Books·How I Wrote It

Why Derek Mascarenhas wrote a short story collection about growing up South Asian in Canadian suburbia

Coconut Dreams is 17 linked stories that explore the South Asian immigrant experience in Canada.
Coconut Dreams is a short story collection by Derek Mascarenhas. (Book*hug, derekmascarenhas.ca)

Coconut Dreams is the debut short story collection by Toronto writer Derek Mascarenhas. The book follows the lives of one family through a series of 17 linked stories.

The fictional Pinto family immigrated from Goa, India to suburban Canada; the book paints a portrait of what it's like to bring your family to a new and foreign country and to create a new identity, both as individuals and as a family.

Mascarenhas spoke to CBC Books about how he wrote Coconut Dreams.

Writing the story he wanted to read

"I wanted to write Coconut Dreams because, like many other immigrant families who grew up in Canada, I didn't feel it  was represented in the stories I was exposed to in schools and libraries.

"Coconut Dreams is set in the world that my siblings and I grew up in, in that time and place. But the stories are definitely fiction. I think my characters have unique perspectives. They're born in Canada, but they grew up racialized and in a very white town. They learn how difficult and challenging that can be to navigate."

Being 'the other' in a Canadian suburb

"There's a number of contrasts that I explore in this book. The siblings in Coconut Dreams are, in some ways, very privileged. They're growing up in a quiet suburb that is relatively safe, especially compared to some other neighbourhoods where immigrants sometimes live. They also grew up in a house where there's a lot of love and they are supported.

I believe that these stories are important and they need to be told.

"The flipside is when they step outside of their home. When they go to school, they are constantly being othered and feel they have to walk on eggshells in certain situations. They have to be in tune to those power dynamics and find ways to cope or mitigate that where they can."

Creating connection through fiction

"I believe that these stories are important and they need to be told. My hope is this book helps others feel less alone, that they can connect with those characters.

"I don't think that's necessarily limited to immigrant families. A lot of people who have been marginalized in some way can connect with those feelings, whether it's to do with mental health challenges, disabilities, religious beliefs, gender or sexual orientation. It's that feeling of alienation."

The writing space

"My space is pretty much my home. I also like coffee shops and sometimes the library. Occasionally if I wake up at night, I'll write in bed. 

To me, success is the opportunity to connect with people that feel the same way as my characters.​​​​

"I often have a song on repeat when I write. The song changes depending on what gets stuck in my head or what captures that feeling. But sometimes it'll be hours or days, or even weeks or months. I guess there's something about that circularity of it. It just keeps going, it just helps me focus.

"Eventually the song you start off with feels vivid. Then it fades into the background and it allows you to channel that into the story."

Defining success

"I think my idea of success changed. Early on, success was getting my stories published, and then getting my book published. I realize that's a very narrow definition. I don't feel writing has to be published to be successful. There's value in creating art for everyone."

Derek Mascarenhas's comments have been edited for clarity and length. You can check out more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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