The SA Fiction Collection: Coconut

Coconut by Kopano MatlwaPublished in 2007, Coconut was the debut novel UCT med student Kopano Matlwa. It won the European Union Literary Award, which is presented by Jacana Media and the European Union.

The concept of a ‘coconut’ – a derogatory term for a person of colour who is seen as acting like a white person – is obviously something that will resonate with many South Africans, as we deal with all the joys and frustrations of living in a richly multicultural country with a deeply troubled racial history. It’s a horrible term that implies that everyone should stick to their racial stereotypes and that certain tastes, pastimes, etc. are somehow reserved for white people. However, I realise how easily such a concept can arise in a post-colonial context, and that it’s not always about people being narrow-minded about identity. The word ‘coconut’ also refers to the very serious problem of internalised racism and I can understand why people would rail against the perceived (or actual) snobbery of a ‘coconut’. A book entitled Coconut by an author my age naturally caught my attention.

I was working at Exclusive Books when Coconut came out, and luckily there was a launch at my branch so I was able to get my copy signed by the author.

Coconut signature

The blurb:

“Would I have turned out to be nothing if Mama had not married Daddy? Would I not be the same Ofilwe I am now if Mama had never made it out of the dreaded location? What if Mama had chosen love, where would I be now? What would I be now? Nothing?”

Coconut is an extraordinary debut novel about growing up black in white suburbs, where the cost of fitting in can be your very identity. It is against this backdrop of potential loss that two extraordinary young women struggle to find themselves.

Rich, pampered Ofilwe and her brother Tshepo are swiftly losing their culture. Ofilwe struggles to fit into a privileged but soulless world that opens its doors to them as quickly as it shuts them. Hers is the story of a generation that is given everything, only to fall apart under the weight of history and expectation.

Hip, sassy Fiks is an ambitious go-getter from the township, desperate to leave her vicious past behind and embrace the glossy sophistication she knows only from magazines. But the golden streets of modern Jozi prove more complicated and unforgiving than even she is prepared for, threatening to destroy her carefully constructed world at every turn.

These unforgettable characters are brought together in a haunting novel that redefines what it means to be young, black and beautiful in the New South Africa.

It’s been ages since I read Coconut so I can’t really offer much of an opinion on it. I remember thinking that it was an interesting representation of a cultural issue, but that it could have been reworked in parts. The European Union Literary award is for first, unpublished works, and manuscripts have to be submitted in publishable form. The winner gets published by Jacana, but I don’t know if it goes through another editing process. One of my problems I had with the book was that it switches between several POVs and it’s not always clear which POV we’re with. It felt like the kind of problem a first-time writer might have – the characters might be distinct to her, but less so for the reader. I really should make the time to read it again though; sometimes I find that I was such an impatient reader in the past!

Jacana Media
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