(Trigger warning for brief discussions of sexual abuse)
Kopano Matlwa is known as one of South Africa’s most exciting young writers. She has a degree in Medicine, which makes her both a writer and a doctor. In fact, while studying to get her degree, Ms. Matlwa simultaneously wrote “Coconut”. Her debut won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literary in Africa in 2008, sharing the prize with “I Do Not Come To You By Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and “Tenants of The House” by Wale Okediran. Ms. Matlwa has also written “Split Milk”, which appeared in 2010. Both novels describe racial relations in South Africa.
“Coconut” tells the story of two very different young black girls living in modern-day Johannesburg. The novel is written in two parts, the first part focusing on the rich Ofilwe and the second part focusing on the poverty stricken Fikile. Through depicting these two girls’ lives, “Coconut” addresses racism, the lost of one’s own culture and identity, sexual abuse and colonized consciousness.
Ofilwe is shown being a girl who takes her family’s wealth for granted. She lives a pampered life, but faces racism from her white school mates and authorities. Ofilwe lives her first years in blissful blindness to the prejudices around her, but as Ofilwe gets older, she realizes more and more how much racism she has faced in her early years. This racism runs from open disgust to her “dark lips” and refusal of the “racial contamination” of the kiss, or when her classmates decide her ethnic characteristics innately imply that she could only be born in a “stink-hole”. She also realizes with help from her brother, Tsempo, how much of her own culture, identity and history (through the mechanisms of the oppressive former apartheid system) she (as many black South Africans) has lost.
In one of the first paragraphs of “Coconut” illustrates the lost of the cultural field by means of racism when we are lead through Ofilwe and Tsempo arguing over religion. Tsempo argues that being Christian goes against their black identity, since they were forcefully converted by whites. He points out that the original beliefs of the Africans were quite different. Ofilwe can barely stand hearing this, since she’s a devoted Christian. In this sequence Matlwa confronts the fact that when Christianity (as other abrahamic religions) was spread, the black South Africans lost a part of their culture. This is an interesting fact which is rarely pointed out, despite these violent conversions causing many African and many non-African people to lose parts of their own culture*.
Another example of lost heritage and discrimination is the use of language and presumptions of inclusion and exclusions founded on the identifier of people’s linguistic talents. Ofilwe is first proud of the fact that her family speaks English at home. However, due to her skin color, no one believes this to be the case; when a few men come to her classroom to collect data on the different mother tongues among children, the men refuse to believe her when she states she speaks English at home. Her teacher even punishes her for lying to the men. After some discoveries about her parent’s backgrounds, Ofilwe then realizes that her parents purposely didn’t speak their mother tongue to her, thus leaving Ofilwe to try and learn this language by memorizing words she overhears during her parents arguments. Matlwa beautifully captures the struggles of a person longing to learn about her roots and culture while simultaneously being denied proper information about it.
Ofilwe suffers a crisis, since she is forced to confront that despite being economically privileged, she is unfortunately marginalized due to her skin color. Ofilwe as a character is shown as pampered, but the reader still sympathizes with her and her situation.
In the second part, the reader is introduced to Fikile, a poor young woman from a slum. She lives with her uncle since her mentally unstable mother rejected her when she was extremely young. Fikile in her first depiction is shown having an intense revulsion for her uncle. The reader later learns that this hatred is justified (as more is revealed about Fikiles life) as the reader comes to understand that Fikile while a child was repeatedly molested by her uncle. Fikile did not at first understand what her uncle was doing to her, but after learning about rape and sexual assault at school through an awareness presentation, Fikile at once recognized the actions as similar to the ones her uncle committed, and comes to the revelation that she herself has been a victim of sexual abuse. One of the finest details Matlwa gives in “Coconut” is how strong this shocking revelation is to Fikile, as Matlwa has her protagonist, forced to this realization of abuse, is convulsed by vomiting in the class room as the presentation is being held. It’s an honest portrayal of a young girl suddenly understanding that she has been severely abused.
As the novel continues, Fikile starts to express strong troubling comments regarding blacks. She states that they are lazy and blame whites for everything to cover up for their irresponsibility. She recalls telling her school teacher that she wants to be white when she grows up. While referring to the customers she waits on at her job at a fancy restaurant/café, Fikile says that they represent everything she wants to be:“rich and white”. In contrast to everything she does not want to be: “black and poor”. Fikile buys into the myths of the poor and black being to blame for their misfortunes and believes that she will one day be rich as well. This resembles the divergent and ubiquitous mentalities of a colonized consciousness among a deceived lower classes all over the world. The American author John Steinbeck for instance lampshaded this mentality by stating: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Fikile has a noticeably similar way of viewing her situation. She believes that she will be able to escape all her problems if she just adapts to behavior of the white upper class and totally hates her black heritage.
Fikile has developed a colonized consciousness, meaning that she has adapted and identifies (takes the values of the oppressing class as her own) with a white supremacist way of looking at people of color. She refuses to see the faults in any whites she encounters, but is quick to give many irredeemable (and made up) flaws to all blacks she meets. Fikile faces racism herself, but fails to see it; she has adapted the beliefs of the oppressors and therefore demonizes blacks. This phenomenon happens among all sorts of oppressed and marginalized groups. Like Steinbeck commented on colonized consciousness being the ideological means for the capitalist upper class for stopping socialism making a root in the US, colonized consciousness prevents people from being aware of their situation and fighting for more rights. Fikile does not see that her opportunities are limited and through her hate actually adds limitations for herself and other people of color in South Africa.
Desperation for a better life and the environment around her play an important factor to her mentality, but Fikile’s intense dislike for other blacks may also be a result of the trauma from being abused as a child. Fikile at some point decides at once that a black man talking to her is a probable rapist. Due to her relationship to her uncle, this comment does raise the question of her idea of blacks being lazy, and good for nothing, as being inexorably linked to her horrific childhood memories of her uncle. Are Fikile prejudices because she has bad experiences, because she’s too desperate too see straight, or just the simple, but inevitable, brainwashing by society ruled through prejudice? Or are all three symptoms equally to blame for the disjunction of class, ethnicity and identity and the upended consciousness of Fikile?
Luckily, “Coconut” is a coming-of-age tale alongside a depiction of modern day South Africa, so Fikile’s world view is challenged as the novel proceeds.
“Coconut” is a highly impressive novel which deals with many important issues. It highlights topics that are necessary to talk about. It’s also a captivating tale about identity and growing up.
*As a half Finn, I can mention that for instance the Finnish people originally had pagan-like beliefs. This changed through the conversion and influence from the Swedes. In fact, at some point Birger Jarl thought the Finnish weren’t becoming Christian quick enough, and sent a small crusade to Finland (which was at the time just another part of Sweden).