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  • Title: Coconut Dreams
  • Author: Derek Mascarenhas
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Book*hug
  • Pages: 264

There’s a nice symmetry to Derek Mascarenhas’s story collection Coconut Dreams. The final, titular story echoes certain elements introduced in the first: monkeys on a roof, a coconut tree-climbing boy. The repetition signals that for Aiden, the protagonist of “Coconut Dreams,” his journey to Goa is supposed to represent a return.

Yet if this is meant to be a homecoming, it is a somewhat frustrated one: 60 years separate “The Call of the Bell,” the first story, and “Coconut Dreams,” and Canadian-born-and-raised Aiden learns the Goa he visits in 2006 is different from the idea of Goa he formed from an earlier generation’s stories.

I’m talking about this story collection like it’s a novel, because Coconut Dreams nudges me in that direction. Some collections are only very loosely linked – by place or recurring objects or narrative conceit, for example. Whereas each of Mascarenhas’s stories relate in some way to the Pinto family: Felix and Clara, who met as children in Goa, and their own children, Aiden and Ally, as they grow up in Burlington, Ont. The stories also follow a largely chronological order, tagged by year. “The Call of the Bell” opens in 1946 with the legend of Felix’s birth, followed by a formative experience around his 12th birthday. The rest of the book ranges between the years 1994 and 2006, when Aiden and Ally are children to young adults.

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Admittedly, the line differentiating linked stories from novels can sometimes be blurry (and further smudged by publisher marketing departments, which sometimes favour the label “novel” whether it applies or not). To illustrate the difference, let’s take a look at two comparable titles to Coconut Dreams. Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You, published last year, is linked stories, each following a neighbour in a Scarborough subdivision in the late 1970s and early 80s. Catherine Hernandez’s 2017 book Scarborough, which follows a single focal character for each chapter, has a similar feel to a collection like Mascarenhas’s or Leung’s. Scarborough is called a novel, though, which I think is right, because if you isolated any of its chapters it could almost work on its own, but without that gem-like quality of a true short story.

There’s another reason I want to group these books together since all three could fall within the baggy term “diasporic fiction” – containing characters who are first- or second-generation Canadian – although they seem to me a new wave of writing in the genre, much more rooted in their Canadian setting. Coconut Dreams is markedly different from the calcified tropes of (some) South Asian diasporic lit that Naben Ruthnum derides in his 2017 book-length essay Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race – strict, abusive fathers and silent mothers, a spiritually unfulfilling life in the West that can only be rectified by return to the homeland on the subcontinent.

In Mascarenhas’s stories, there is no real sense that home life is isolated from the outside world: Felix is a caring father who makes friends at work and Clara is an outgoing mother who in Canada trains to recertify as a teacher. The Pintos are Catholic, like roughly a quarter of Goans today (the result of being a longstanding Portuguese colony, which India did not annex until 1961) – Ally and Aiden attend Catholic schools in Burlington. Their world is one of paper routes, soccer games, snow sledding and school lunches of chapatti-and-peanut-butter sandwiches (“East meets West,” Clara says). Some of the most poignant scenes in the book are their moments of concern for Southern Ontario flora and wildlife.

The place where their parents grew up is a source of curiosity for Aiden and Ally – a young Aiden insists they hang above their couch a framed photo of a Goan beach – but Clara is clear: life in Canada is better. The extent of the family’s integration places the emphasis on race: the Pintos are the sole brown family in a sea of white. If either child feels alienated from Canadian life, it’s not because they have a mystical connection to a place that, in Ally’s case, she’s never even visited. It’s Canadian racism that makes them feel this difference: the schoolyard bully who pushes Ally to the ground and rips the boots from her feet to see her brown toes; the full-grown adult man who grabs Aiden by the neck and threatens to deport him.

It’s not until the final story that identity becomes a question in Mascarenhas’s book. “Coconut Dreams” is the story where the author most directly comments on that idea of India formed through books about family nostalgia: the thing Salman Rushdie called the “India of the mind” gets bloodied and bruised by the India of real life. Primed for his journey by such novels as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Aiden opens this story with the words “Four days in Goa nearly killed me.” Aiden does make a connection, but what that is, you’ll have to read to find out.

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