By Shailee Koranne
Image Courtesy of Book*hug
Published by Book*hug Press in 2019, Coconut Dreams explores the lives of the Pinto family through seventeen linked short stories.
In Coconut Dreams, a boy exposes his town priest’s crimes through a thrilling series of events; a widow reflects on a romantic safari trip while watching The Lion King; a dog mauls a man who accuses a brown boy of stealing. Derek Mascarenhas’ debut fiction short story collection is almost genre-less, effortlessly incorporating elements of mystery, romance, drama, fantasy, and more. The thread connecting the seventeen stories is the Pinto family, who immigrated from India to Ontario. From parents Felix and Clara to siblings Ally and Aiden, Mascarenhas takes on multiple distinct voices in order to tell emotional and engaging stories centred mostly on the experiences of South Asians in Canada.
Most of Mascarenhas’ characters grow up in relative safety and comfort, but this does not protect them from bullying and other violent incidents that “other” them at school and in their daily lives. Mascarenhas offers a refreshing statement on this in an interview with CBC books, acknowledging that his characters are both marginalized and privileged in some ways. Indeed, Coconut Dreams does not represent all South Asian people in Canada, and it doesn’t intend to —the community is much too big and complex to be painted with such a broad brush. Still, it serves as a reassuring read as Mascarenhas moves carefully through stories recounting familiar experiences for many racialized immigrants, ranging from invasive questions about our backgrounds to the perception of us as dangerous.
In one story, “Fallen Leaves”, the character Aiden—who we’ve gotten to know and might feel invested in—is pressured into stealing snacks from an unattended food stall. After Aiden and his friends feast on their stolen treats and play in a pile of leaves, they are confronted by the owner of the stall, who violently accuses Aiden of being the mastermind behind the theft. “He turned to me and said, ‘This was your idea, wasn’t it?’ His eyes held so much hate. I managed to shake my head, but it wasn’t enough.” writes Mascarenhas.
He captures the chilling way an unexpected racist interaction can suspend you in a moment, causing you to freeze as you try to understand what’s happening.
While representing many difficult experiences, Mascarenhas refuses to portray the lives of South Asian immigrants as wholly dismal. When diaspora-focused writing and media entombs itself in sorrow, violence, and pity, questions of whether the text is for folks from the diaspora itself, or if the text exists to serve as educational for white readers are inevitable. On the other hand, we also see many texts centre the feelings of white readers at the expense of oversimplifying the messy facts that would make them uncomfortable. Coconut Dreams understands that lessons can be learned from joy but doesn’t hold back on any challenging truths, making the book a truly satisfying for people in the South Asian diaspora, while also serving as an edifying read for people who cannot immediately relate to the stories.
Coconut Dreams is representational for South Asian immigrants, but it soars through themes of love, loss, family, adolescence, grief, and more. Much like how Mascarenhas moves seamlessly through many genres, he covers many topics with the same ease, letting us look in on his characters’ inner thoughts, and making us gently feel what they feel. Attention to detail and emotion also comes through the way Mascarenhas describes lush, vibrant Goa and reticent, everyday Burlington; he envelopes you in his settings so you feel immersed in his stories, making every big twist or turn an affective moment for the reader.
Mascarenhas has said that he wants South Asians to feel seen in his work and I trust that they will, as I did, but there is something for every reader in this book. With Coconut Dreams, Derek Mascarenhas has proven himself to be a voice to watch in CanLit.
Shailee Koranne is a culture writer and communications student with work published in VICE, Bitch Media, Canadaland, and other places. Find her on Twitter @shaileekoranne.