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June 29, 2011

Book Review || Coconut by Kopano Matlwa

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Coconut by Kopano Matlwa was a literary wonder - a debut novel about living in the new South Africa - that won a European Union Literary Award. I can't help but think it was just lucky timing...

The novel is about the struggle with identity among the young black people of South Africa. Following the tales of two girls - one who stays in a "white" suburb and another who has grown up in a township - Coconut takes a look at how these two girls struggle with their identities as black people not living as nor wanting to be black people. Divided into two parts, we first meet Ofilwe, who's family is known as "new money" and lives amongst the white people of Johannesburg, and then we meet Fikile, who grew up in the townships but is determined to make herself live like a white person - she even told her teacher when she was in school that when she grew up she wanted to be white.

This need to be superior is one of the main themes of the novel. While Ofilwe's superiority is a reflection of the new class in which her family belongs, Fikile's superiority is the result of a desire to be superior. However, in their quests to be superior to their black fellows, they have forgotten where they come from: they have lost their mother tongue; they wish to be excluded from family gatherings; and they hold their cultural traditions in disdain.

It is sadly one of the legacies of apartheid that the only version of superiority the lower classes see are white people, and this is why they aspire so to be like them. They are seen as happy and rich, while the poor are unhappy and struggling. They wish to absorb this white life, to become white, because this is the only version of success they know. But a result of this desire is being seen by your own people as having a misplaced sense of superiority, while the characters also seem to have a misplaced sense of the superiority of another race.

Although Coconut is a novel that tries to expose the issues of identity in the new South Africa, I found that it lacked a plot or a story, at least until the end when the two characters' worlds join together. Up until the moment when you recognise Ofilwe, there is no tension, and almost no story. It really seems like a bunch of haphazard thoughts and anecdotes handed to us in the hopes that we will make sense of it.

The novel won a literary award, and I have to wonder whether awards are now offered to novels for their subject matter rather than the style and writing talent.

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