zero creative energy to work on my own stuff. I had to get out of those highly emotional environments before I could dip into the creative well of my own emotional life.

Are you still actively writing poetry or prose for magazines or other publications, or focusing on novels?

I write poetry for my own amusement, or to get at something that's bothering me that I can't get at any other way. I've written some non-fiction, opinion pieces, or essays for magazines, both online and in print. But my main focus is definitely on writing novels. I really like that particular format because I feel it allows me to really explore layers and complexities in ways that shorter formats don't.

I am working on a novel right now (the aforementioned one set, partly, in ancient Africa) and I have another waiting in the periphery once I'm "finished" with this one. ("Finished" is a loose term -- I don't think any author ever feels fully finished. :-])

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

Thank you SO much for not asking me to pick only one! These are not in any particular order:

1. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
2. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
3. Forever by Judy Blume
4. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger
5. The Outsiders (and anything else by S.E. Hinton)
6. The Free Renunciates Trilogy by Marion Zimmer Bradley
7. Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
8. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
9. Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan
10. Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson
11. All Rivers Flow to the Sea by Alison McGhee
12. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Also, anything by Dorothy Allison, Bell Hooks, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde...(sorry, just so hard to stop once you get going!)

Visit Neesha's website.