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Writers Against Racism: Neesha Meminger

Neesha Meminger is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon (Margaret K. McElderry, March 2009). She was born in India, raised in Toronto, and currently lives in New York City. She has taught undergraduate freshmen at college campuses in New York (both public and private), and loves expanding the hearts and minds of readers. 
Authorfoto.MedRez Writers Against Racism: Neesha Meminger

Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.

 

I don’t know if I can do this "briefly" but I will try. Besides the usual slurs, name-calling, bullying, fights in the schoolyard, etc. (which were as much about class as about race), I witnessed my parents being treated like they were children, or at the very least, not the intelligent people I knew them to be. My parents (who spoke very little English) could not ask for directions without breaking into a sweat and/or trembling. Very hard for a child to see their protectors — our main line of defense in this world — reduced in this way.

 

I learned to be afraid of white people (both wealthy and the working class ones in my neighborhood), and "the system." In my very working class, very brown world, this combination of white people and the system held the power to take away a person’s income or home and, sometimes, their children.

 

I saw despair infused into the day-to-day interactions of the adults in my life. My parents, who I believed were heroes and saviours when we lived in India, were rendered completely powerless, and succumbed to shame on a regular basis for not being able to live up to their roles.

 

Within the first two years of moving to Canada, the Sikh temple next door to us was set on fire. It was arson, and the young white boys who were responsible for it lived down the street from us. We continued to live in that apartment after the fire (which had made its way into our home) for a good four months afterward because we didn’t have the money to move. To this day, the smell of burning wood takes me right back to that apartment.

 

Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?

 

Absolutely. We’re all a finely-woven tapestry of our experiences, especially those that leave lasting imprints. All of my fiction features strong women, people of colour, the working class, and LGBTQ characters making choices that eventually lead them to discovering the truth and beauty that is inherent in all of us.

 

When I was teaching, I taught novels and texts that weren’t conventionally taught in post-secondary institutions. I sometimes had to fight to include certain texts, and (luckily) I was almost always given the green light. The ones I had to fight to include invariably ended up the most popular with my students.

 

In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?

 

Two ways: 1) To provide insight into an "other" experience; and 2) to open the imagination to new possibilities.

 

On the first: reading about cultures that are "other" to a reader brings that reader into a world they may not otherwise give more than a passing thought to. It is immediate, it is intimate, detailed, and emotional. It is a journey. And through this journey, the reader eventually discovers that what is universal is human thought and emotion. What pulls us into a story is the emotional journey, the protagonist fighting the good fight–one we can all relate to–and coming out in the end, deeply changed, usually for the better.

9781416954958 Writers Against Racism: Neesha Meminger 

Writers who write race, gender, class, sexuality, and the "other" experiences consciously, reshape the world we live in to reflect a certain sensibility. This sensibility positions the "other" smack dab in the middle of the narrative rather than on the fringe or in the margins. This, in itself, is quite radical, given the mainstream depictions of what is desirable, what is to be aspired to, and what is valuable.

 

In my experience, such texts in the classroom (where the "other" is repositioned to the center), generate interesting discussion and debate and ultimately create a dynamic learning environment. Students who resist such a repositioning of the "other" meet and engage with students for whom seeing such a repositioning is a lifeline. Sometimes emotions run high. But in the hands of a qualified, steady facilitator who is able to create a positive, safe discussion space, insights can be profound and life-changing for everyone involved.

 

Literature, film, and art, in general, are invaluable and critical lenses when looking at such cultural/social constructs as "mainstream" and "other" — which is what race is. Art is the solid, physical manifestation of the imagination, and that is what, as educators, we strive to expand in our students.

 

More information, and a discussion guide for SHINE, COCONUT MOON, is available online at www.NeeshaMeminger.com.

Comments

  1. Zetta says:

    I’m Canadian, and grew up experiencing racism, too, so I *really* admire Neesha for speaking openly about the hatred directed at her, her family, and the members of her community. Canada believes itself to be “multicultural,” but that doesn’t mean life is easy for people of color up there. And everyone should go get a copy of Shine, Coconut Moon b/c it’s amazing…it brought tears to my eyes more than once.

  2. Amy Bowllan says:

    Please have the publisher send me a copy of Shine, Coconut Moon!

    I grew up in a black community and the racism w/i our own community was palpable. Actually, when we ventured into white communities there was very little talk about “nappy” hair and “light” skin. So I in turn, felt more comfortable NOT being in the “hood”.

    However, there were a few instances when racism’s ugly head came up with whites, asians, and latinos, who I felt, as a kid, were taught that blacks in America should not be trusted. Oftentimes, they were far more suspicious and brow beating than whites.

    These experiences are so healthy to bring to the forefront. I wonder what young people, today, would classify as discrimination/racism.

  3. Laura says:

    This is so thoughtfully expressed, from the horror of the fire you describe to the transformative power of imagination. I especially appreciate your description of using books in the classroom that reposition the ‘other’ from outside to inside. Will keep that clarity in mind for future teaching. I definitely have to read Shine, Coconut Moon! Has it been published in the UK?

  4. Neesha Meminger says:

    Zetta, thank you so much for your lovely words. And being a Canadian PoC (in the US?) is a funny thing, isn’t it? Lots to compare and contrast!

    Amy, thank you so much for providing a space to share my thoughts, and for doing this series. Please send me your mailing address (my contact info is on my site) and I will absolutely ask my publicist to send you a copy. I, too, think the whole “horizontal discrimination/racism” thing needs more discussion and dialogue. When I left Toronto to move to NYC (yikes–that was about fifteen years ago!), we’d just begun doing some of that much-needed bridge-building across cultures and other systemic divisions (such as sexuality, gender, class, etc.).

    Laura, SHINE has not yet been published in the UK. But the US edition seems to be available online. I hope you’re able to find a copy :) . Thank you, as well, for your kind words.

    Warmly,
    Neesha

  5. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, all of these heart-wrenching stories need to be in a collection of essays. No one should ever be subjected to this kind of hate-mongering. As my NIGHT FIRES editor said, “None of this should even be a part of the 2009 landscape.” Unfortunately, it is, and, if anything, it seems to be getting worse. Netta’s comment the other day that pictures of lynchings can actually excite people made me sick to my stomach. What makes these arrogant, vapid human beings think the color of their skin trumps everything else in life?

  6. Ari says:

    I never knew racisim was so bad in Canada. Thank you Amy for creating this wonderful sereis of Writers Aganist Racism. And thank you Neesha for sharing you story.
    I completely agree with the way you see literature increasing tolerance. It offers people a way to learn about other experiences (as Shine, Coconut Moon did for me about the Sikh culture!) and it does open the imagination.

  7. B Herrera says:

    There are so many books which can teach tolerance. Last year our group brought Gerda W. Klein to town after thousands had read her book, All But My Life. Although she is in her eighties, the young people fell in love with her and her message of getting involved, recognizing how joyful life can be, and accepting others. My class read Dark Hours, about a young German girl during the last days of the World War. My students realized that everyone suffered from hatred and war. They had never thought of how the innocent suffered on the other side too. When they read about the blind hatred expressed toward people because of their race, religion or nationality, they begin discussing similar incidents in their own lives. This connection makes the issue of discrimination into a personal problem and they work to solve it. After reading Night, my freshmen created a Tolerance Zone on campus, where “everyone is allowed to relax, free from hatred, bullying or teasing.” They leave their prejudices outside the zone. Hopefully, that zone will expand to include the entire world. But that can’t happen if we are not allowed to include books which create empathy, something which is often left out in our children’s advanced technological, yet deprived social world. Prejudice, descrimination and hatred are often based on fear of the unknown and cannot be cured without education which fills in the blanks and allows students to express their strongest emotions in a safe and positive environment.

  8. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    Thank you Neesha for your brilliant words. I would have loved to have had ONE teacher like you and hope every person in North America gets to read SHINE, COCONUT MOON.

  9. Zetta says:

    I just posted my review of Shine, Coconut Moon at:

    zettaelliott.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/shine-coconut-moon/

  10. tanita says:

    It’s a tricky thing, to deliberately place the “other” in the center of things. It doesn’t always go well, but Neesha is right, it very much can be done in such a way as facilitates conversation and intelligent discovery. I can’t wait to read her book.