Coconut by Kopano Matlwa
I must admit I haven’t read many books by South African authors. Before I came to the country I’d read some J.M Coetzee (Nobel Prize winner) and aspirationally bought some Nadine Gordimer’s books (also a Nobel Prize winner) but apart from that I’m a greenhorn. That’s why I was very happy to encounter this book.
“Coconut” is a debut novel by Kopano Matlwa. It tells a story of two black girls from different backgrounds living in modern Johannesburg. Ofilwe comes from a “new rich” family. She goes to a mostly white school, has great grades and is doing everything to fit in. She’s ashamed of her family, her roots and her native language. Fikilwe comes from a poor family and works as a waitress. She’s trying to impress white customers and prove to them she’s one of them, constantly working on her English accent. Fikilwe, or Fiks as she prefers to be called, feels she is better than the members of her community and hopes that one day, a (white) customer will help her change her life.
The title of the novel is very telling. The term coconut is used in South Africa to describe people whose skin color is brown but their inside is white and the term could be used for both characters. The girls seem to be rather oblivious that by trying to fit in so badly, they deny their own roots and identity. Perhaps that’s why the novel has been read by some as a critique of post-apartheid blackness. I don’t think that this was the authors’ intention, though. To me the novel was more of an impression of how it is to grow up black in modern South Africa. Both girls are young and they are at the stage of a rebellion. There’s nothing to say that they won’t realize one day that to disown one’s background, means to disown a big part of oneself.
The novel touches upon numerous important topics in post-apartheid South Africa. The racial separation of apartheid caused a situation in which race and class became interwined. Only white people had money, while the rest of the country was living in poverty. The end of apartheid meant that black people slowly but surely started to join the middle class. The problem is that “better” schools are still mostly white and use mostly English. This often means that kids to fit in need to perfect a language that isn’t their native tongue. As the novel suggests such situation may subsequently create an identity clash in young people. Both characters encounter people who’re trying to raise their awareness about such issues but they’re being dismissive of such attempts.
The book is very short and it does mention a lot of important issues, which it doesn’t manage to discuss in detail (such as the character of an uncle used solely to gain a company BBBEE points, incest, infedelity). It may be that writing your first novel, you’re just trying to say everything at once. Even the author said at the end of the book “It is not a piece of literary genius (…) But it is the story we have to tell”. I completely agree! It’s a very important novel and the author has a lot of potential. I’m definitely going to read her two other books “Spilt Milk” and “Period Pains” in the foreseeable future. I also do recommend “Coconut” to anyone who’d like to have a glimpse into understanding the complexity of modern South Africa.