NOTE: This novel contains explicit language and mature themes.
Background to the text
Set in the Western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta at the end of the 1990s, The Coconut Children is a coming of age story that follows Sonny Vuong and Vincent Tran as they navigate their final years of secondary school. Both Sonny and Vince are children of Vietnamese immigrants, growing up in the shadow of their parents’ pain and sacrifice as the cycle of intergenerational trauma is enacted daily. The novel offers ample scope for students to connect with and reflect upon their own life experiences, particularly if they are children of immigrants who have been displaced from their cultures and uprooted from their homelands.
While at first glance The Coconut Children appears to be a teenage romance set against a dark backdrop, there is much more to the story, and it warrants a number of content warnings. Vivian Pham does not shy away from the harsh realities of Sonny and Vince’s home lives. She homes in on the minutiae of life in a suburb where drug dealing, crime and addiction are visible on the streets, and where domestic violence is commonplace. Overall, however, Pham offers the reader hope, particularly through Vince’s metamorphosis as he comes to realise that the cycle of violence must end with him. Both Sonny and Vince dare to dream of lives beyond the walls of their cramped homes, uplifting the reader with a sense of anticipation and promise.
Be aware of the following triggers so that you can manage them for yourself and your students (the trauma-informed Berry Street Education Model provides practical examples to support the teaching of challenging content):
- animal cruelty
- drug dealing
- domestic violence
- sexual violence
- profane language
- intergenerational trauma
It is also possible that some of your students may have adopted racist ideas in their personal lives and will bring these into the classroom. It is important to establish an environment at the outset where negative and/or racist commentary is not tolerated. Likewise, it may be helpful to unpack the idea of unconscious biases before moving into studying the text.
Understanding the history of Vietnamese immigration to Australia will provide some context for the deep-seated intergenerational trauma in both Sonny and Vince’s families. As a class, brainstorm reasons why people leave their home to live in a new country. Have students examine Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data relating to international and internal migration. Compare the Vietnamese migration figures with those of other countries to build a picture of Australia’s role in accepting refugees after the Vietnam War. Other useful resources include the SBS Cultural Atlas (see population statistics and Vietnamese in Australia) and ABC News’ timeline of Vietnamese immigration to Australia (1975–2011 only).
As a class, read some quick facts about Vietnam and a summary of the Vietnam War (an overview of communism in Vietnam would also be useful here). Invite students to think-pair-share to identify elements of the Vietnam War that increased the exodus of Vietnamese people from their country. Add any new ideas from this discussion to the whiteboard.
Show students the short video entitled ‘Cuc Lam’s Suitcase’. Use the accompanying classroom activities to build knowledge about the Vietnam War and its influence on the refugees who arrived in Australia.
Once students understand the factors that drove Vietnamese refugees from their home, discuss what they know about so-called ‘boat people’. Read the National Museum of Australia’s account of the first Vietnamese boat arrivals in Darwin Harbour in 1976. Discuss how the refugees are portrayed in the text, and how Australians are said to have reacted. Compare this with reports of negative public sentiment in the same period (see para. 15–16, 22–32). Media representation of the refugees’ plight contributed to the way they were received in local communities. For many years following the Vietnam War, Vietnamese people were often stereotyped as violent and untrustworthy, and this fed into the prejudice and racism that many of them experienced.
Introduce students to The Boat, a powerful interactive graphic novel adapted from Nam Le’s award-winning collection of the same name. This can be augmented with the accompanying SBS Learn resource, and the Reading Australia unit for Le’s original text.
The Boat was adapted for SBS by Matt Huynh using illustrations, real video footage, music, sound effects and captions. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old Mai, whose family sends her on a boat to escape the North Vietnamese Army and the hardships imposed by a communist regime. Although Mai’s destination is not explicit, her journey parallels that of the millions of Vietnamese people who fled their homeland for countries like Australia from the late 1970s until the 1990s. This text provides students with insights into the experiences of Vietnamese refugees and gives context to both Sonny and Vince’s family history in The Coconut Children.
Invite students to explore The Boat. The interactive format is best experienced on individual devices. Viewing can be self-paced to allow students to engage with the different modes of the text in their own time. They will require headphones so they can listen to the audio, though captions are also provided.
After viewing, discuss students’ initial reactions to Mai’s experience. Unpack the different emotions that are elicited from the viewer over the course of the story. Introduce Maslow’s extended hierarchy of needs, which adds three extra tiers to the original five-tier model. This framework is useful for students to understand what basic human needs must be satisfied before other levels of need can be accessed, and before a person can move beyond surviving to thriving in the world. They can then complete the worksheet about Mai’s experiences on the boat (PDF, 106KB) to consider which of her needs are/are not met on her journey.
Ask students to reflect on the following questions:
- Which (if any) basic human needs are met during Mai’s escape from Vietnam?
- In what ways will Mai’s experiences on the boat impact her new life?
- How can her new country help her to heal from the trauma of her journey?
- What resources and support will she need?
The history of Cabramatta
In the 1970s, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser made the landmark decision to open Australia’s borders to thousands of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their homeland after the war. The tumultuous years that followed frame much of the background to The Coconut Children.
Ask students to complete a jigsaw activity to fill in any remaining gaps around the novel’s context. Divide the class into three groups and allocate each group one of the following questions (i.e. pieces of the jigsaw):
- What was the White Australia policy? How did this affect prevailing attitudes at the time?
- How did the influx of Vietnamese refugees change the suburb of Cabramatta?
- How did Australia’s first political assassination in Cabramatta affect the Vietnamese population?
Give each group a large sheet of paper to encourage them to write as much as they can about their allocated question. Students should conduct research (the Dictionary of Sydney may be useful here) and share their findings with their peers as part of the jigsaw.
Cabramatta in the 1990s
Introduce students to Cabramatta, an autobiographical and interactive comic by the same artist who adapted The Boat. In this text, Matt Hyunh shares his experiences growing up in what was previously considered Australia’s heroin capital. The confronting depictions of a dark and dangerous suburb provide a realistic backdrop to the events in The Coconut Children. Establishing this context is essential to students’ understanding of what life was like in Cabramatta in the late 1990s. Huynh does not glamourise or condone the drug use/dealing that he witnessed, but rather shares brutally honest insights into the Cabramatta of his childhood.
As a class, discuss some contemporary examples of groups of people who have experienced OR are currently experiencing marginalisation and prejudice. Help students to make connections with the underlying attitudes that fuel these behaviours, and how they are perpetuated over time.
Invite students to explore Cabramatta. The interactive format is best experienced on individual devices, but as the contents may be confronting, teacher supervision is highly recommended. Viewing can be self-paced to allow students to engage with the different modes of the text in their own time. They will require headphones so they can listen to the audio, though captions are also provided.
- I thought …
- I liked …
- I wondered …
- I felt …
Once they have shared some responses, students can return to the comic to select the panel that they think best encapsulates Huynh’s feelings about Cabramatta. They will then select three words that best describe this depiction. Invite students to share their ideas with the class.
The impacts of intergenerational trauma are central to The Coconut Children. There are many similarities between Huynh’s depiction of life in Cabramatta and Sonny and Vince’s lives in the novel. These characters come from volatile homes shaped by their parents’ and grandparents’ traumatic experiences of war, violence, poverty and displacement. The extent of parental communication, and the overall functionality of the family, appear to be important factors in transmitting trauma. Pham’s protagonists are products of dysfunctional households where reactions to trauma are expressed in very different ways.
Common symptoms of intergenerational trauma may include (but are not limited to):
- lack of trust
- inability to connect with others
- low self-esteem
- substance abuse
- difficulty regulating aggression
- extreme reactions to stress
As a class, read Dr Lien Pham’s blog post about the effects of collective trauma on an entire generation of Vietnamese diaspora. The post discusses the reality of living as a refugee in Australia and the toll this takes on family members across generations. Dr Pham acknowledges that the prevalence of intergenerational trauma in refugee communities is seldom discussed and often misunderstood. Novels like The Coconut Children redress this silence, even if in a small way.
The intergenerational trauma that Pham writes about impacts every facet of her characters’ lives, and it is important to understand how this plays out in their behaviour, attitudes and actions.
Before delving into the representation of intergenerational trauma in The Coconut Children, invite students to consider other examples of trauma that has been passed down from one generation to the next. A significant Australian example would be the Stolen Generations.
As a class, access the Healing Foundation resources about the impact of intergenerational trauma on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Select a case study to read together and discuss how intergenerational trauma has been experienced by the survivor.
Personal response on reading the text
Students are to set up a double-entry journal that they will fill in as they read The Coconut Children. They will do so by ruling pages in half, labelling one side ‘In the Text’ and the other ‘My Connections’, and making notes about what happens and how they react. If your class requires scaffolding, you could read the novel aloud together in short bursts, discuss the events, then have students add to their notes. You could also provide some prompts to help them focus on their personal reactions to the text.
Once students have finished reading the novel, they can write a reflection on the part they most connected with, and the character they most identified with OR who reminded them of someone in their own lives. As the novel refers to episodes of sexual assault and domestic violence, it may be prudent to remind students of your role as the teacher (i.e. mandatory reporter) and provide contact details for counsellors, Lifeline, and local sexual assault support services/domestic violence hotlines so students can reach out if the novel brings up any issues for them.
The title of the novel: a metaphor
Like its characters, the title of The Coconut Children is complex and contradictory. Sonny’s father uses this term to explain migration (p. 99); his theory is that coconut trees lean over bodies of water so that the coconuts can drop down and be carried elsewhere to grow. On the one hand, this metaphor invites the reader to view ‘coconut children’ as a term of endearment: a promise that children can move on to grow and flourish. On the other hand, the image is tinged with loss, as the young are uprooted from their natural surroundings – where everything is familiar and safe – and forced to start over, just as ba has.
Be mindful that the word ‘coconut’ is sometimes used as an ethnic slur levelled at people from minority backgrounds. It is possible that some of your students have used this term outside the classroom; refer to the previous discussion about establishing a safe learning environment free of derogatory language.
As a class, read the explanation about coconut trees on p. 99 (from when Sonny’s father first mentions them to the bottom of the page).
Invite students to share their ideas about the meaning of the book’s title. Have them draw a picture that represents the ‘coconut children’ as described by Sonny’s father. Reflect on different ways that the title may be interpreted, including the need to escape, the potential for change, or the idea of being separated. Ask students to consider their own personal experiences of migration or change, such as changing school or moving to a different house, state or country. What do they think the metaphor of ‘coconut children’ represents in the context of the novel?
Traditions, customs and foods
Pham weaves many aspects of Vietnamese culture into the narrative, giving readers an authentic sense of life growing up in a family with strong ties to its cultural heritage. When Sonny and Oscar arrive home from school each day, they are greeted with lucky red and gold envelopes on the windows and doors and a shrine in the hallway. Their mother cooks relentlessly, preparing meals that offer familiarity and comfort and bring Vietnamese flavours to the dinner table.
In small groups, students will share some of the traditions, customs or foods from their cultural background (alternatively, they could discuss customs or foods that have special significance in their family or community). Once they have had some time for discussion, they can answer the following questions independently:
- Which traditions, customs or foods are important in your family/community/culture?
- Think of a special celebration that is part of your family/community/culture.
- Write a short sensory paragraph (i.e. appealing to sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, feelings) about this celebration.
- What makes this celebration so special?
Have students reflect on their own family and how the passing down of traditions and customs makes them feel about their heritage. Expand on any responses that centre on difference, stereotypes, being misunderstood, or feeling like an outsider. Invite students to explore how they have been shaped by their own families and cultures, and to consider whether they will carry their inherited practices into adulthood.
Caught between two worlds: cultural hybridity
On p. 242, Vince reveals that he thinks in English rather than in Vietnamese (para. 5). Cultural hybridity is an important idea in the novel; Pham reveals both the strengths and challenges of living in a multicultural society, and how some people can remain connected to their heritage while others struggle to bridge distance or time.
Pham sprinkles Vietnamese words and phrases throughout the novel. This is a deliberate strategy that impacts the way readers engage with the text. The language shifts create occasional gaps in understanding for English language readers; this mirrors the experience of non-Anglophone and multilingual readers, who often navigate two languages and worlds simultaneously.
Invite multilingual students to share their observations on switching between languages, and how they feel when using their preferred language. Are there any words from other languages that they use even when speaking English? Students can share some of these words. Why do they think people often exchange or borrow words from different languages?
As a class, identify some of the Vietnamese words/phrases that appear repeatedly throughout The Coconut Children. Record these in a table on the whiteboard and have students research their English equivalents (these have been added to the exemplar below). They can then record the same words/phrases in their first language, or another language that they might know.
|grandmother (mother’s side)
Have students reflect on the reasons Pham incorporates Vietnamese into the novel, with a view to understanding what this adds to the reader’s experience. Consider the role of an authentic voice in the text; the sense of being torn between two cultures; and the feelings evoked when you do not understand the language being spoken around you. What connections can students make between the experience of reading this novel, with its possible breaks in comprehension, and what they know or have learned about the experiences of immigrants?
The migrant experience
Support students, through a class discussion, to make some general reflections and observations about:
- the role of sharing stories in maintaining connections to home
- the passing on of language, beliefs, recipes and religion to one’s children
- how immigrants form connections with/in their new countries
- what emotions immigrants might experience when they settle in a new country
Consider the importance of shared experiences in expressing identity and maintaining connections to culture/family history. Have students brainstorm the stories that are important and recurrent in their families. These could be:
- stories about how their family came to live in Australia
- things that their parents remember their elders telling them (‘Dad always used to say …’)
- important recipes that have been handed down through generations
- stories about how their parents or grandparents met
- stories about an ancestor who served in a war
- stories about family members who escaped war
Discuss the importance of oral history in maintaining and building culture and identity. Make connections to the ways First Nations peoples use oral storytelling to impart wisdom from one generation to the next. Introduce students to yarning circles and discuss how dialogue shared in this space helps to build respectful relationships and preserve cultural knowledge.
Ask students to consider their own cultural background(s) and the ways they have learned about their family and histories. They should then use a digital storytelling tool, such as Google Slides, to record and share part of their own personal story with the rest of the class.
Before commencing your Close Study, use a tool like Padlet to facilitate a class brainstorm about the key themes, ideas and issues presented in the text. Allow time for students to record questions under each theme and to group similar ideas together.
Examples of key themes, ideas and issues include:
- coming of age
- cultural identity
- the migrant experience
- intergenerational trauma
Engage students in a four corners activity so they can develop their own stance on some of the ideas from the novel. Using the notes from the class Padlet, construct some general statements that invite students to take a position on a given issue. Allocate different sections of the room to the following positions: ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘disagree’, and ‘strongly disagree’. Project the statements onto the whiteboard and ask students to move to the spot that reflects their own view. You can then call on them to give their reasoning.
Statements for this activity could include:
- Friends are more important than family.
- The cycle of intergenerational trauma is difficult to break.
- The migrant experience is often negative.
- Children do not appreciate the sacrifices made by their parents.
- Once a criminal, always a criminal.
You can prompt students to elaborate on their positions with the following questions:
- Can we add anything to what has just been said?
- Tell us more about that.
- Give us some reasons for why you think that.
- Let’s sum up what we have heard.
Although the novel is written in the third person, much of the narrative is driven by Sonny’s internal monologue. Sonny – along with her brother, parents and grandmother – provides insight into the ways that intergenerational trauma is enacted and perpetuated in some immigrant families. Vince’s family reflects a similar reality, but with very different consequences. Other important characters include Sonny’s best friend Najma, who is on her own journey of self-discovery; and Vince’s friends Alex, Danny and Tim Tam, who have also had difficult childhoods, and who act as another family when Vince feels that he has been rejected by his own.
Noteworthy characters have been listed below.
(Sonny’s best friend)
(Sonny’s rival at school)
(Vince’s best friend)
Distribute the character and theme table (PDF, 95KB) so that students can build their knowledge of the characters and themes in the text (they can insert their own examples, if they wish). Once everyone has completed their tables, invite them to share their responses with the rest of the class.
Get students to pair up so you can allocate a different character to each pair. On a large piece of paper, students will draw an outline of their assigned character’s body. They will then annotate the different parts as follows:
|What are they thinking?
|What feelings do they experience?
|What do they do? How do they act?
|What do they say? How do they relate to others?
|What do they see? What views do they have about the world?
|How do they move around in the world?
Each pair will present their work to the class. Display the outlines in the classroom for future reference.
Before diving into The Coconut Children, ask students to find a digital version of a book they have read at school (or in their own time). Discuss how the cover may have influenced their initial impressions of the text before they even opened it.
Now draw students’ attention to the cover of The Coconut Children. It is quite abstract; its connection to the narrative may not be immediately obvious.
As a class, begin to unpack the cover design by discussing the following questions:
- What do you think the design represents?
- Why do you think the colours red, orange and yellow have been used?
- What kind of reader is being targeted with this design?
Direct students to The Coconut Children’s book page on Penguin Random House Australia’s website. Ask them to compare the details between different formats and editions of the novel (they can open the book club notes to see an earlier iteration, and even look at the original design for The Coconut Children novella released by Sydney Story Factory). They should:
- identify any additions or deletions to the covers
- note any changes to the colour palette
- record any differences between the fonts
Ask students to consider how the changes to the cover might influence a reader’s initial engagement with the text. Refer to the elements and principles of design to give students a metalanguage for discussing the illustrations and formatting (Canva’s comprehensive guide may be useful here).
Nirvana Watkins developed a template for analysing cover art (PDF, 117KB) as part of her Reading Australia resource on The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling. Students can use it to analyse the cover of The Coconut Children once their knowledge and understanding of the novel’s ideas and themes has been developed.
The class will be tasked with creating a ‘website’ that captures the history of Vietnamese immigration to Australia.
In groups of two to three, students will select and research ONE of the following topics:
- The Vietnam War
- Communism in Vietnam
- Vietnamese boat arrivals
- The White Australia policy
- The opening of Australia’s borders in the 1970s
- Australia’s first political assassination (background and fallout)
- The suburbs where Vietnamese refugees settled in Australia
- Australia’s attitudes towards Vietnamese refugees
- How Vietnamese refugees shaped their new communities
They will then use this research to create content for the website, such as:
- a blog post
- an article
- a timeline
- a report
- an interview (script)
Each group will produce 500 words of content (accompanied by images, if appropriate) that addresses their selected topic. They will then upload their work to a collaborative digital space.
The writer’s craft
Text structures, language features and literary devices
An epigraph often gives readers a sense of what the text will be about and hints at its major themes. Pham includes two quotes in the epigraph to her novel: one from Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyū, and another from American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin (taken from his novel Giovanni’s Room). You can find these quotes on the pages prior to the prologue.
It may be common for students to skip the epigraph when they begin reading a new text. Discuss the role of this feature and ask students to consider how it can frame a text. Explore the quotes from Ikkyū and Baldwin, brainstorming any ideas that they present and discussing whether these are explored in the novel.
Prologue and epilogue
Consider the following questions regarding Pham’s decision to frame her narrative with a prologue and epilogue:
- The Prologue (pp. xi–xii) consists of an appeal from Sonny to her ancestors. How does this foreshadow the events that follow?
- What can be determined about the key themes and characters from the Prologue?
- What is the purpose of including the poem ‘I Will by Vincent Tran’ as part of the Epilogue?
- How does the Epilogue tie the threads of the narrative together?
One of the most enduring and popular forms of literary fiction is the bildungsroman. This German word means ‘novel of education’, so it follows that a bildungsroman captures the experiences of a character as they grow in maturity and understanding of the world around them. At its core, a bildungsroman charts the journey of a character from childhood – a period of innocence – to adulthood, where they gain, reflect on and learn from experience. This is why it is also sometimes called a ‘coming of age’ story.
Bildungsroman novels explore the teenage years as a time when young people struggle with conflicting ideals; discover who they are; challenge family beliefs and norms; and build a sense of identity. A key element is that the protagonist struggles against society in some way (e.g. over conflicting values, but by the end of the novel both the protagonist and society accept each other.
Many classic works of literature are regarded as Bildungsroman novels, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte, or The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (see LitCharts for more detail about each of these titles).
As a class, read through the following list of coming of age texts. Ask students to add FIVE more contemporary examples. They may include films in addition to (or instead of) novels, depending on their level of familiarity.
|Little Women by Louisa May ALCOTT
Jane Eyre by Charlotte BRÖNTE
Great Expectations by Charles DICKENS
My Brilliant Career by Miles FRANKLIN
The Outsiders by S.E. HINTON
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LEE
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan LINDSAY
The Harp in the South by Ruth PARK
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. SALINGER
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TWAIN
|The Divine Wind by Garry DISHER
My Brilliant Friend by Elena FERRANTE
Mahtab’s Story by Libby GLEESON
Lillian’s Story by Kate GRENVILLE
Looking for Alibrandi by Melina MARCHETTA
A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove by James MOLONEY
The Harry Potter series by J.K. ROWLING
Jasper Jones by Craig SILVEY
Blueback by Tim WINTON
The Book Thief by Markus ZUSAK
Brainstorm the specific features of a coming of age story. Record these on a whiteboard for students to copy.
Stages of a bildungsroman
There are 12 key features of bildungsroman novels, separated into four stages. Each stage represents the next phase of character development and maturation. Not every bildungsroman novel contains all 12 features, but most characters progress through the four stages in broad terms.
Students are to complete the bildungsroman table (PDF, 104KB) outlining the stages of character development in The Coconut Children. Get one half of the class to fill in the table for Sonny and the other half to fill it in for Vince. Within each half, students will form pairs to create a short slide show about the four stages of their allocated character’s journey. Each pair will then group up with a pair from the other half of the class (i.e. a pair who worked on a different character) to share their presentations. In these new groups of four, students will discuss whether The Coconut Children conforms to the generic conventions of the coming of age novel. They should consider writer and critic Sonia Nair’s description of the novel as a ‘universal migrant Bildungsroman’. What do the extra layers of this description imply?
Changes in the seasons help the reader navigate The Coconut Children’s structure and timeline, as well as signalling important transitions and other key moments in the text.
Get students to partner up and allocate each pair a different season (summer, autumn, winter or spring). Ask them to complete a Y chart (PDF, 77KB) for their allocated season, capturing what it ‘looks like’, ‘smells like’, and ‘feels like’. Invite students to share their responses with the class.
Now allocate the same pairs a chapter from the seasons table (PDF, 89KB) that aligns with their Y chart. Students should read their assigned chapter to identify any language, imagery or key quotes that capture the essence of the season. They will then complete their part of the table, explaining how the season in that chapter mirrors the action in the story. They can refer to their notes from the Y chart to assist with this.
In her 2020 review of The Coconut Children, Sheila Ngọc Phạm argues that – by setting the novel in 1998 – Pham presents readers with parallel coming of age narratives: that of Sonny and Vince as they enter young adulthood, and that of the burgeoning Vietnamese community in Australia. This goes hand in hand with the reviewer’s later comment about the novel being allegorical.
Direct students to create a timeline of key moments in Cabramatta’s development from 1979 to the present. Once they have finished, they should see if they can identify any of the stages/features of a bildungsroman (refer to Activity 4 above) in the suburb’s timeline of growth and change.
Students will then create a second timeline of key moments in Sonny and Vince’s journey towards adulthood. Invite them to share their work with the rest of the class. Draw out any similarities and/or differences between the characters’ experiences in the novel, and those of the wider Vietnamese population in Cabramatta.
Return to the topic of allegories and draw some conclusions about the notion of The Coconut Children as an allegorical novel.
Text and meaning
The Coconut Children introduces Sonny as an observer of life, watching from her bedroom window as events unfold in her street. The narrative centres on the rekindling of her relationship with her neighbour and childhood friend, Vince, as she navigates the challenges of living with a ‘crazy’ mother; a ‘drunk’ grandmother; a vulnerable younger brother; and a caring but distant father. It is not until Vince returns from two years in detention that her deep-seated feelings are stirred and she begins to dream of a life with him, despite his reputation. Sonny hopes that Vince remembers her but is crippled by thoughts of her own inadequacy, especially when she compares herself to girls like Michelle Le (Vince’s primary school ‘girlfriend’). Despite her sincere wish to the contrary, she cannot imagine that someone like Vince would be interested in someone like her.
Chapter One begins with Vince’s release from juvenile detention. His legendary status was cemented when he was hauled away in handcuffs two years earlier. Vince’s raw energy and vibrancy is apparent from his resounding laughter, but this playfulness contrasts sharply with the presence of his knife-wielding friends. Similar juxtapositions are peppered throughout the narrative as Pham shapes Vince’s complex and contradictory character. He is widely admired for his cheeky and spirited behaviour, though he demonstrates a softer and more caring side to his little sister Emma and his childhood friend Sonny. There is a darkness beneath this exterior, however; it is only when the reader encounters with the more confronting aspects of Vince’s life, including his experiences with crime and violence (both in and out of his home), that this tension is fully revealed.
Pham uses three common strategies to construct her characters:
- physical descriptions
- descriptions of actions or behaviour towards others
A close reading of key passages will assist students to build their understanding of how authors construct characters. Language plays a role in this construction, so it is important for students to identify and comment on word choices in the text.
Ask students to closely analyse and annotate ONE of the following pairs of passages:
They should pay extra attention to the way the characters:
- express their thoughts and feelings
- use dialogue (what they say and how they say it)
- appear and behave according to their physical description
- interact with others and respond to events
Students will then respond to the following prompts:
- Introduce your character.
- Introduce the passages and provide some context (what happens before and/or after?)
- What do we learn about this character in each passage?
- What difference/change can you identify in your character between the two passages (or is there no difference/change at all)?
- What language choices indicate change or stagnation in your character (i.e. verbs, adverbs, adjectives)?
Invite students to reflect on the portrayal of Sonny’s grandmother and parents, as well as Vince’s parents.
- How is their trauma expressed?
- What evidence suggests that their trauma has been passed down to the younger generation?
Distribute the trauma and consequences table (PDF, 110KB) and have students look for examples of how trauma has affected each character and the people around them.
Parallels and contrasts
Pham uses a range of parallels and contrasts to capture the tensions in Sonny and Vince’s lives. Readers see, for example, how their experiences as teens on the brink of adulthood echo the development of the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta. Comparisons can also be drawn between ba and mẹ, as well as Sonny and Vince’s parents. In addition, Pham explores the opposing forces that pull her protagonists in different directions; at various points both Sonny and Vince are torn between wanting to look after their families and wanting to escape from them.
Introduce students to the tug of war thinking routine, discussing an example where characters are pulled in different directions. Then distribute the table of contrasts (PDF, 109KB) from the novel. Working in pairs, students are to locate quotes that illustrate the contrasts and explain the significance of the use of opposing forces.
In The Coconut Children we see the world through Sonny’s eyes, and we also witness her search for identity, ‘normality’ and love. Students have examined Pham’s use of specific structures and literary devices to create her story. The following tasks require them to draw on their knowledge of the text, and to utilise creative writing conventions to further develop their ideas and understanding of the key themes.
Students are to select and complete ONE of the four tasks below.
1. Reframe the Prologue
Imagine that the Prologue is written in Vince’s voice instead of Sonny’s. Rewrite it from his perspective in a form appropriate to his character. What are his hopes and dreams as a young boy?
2. Reframe the Epilogue
Imagine that Vince’s poem is instead written by Sonny. Rewrite it from her perspective and annotate each line with an explanation about its meaning.
3. Write a story that captures the essence of a season
Throughout the novel, the reader observes how Cabramatta changes with the seasons. Compose a short story that captures the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of a place you know well (e.g. your backyard, your neighbourhood) during a particular season.
4. Create a digital coming of age story
The novel presents both Sonny and Vince’s coming of age stories as they move closer to young adulthood. Tell your own coming of age story using a storytelling app like Storybird (or another platform of your choosing).
Regardless of which task they choose, students are required to:
- Embed key themes from The Coconut Children in their own work
- Use literary devices, language and structural features, and conventions that are appropriate to their chosen form
- Edit and proofread their work
Ways of reading the text
The White Australia policy
When the first Vietnamese immigrants arrived in Australian in 1975, the White Australia policy of 1901 – which limited non-British migration to Australia – was on its last legs. The Whitlam government brought about its legal demise in the 1970s, with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 marking an important turning point. However, the hangover from such a longstanding policy of discrimination against people of colour – especially those of Asian descent – fuelled racist attitudes from white Australians. Although The Coconut Children is set twenty years after the abolition of the White Australia policy, its effects are still felt by the characters and their community.
Vietnam has a complex and multilayered history. It was a French colony from the 1880s until 1954, punctured by a period of Japanese occupation during World War II (1940–1945). Although French colonisation makes up a relatively short period of Vietnam’s long history, the influence of its colonisers is still evident today. Australia too continues to grapple with the ongoing effects of European colonisation, particularly on First Nations communities. This means that, for those refugees who fled Vietnam for Australia, the impacts of colonialism were both a keenly felt part of their history and an active force driving attitudes and outcomes in their new home.
Australia’s population consists of its First Peoples, made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups; the descendants of Europeans who displaced and dispossessed these groups as part of their colonial undertaking; and other migrants from all over the globe, contributing to a high level of linguistic and cultural diversity. Vietnamese immigration in the 1970s coincided with a period of increasing political interest in multiculturalism. By setting The Coconut Children in Cabramatta in 1998, Pham creates characters who are at once products of a colonial history and representatives of a burgeoning multicultural society.
View the short film ‘Life in Australia: Sydney’ produced by the Department of Immigration in 1966 (the period that precedes the arrival of refugees from Vietnam and other countries). Encourage students to consider the following questions:
- How is Sydney represented in the film?
- From whose perspective do we view this film?
- Who is central to the film? Who is marginalised? Who is not represented at all?
- Which version of Sydney is presented to the audience?
- How does the film present a particular view of Australia, its culture and its attitudes during the 1960s?
Now consider Pham’s representation of Sydney. Ask students to respond to the same questions, this time through the lens of The Coconut Children:
- How is Sydney represented in the novel?
- From whose perspective do we view the novel?
- Who is central to the novel? Who is marginalised? Who is not represented at all?
- Which version of Sydney is presented to the audience?
- How does the novel present a particular view of Australia, its culture and its attitudes during the 1990s?
Discuss the different representations of Australia in each text, highlighting any factors that contribute to a shift in perspective.
Now show the class key sections from the ‘Populate or Perish’ episode of SBS’ Australia in Colour series, particularly those moments that demonstrate how First Nations peoples and immigrants have been treated. Ask:
How does the White Australia policy continue to influence attitudes towards marginalised people and communities?
Based on what they have learned and discussed in class, ask students to develop their own definition of ‘colonialism’.
In Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory (7th Edition), Steven Lynn provides the following basic tenets of postcolonial theory:
- Colonialism powerfully shapes the identities of both colonised and colonising peoples.
- ‘Othering’ is an essential part of colonialism that leads to subordination and subjugation.
- Colonial writing often misrepresents the experiences of colonised peoples, whose own literature speaks more to empowerment and reclamation.
Postcolonial theory provides a lens through which to view and appreciate The Coconut Children, a text that gives voice to those that have been ‘othered’ or ‘silenced’ in traditional Western literary spheres. This lens allows the reader to consider how Sonny and Vince see their place in the world, along with how their families have been shaped by the experience of being ‘othered’.
Deborah Appleman provides another way of thinking about postcolonial theory in Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents (3rd Edition). She posits that it can be used to examine the imposition of colonial practices and worldviews, OR the reassertion of pre-colonial cultural identities, in literature. In this way, postcolonial theory brings the experiences of colonised or marginal groups to the fore: those who have been ‘othered’ by the dominant discourse. On p. 225 of The Coconut Children, for example, we learn what life was like for Vince’s father when he first arrived in Australia as a refugee (para. 2).
Invite students to consider the adults in Sonny and Vince’s families, then respond to the following questions in writing:
- What does the text reveal about the ways race, class and gender shape individual identity?
- How does the text deal with the relationship between personal and cultural identities, and cultural hybridity?
- How does the text speak back to labels imposed by the dominant culture?
- In what ways does The Coconut Children reinforce or undermine colonial ideologies through its representation of the ‘other’?
- How is oppression and racism presented in the text?
Share and discuss responses as a class.
In Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (4th Edition), Peter Barry lists six characteristics of postcolonial critics:
- Rejection of the supposed universalism of Western literature
- Examination of the representation of non-Western cultures in literature
- Demonstration of the gaps and silences regarding colonialism in Western literature
- Examination of cultural difference and diversity between works
- Celebration of cultural hybridity
- Viewing of marginalised or ‘othered’ groups as sources of energy and change
Display these statements for students on the board. Working in pairs, they will apply each statement to The Coconut Children and briefly explain, in a few sentences, whether Pham embodies them in her writing. They should refer to evidence from the book to support their reasoning.
Based on what they have learned and discussed in class, ask students to develop their own definition of ‘postcolonialism’.
Comparison with other texts
Texts dealing with similar ideas
There is a growing body of young adult fiction that explores Asian Australian or migrant cultural identities. These works challenge assumptions and stereotypes, providing opportunities for the study of diverse texts that more readily reflect the lives of students who are reading them.
Other titles that explore similar themes to Pham’s work are:
- Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
- The Boat by Nam Le
- The Arrival by Shaun Tan
- Single Asian Female by Michelle Law
- The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim
- The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
- The Little Refugee by Anh and Suzanne Do and Bruce Whatley (illustrator)
- The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin and Anne Spudvilas (illustrator), adapted from Mao’s Last Dancer
- Growing Up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung, a collection that provides insight into the diverse experiences of Asian Australians
- Lucky Ticket by Joey Bui, a book of short stories about family, identity and dislocation
- After Darkness by Christine Piper, a novel about a Japanese doctor interned during WWII
- The Family Law by Benjamin Law, a memoir of growing up as a second-generation Australian in Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s
- Vixen by Hoa Pham, an award-winning magic realism novel that moves between Vietnam and Australia
- The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American graphic novel about the author’s experiences of immigration and displacement
- Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, a collection of poems that deal with the Vietnam War as well as the poet’s experiences of immigrating to America
The Asian-Australian Children’s Literature and Publishing (AACLAP) project offers a comprehensive listing and commentary on a multitude of titles published between 1970 and 2013 (AustLit subscription required).
Evaluation of the text
The Coconut Children explores the experiences of first- and second-generation Vietnamese Australians at a challenging time for multiculturalism. The teenagers at the heart of the story are acutely aware of their histories and long for better futures. Each character has a unique perspective on what it means to be on the margins of society, and Pham highlights this for her readers.
In their Initial Response to the text, students set up a double-entry journal that noted key events and personal connections (Personal Response on Reading the Text > Activity 6).
Ask students to return to their journals and add an extra column labelled ‘From Class’. Invite them to add details about the sections of the text that most influenced their understanding and supported their thinking about the characters and main ideas in the novel.
Additional questions for reflection include:
- What is the central concern of The Coconut Children?
- What ideas about refugees does Pham communicate to the reader?
- Pham suggests that Vince can change and put his crimes behind him. Is the ending to the novel realistic? Why or why not?
- The Coconut Children describes many traumatic events but the story is never depressing. Do you agree? Explain your thinking.
- What have you learned through your study of The Coconut Children?
Rich assessment task 1: receptive mode
As a class, read Sheila Ngọc Phạm’s review of The Coconut Children – ‘Coming of Age in Cabramatta’ – from the second section onwards (where she first mentions the novel).
Phạm weaves her personal response and connections to the narrative with an analysis of the overall text. Her piece is interspersed with frames from Matt Hyunh’s interactive comic Cabramatta, which students viewed as part of their Initial Response to the text (Introductory Activities > Cabramatta in the 1990s).
For this task students should annotate Phạm’s review, focusing on her personal connections and thoughts about The Coconut Children. Then, using ‘Coming of Age in Cabramatta’ as a model, they will write their own essay that responds to The Coconut Children, incorporating their own personal connections to the text.
Rich assessment task 2: productive mode
In 2020, Playwriting Australia (now Australian Plays Transform) announced the commission of a stage adaptation of The Coconut Children. For this task, students are to create a multimodal presentation to pitch key scenes from the novel for inclusion in a performance.
The presentation should include both visual AND audio material (e.g. soundtrack, voiceover) with appropriate and correct attribution. Students should aim to produce a two- to three-minute presentation consisting of a 250-word script and 10–15 images (they can create these from scratch, if they wish). They may like to revisit The Boat and Cabramatta for inspiration.
Steps for producing the presentation may include:
- Brainstorming the key ideas from the original text
- Developing a storyboard for the presentation
- Writing and editing a script for the presentation
- Making decisions about which tools to use (i.e. equipment and software)
- Selecting and/or preparing images (including researching the necessary attributions)
- Recording a voiceover (if narrating the script)
- Producing the presentation using an appropriate app or program
- Sharing the finished presentation (e.g. in class or at a broader school screening with guests)
As part of their presentation, students should address The Coconut Children’s major themes and demonstrate their importance to the story (and to the key scenes they have selected for adaptation) through the use of a voiceover or captions.
Synthesising core ideas
Multiculturalism in Australia
Pham explores the challenges associated with being a refugee and the impact of displacement on the individual, family and wider community. Sonny and Vince’s families find varying degrees of comfort in maintaining connections to their culture, but they also carry painful scars from the past that are felt by the next generation. By the time the reader turns the final page of The Coconut Children they will have formed their own views about migration, intergenerational trauma and multiculturalism, and the ways these concepts have been presented by Pham in her novel.
Invite students to respond to the following questions to draw their study together:
- At the conclusion of the novel, what view(s) of Vietnamese immigration to Australia have you formed?
- What are the positive and negative effects of migration on the adults and teenagers in the novel?
- What role does intergenerational trauma play in the characters’ lives?
- How does Pham represent multiculturalism in the novel?
- What is your view of multiculturalism in Australia? Has it changed after reading the novel?
A gallery walk gives students the opportunity to synthesise their ideas about the text, make some final comments, and share any concluding thoughts with the class. Before you conduct the next activity, set up a few stations around the room using large pieces of poster paper. Label each sheet with a key element from the novel, such as:
Provide students with small pieces of paper, no bigger than A5. Invite them to form groups of three or four and allocate each group FIVE points from those listed above (you can mix and match from different categories). Using a separate piece of paper for each point, students are to record what they have learned and how it connects to their understanding of The Coconut Children.
Upon completion, invite the groups to attach their pieces of paper to the relevant stations. Then ask students to move around the room and affix sticky notes to the large sheets to extend on their classmates’ ideas, add their own questions, or offer praise.
Rich assessment task
For their final task, students will compose an analytical essay that draws together their knowledge and understanding of The Coconut Children.
Invite them to compose an essay on ONE of the following topics:
- Sonny’s relationship with her mother is mostly negative. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
- In her novel The Coconut Children, Vivian Pham presents a hopeful story about multiculturalism in Australia. Discuss.
- The transformation of Vince’s character in The Coconut Children is unconvincing. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
- The Coconut Children is not so much a coming of age story, but an exploration of intergenerational trauma. Discuss.
- The characters in The Coconut Children struggle with cultural hybridity. To what extent do you agree or disagree?