Derek Mascarenhas' debut collection of short fiction, Coconut Dreams (Book*hug), explores the lives of Aiden and Ally Pinto and their family, and connects their world in suburban Ontario with the family’s ancestral village in Goa.
In a starred review, Quill and Quire says “Mascarenhas is brilliant in capturing the first-generation immigrant experience, with attention given to the particularities of being a South Asian kid growing up in a mostly white suburban town. The innocence of childhood is mired in the depths of something unseen but deeply felt.”
Derek Mascarenhas is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program, a finalist and runner-up for the Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, and a nominee for the Marina Nemat Award. His fiction has been published in places such as Joyland, The Dalhousie Review, Switchback, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Antigonish Review. Derek is one of four children born to parents who emigrated from Goa, India, and settled in Burlington, Ontario. A backpacker who has travelled across six continents, Derek currently resides in Toronto. Coconut Dreams is his first book.
THE CHAT WITH DEREK MASCARENHAS
Trevor Corkum: Coconut Dreams is a collection of linked stories following the lives of brother and sister Aiden and Ally Pinto in suburban Ontario. How was the collection born, and why did you decide to tell their story through short fiction?
Derek Mascarenhas: The collection started with the voices of Aiden and Ally. I felt they had unique perspectives that I personally hadn’t seen represented in Canadian literature—specifically the experience of growing up South Asian in a predominantly white suburb. I chose short fiction because it’s an art form I love. A great short story can change someone’s life. Having a linked collection also allowed for the point of view, timeline, and tone to match each story’s needs and be self contained, but then also fit within a larger narrative.
TC: You ground the lives of Aiden and Ally with an historical family story set in Goa several generations earlier. Why was it important to include this historical piece?
DM: Coconut Dreams is bookended by Goa. I thought it was important to give the reader a close-up view of the family’s ancestral home. Goa is popularly known for being a beach vacation and party spot, but there’s a vibrancy in the village life as well. There’s so much going on there that I felt compelled to capture. Later on in the collection, Aiden and Ally struggle because they are both connected and disconnected from this world.
TC: One of the great feats of the stories is how you move back and forth between Ally and Aiden’s perspectives, capturing the nuances of a young girl and young boy entering adolescence and beyond. What particular challenges did you face in terms of manoeuvring through these contrasting points of view?
DM: Thank you—it was something I had to work really hard at. Anyone who has written from children’s points of view knows how difficult it is to get right. Early on, I’d gotten some feedback that Ally and Aiden’s voices sounded similar. They are in very congruent situations, but I tried to draw out some of the differences in their personality, age, reaction to events, and social norms of their gender.
TC: I understand you’re an intrepid backpacker and have travelled to six continents. How has travel shaped how you approach writing fiction?
DM: First off, I’d just like to recognize the privilege of being able to travel, especially as a Canadian citizen. While I saved up for years and left a very good job to make the time to go, not everyone is able to do this for a variety of reasons. So I definitely feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to go on that trip. I kept a journal the whole way, and my travels in India—and in particular, Goa—were so helpful for this book, as a couple of the stories are set there. Getting all of those sensory details of the physical place, as well as the dialogue, traditions, and ways that folks interact gave me so much more confidence setting stories there.
First off, I’d just like to recognize the privilege of being able to travel, especially as a Canadian citizen. While I saved up for years and left a very good job to make the time to go, not everyone is able to do this for a variety of reasons. So I definitely feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to go on that trip."
TC: Finally, this is your first book, Derek. What has the reception been so far and how does it feel to have the collection out in the world?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception. To be honest, one of the first feelings was simply relief. Finally being able to hold the book in my hands—the physical manifestation of what had for so long only existed in my heart and mind (and a small file on my computer)—it was quite surreal. It’s also been so nice to see the book reviewed so generously and hear that readers are connecting with the characters.
Excerpt from “So Far Away”
My aunt Delilah was afraid of men. She had only arrived in Canada at the start of the summer, but it seemed longer than that. My sister and I each had our own rooms before Delilah came to live with us—Ally had to move in and share my room so Delilah could take hers. Ally’s dolls and stuffed animals seemed out of place under my hockey posters and Grade 6 honour-roll plaque. We had to get bunk beds so everything could fit; I took the top bunk at first, but Ally was too scared the bed would break and she’d be crushed, so we switched.
At night, Ally and I could hear Delilah snoring through the drywall. But snoring was better than her staying awake the whole night, as she had when she first arrived. At two in the morning one night she woke up everyone in the house, shouting, “Clara! There’s a man outside! Hurry, bring a stick.” Everyone stumbled downstairs, half-asleep. Mom and Dad crept into the kitchen to look out into the backyard, but they saw nothing. Delilah pointed at her own reflection in the glass sliding doors. “There! Right there.” Mom told Ally and me they don’t have glass doors like that in Goa, and sent us back to bed. The next night Delilah thought there was a man inside our house. She said she had heard a noise coming from the laundry room. Our dryer was old, and the sound probably came from the vent, but Delilah thought a man was hiding in the dryer. She pressed the start button and ran. “If he’s in there, let him spin.”
Eventually, Delilah adjusted to our schedule. Mom helped her get a job at the pharmacy near our house. She was late for her second shift and told the pharmacist that his clock was wrong.
Mom tried to reason with her when she got back. “How can your employer’s clock be wrong? That’s the time you have to go by.”
“The kids must have fiddled with my watch, then. It’s always correct.”
“I have my own watch,” said Ally, and held up her arm. “A Bugs Bunny one.”
“These kids have too much. Do you remember what we had back home? Spoiled rotten.”
Delilah’s Indian accent was much stronger than my parents’, and this sounded like rut-tin. Ally and I thought Delilah was from another planet—we tried to avoid her after she called us that. We hoped she wouldn’t get the time off work to come on vacation with us, but we were out of luck.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.