My Summary: Sam (short for Samar) doesn’t think much about her Punjabi Sikh identity because her mother raised her in a secular environment away from her extended family. However, when her long-estranged uncle appears on their doorstep in the aftermath of 9/11, she begins to explore her heritage and culture.
This book was published in 2009, but it remains relevant as Islamophobic sentiment remains pervasive in the U.S. and other places. Muslims aren’t the only group targeted, anyone who is perceived as Muslim is also implicated. Sikhs fall into this category.
Sam’s uncle Sandeep wears a turban, so racists target him for hate speech and hate crimes. Sam is in the car with him when some boys from her school throw and yell things at him. As a result, she is forced to confront the bigotry of people around her.
It’s during this same time that Sam starts researching and reconnecting with her Punjabi and Sikh culture and heritage and tries to find her place as a South Asian/Indian in U.S. disapora. It’s a very polarizing experience, to put it lightly. On the one hand, white kids have always made fun of her for being brown. On the other, a fellow Indian American calls her a “coconut,” meaning brown on the outside, white on the inside. This type of labeling is familiar to me, as East Asians have our own variant, “banana”/”Twinkie,” for yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The in-group disdain for being too assimilated into white American culture is so real.
Thankfully, Sam has positive experiences to balance out the negative ones. Her uncle is supportive of her journey, and together they visit a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. There, Sam has a very spiritual moment and finds the joy of connecting with tradition and her roots. At school, she gets recommendations for resources from a Sikh classmate and finds online forums where there are people in her same situation.
These changes in her understanding of herself and her world also affect her other relationships with her mother, her white boyfriend Mike, and her white best friend Molly in various ways. Sam’s desire to connect with her extended family creates tension with her mother, who has bad memories involving her parents, Sam’s grandparents, and rejected their religion and culture as a result. Mike turns out to be garbage who laughs at racist jokes and victim-blames Sam for experiencing a hate crime, and most satisfyingly, the narrative drags him for his crap. Molly doesn’t get it at first and throws around the term “reverse racist” (oh, lord), but she reevaluates her position after witnessing the attacks on Uncle Sandeep in person.
One of the great things about this book is that it pulls in so many relevant and important issues. It touches on Japanese American incarceration during World War II as it relates to present-day Islamophobia (though it uses the word “internment,” which is problematic), criticizes stereotypical media representation like Apu from The Simpsons, and explicitly addresses colorism in Indian and South Asian communities. Notably, it points out that distinguishing between Sikhs and Muslims shouldn’t be done as an attempt to “opt out” of the Islamophobic violence while leaving Muslims to take all the hits.
Although this book has its darker moments and tackles serious issues, it ends on a bright and hopeful note. Most of the major conflicts are resolved, and Sam is moving forward with a sense of empowerment and perspective that she lacked in the beginning. The ending echoes the beginning in a way that brings everything full circle, which is my favorite kind of ending.
A few minor things I was not a fan of: One was use of the words “deranged,” “lunatic,” “crazy,” etc. to describe violent and threatening people. The second was a line where a character claims that having sex is what makes girls women since that’s not only sexist but throws asexual people under the bus. There was also use of the word “slutty” a few times. The last was a dialogue where Molly is spouting a bunch of Orientalist stuff about Indian culture, and the narrative doesn’t really directly call it out for what it is.
Recommendation: Recommended for its heartfelt and honest portrayal of the struggles of being in diaspora and fighting racism.