Lizannede Beer, 2014120162
Dr PhilipAghoghovwia/ Ms ManuelaLovisa
21 August 2017
COCONUT RESPONSE PAPER
Coconut, written byKopanoMatlwa, sets up a double narrative of two black girls,FikileandOfilwe, growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, andnarrativiseseach girl’s struggle to define her own identity in a space where culture is conflated to signify class position.Matlwa’sstory depict how young black women negotiate the ways in which their home cultures mix with the increasingly globalized and media-saturated reality they see around them. Education is a component of this as well and schools are the setting for much of the girls’ interactions with different cultures, while simultaneously being depicted as racially problematic institutions in the novel. Education is seen not only as a status marker in the novel, but as an escape from troubled home-lives.
Coconut’s structure mirrors Stuart Hall’s concept of differences in cultural identity as the unstable points of identification which are made, within the discourses of history and culture (Hall, 2011: 226). Hall’s concept of identity illuminates the reading ofMatlwa’stext which is not simply a narrative of black and white or occurring in one fixed time and space. Rather, it stages the identities of these young girls in an intensely diverse South Africa and the complexities and hindrances they face in their search for themselves.
Matlwa’sinvestigation of the issues of black identity in post-Apartheid South Africa is focalised through the two accounts ofOfilweandFikile, which run parallel to each other and at times intersect. The novel’s title derives from a derogatory term used to refer to a person who is black on the outside but white’ on the inside. This white on the inside refers to many cultural markers of identity, particularly language. Lynda Spencer elaborates that”the term coconut’ refers to one who speaks English most of the time, choosing it over an African language, or who is unable to speak an African language, and who is considered to act white.”(67).Matlwauses dual protagonists and narrators to examine the cultural identity of contemporary Black South African women. In order to showcase the identities of theprotagonists,Matlwadetails intricate cultural landscapes for the characters. The construction of the novel is peculiar since it is not chronological and has a break in the middle where a different story is told with a different narrator.
What makes the term coconut’ so particularly cutting is that its use is also drawn along racial lines but it loses some of its potency when used by someone white. The remark is most cutting coming from another black person because it represents an attack on the authenticity of blackness’. The generation who made it through the struggle is now suddenly drawing lines in the sand. Black identity in South Africa cannot escape the political and social past and yet comments like these seek to trivialize the sacrifices and strife of those who prospered so astoundingly after 1994 and moved from the rural townships to the suburbs.
Intriguingly, the role of education is also complicated through its sometimes negative effects on the characters in the novel. Both the girls and their families have a complex relationship to education,Ofilwe’smother is judged and ridiculed by the family for not having completed high school whileOfilwesrebellious brother,Tshepo, an accomplished high school student, is urged by his father to study actuarial sciences rather than African literature.Tshepohimself realises that the status accorded to a prestigious education is illusory (Matlwa, 2007: 80). Language is a divisive subject for theTloufamily. Education is more than a status marker for theTlous; it is not only about which schools are attended but, in the case of university education, what subjects should be studied. It is interesting that there is a very singular goal of education in the views of the adult characters. Education is seen as a necessary tool for advancement and procuring a suitable career that will facilitate a spouse and children.
Tshepois the most politically conscious and self-aware character we come across in this novel:”Tsheporeckons that it is inevitable that one’s circle of friends will become smaller as one grows older. He reasons that when we begin we are similar, like two glasses of water sitting side by side on a clean tray. There is very little that differentiates us. We are simple beings whose interests do not extend beyond playing touch and kicking balls. However, like the two glasses of water forgotten on a tray in a reading room, we start to collect bits.”(Matlwa, 2007: 41).He serves an interesting function inCoconutas someone who is able to incorporate some of the more contradictory elements of his cultural context and his newly privileged life. A critical moment occurs whenTshepoandOfilwe’sparents discover what they think is a mistake onTsheposuniversity application. When they confront him todiscover why his form says he has applied for a Bachelors of Arts Majoring in African Literature and Languages, and not the Actuarial Sciences degree they had agreed on,Tsheposreaction stuns them with him stating,”I want to write”speaking out for himself in a way that runs contrary to his character (Matlwa, 2007: 79).
Tshepo’sexperiences are detailed quite extensively in the text. There is a point in the novel whereTshepogoes to work at a fast-food restaurant. We get a glimpse of his experience via a journal entry of his thatOfilwefinds. The entry outlines his difficulties in assimilating into the work environment; his first problem is in feeling that he is too good to be lumped in with the rest of his colleagues as the boss rages:”She asks us, between profanities, why it is that we have difficulty distinguishing between the two, and whether it is because we only have a creche-school level education. I am offended. I must correct her, point out that I,TshepoTlou, in fact graduated as Dux Scholar from my junior school, taking all the subject prizes including The Reader Award and the certificate for Most Promising Pupil from an Underprivileged Background. She will curl up in shame when she hears I have received honours three years in succession at my current high school, am Vice-Captain of the senior cricket team despite my age, co-chair of the debating society, deputy president of Student Link and have just recently been offered a scholarship to further my education at any tertiary institution in the country. I, however, dare not utter a word, it is still early, I must be patient, there will come a time when I will educate this woman.”(Matlwa, 2007: 27-28) Yet, his feelings are complicated by the fact that he wants the kitchen staff to accept him as one of their own; in anger he imagines them thinking:”These Model C children know nothing of the real world. They are shocked by the ways ofUmlungu[white people]. It is good you have come to work, boy. There is much you must learn.”(Matlwa, 2007: 29).
Coconutends withFikstrying to get out of a conversation with a man on a train who has just expressed his nuanced view of assimilation by using an example from his daughter’s primary school. Her urgency to get out of the situation and not the listen to the manhelps, again, to characterize her as unwilling or unable to critically engage with her own identity.Fifi’snarrative, which ends in the middle of the novel, ends on the topic of languages and assimilation; she is being told by her brother that she will be shunned by the white people she is trying to be like, and rejected by the people and identity she has left behind, althoughFifiseems to take this more in stride.
The author seems to be leaning towards this idea that one cannot successfully hold on to the two worlds of tradition and modernity.LikeTsheposaid:”so we become frighteningly dissimilar until there is very little that holds us together”(Matlwa, 2007:41).
Hall, Stuart. 2007.Cultural Identity and Diaspora.Framework.(2007): 222-237. Accessed on the internet:19 August 2017.
Matlwa,Kopano. 2007.Coconut. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. Print.
Spencer, Lynda. 2009.Young, black and female in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Identity politics inKopanoMatlwa’sCoconut.Scrutiny 2.2.14: 66-78. Accessed on the internet:19 August 2017