We recently launched the Wits World of Work 2007 Book club. But not just confined to reading books, we will also write a book about the experience together. My contribution to the club is Kopano Matlwa's 'Coconut'. Here is my review:
Kopano Matlwa, a 21-year old medical student from the University of Cape Town, has written with ‘Coconut’ a remarkable first novel and scooped with due merit this year’s European Union Literary Award. It is a timely book for it looks at South African society from the perspective of two young black women and is refreshingly without any overbearing ideology. As the author writes in an afterthought, ‘Coconut’ “is our story, told in our own words as we feel it everyday.”
The first main character, Ofilwe, lives in a rich and dysfunctional family. Her father, while preoccupied with amassing fortunes, neglects his wife and children. He rather spends his spare-time in the company of numerous girlfriends. Her mother is whiling time away by making herself beautiful, meeting friends, gossiping about the children and the do’s and dont’s of a life in affluence. Ofilwe’s brother Tshepo has retreated into his own world, pursuing the beauty of the written word. The parents never talk to each other and Ofilwe celebrates a victory when her mother and her father engage in a shouting match. The confrontational bickering is more comforting to her than the nothingness of silence and indifference.
In the pursuit of wealth and status, much has been left behind: mutual respect and honesty, a sense of togetherness and African traditions. Ofilwe, for her part, lives up to the desire of her parents, to be at least equal to if not better than their white neighbors. In fact, she sees no difference between herself and white people. She is brought back to reality through the racism of her white friends and her white environment.
Aspiring to be like them, to be white, is the one thing that Ofilwe has in common with the second main character, Fikile or ‘Fiks’. While Ofilwe is white by virtue of her environment and the aspirations of her parents, Fiks desires to a better life by leaving blackness behind and join the wealth and beauty of white people. After her father run away and her mother killed herself, Fiks is raised by her gogo, a maid and her uncle, a security guard. Fiks is determined to escape poverty. For her, this poverty is tied to blackness and hence her aspiration to be something better, to be with the rich and the happy. To be white.
It is especially in Fiks’ characterization and psychology that Matlwa is at her best. Sexually abused by her uncle, she is running away from what hurts her and holds her back. Matlwa shows well the many layers of the consequences of sexual abuse and how the victim battles with these. After having been robbed of the most precious, the faith to be the master of her own destiny, Fiks struggles to find herself. Perhaps here lies the South African-ness of ‘Coconut’, in the determination of the two main characters to overcome hardship and pain, and to be content and happy.
You may chat with the author on her own blog and learn more about the book.
An equally excellent discussion of the sexual abuse of children I found in Arakis' 'mysterious skin'. For an insightful perspective, see