(Trigger warning: Sexual assault)
Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut tells the story of two young girls living on far and opposite ends of one world, and although they couldn’t be more different, they are connected by one reality: trying to navigate through a South Africa that suggests that they somehow do not fit in it. It exposes the savory side of the lives of South Africa’s “golden children” and the fallacy of the ‘Rainbow Nation.’
Ofilwe deals with the difficulties of being one of the only black girls a her private school after her father is able to move them gated suburbia after getting a breakthrough. She deals with the guilt associated with being a privileged black child, and the confusion of her new environment that suggests underhandedly and sometimes overtly that there is something about her that isn’t right for it.
Fikile, on the other end, is a girl living in the township with ambition and a vision of herself that sets her apart from the typical township person for whom she’s developed a deep contempt. She wakes up every day with the single goal of getting as far away from blackness, that she she blames for its own plight, as possible, toward the whiteness she admires.
Through the eyes of these girls, Matlwa explores youth, identity, racial micro aggressions and beauty politics in her award winning debut novel.
The magic of the novel really lies in its subtle nudges at the reader toward the bigger issue boiling beneath the surface of what Matlwa puts so simply to us. Without using too many words she is able to portray powerful messages that leave room for the reader to question themselves and the world they live in.
It is a light read, heavily armed with the realities almost every South African has experienced in the schooling system, social spaces and working environment. And if you can’t relate to the incidents in the novel, then it’s a good place to start to understand the truths of so many we share spaces with.
There’s a jump on the timelines that sometimes creeps in randomly and affects the synthesis of the novel, but there are so many relatable moments that give you the feeling that parts of your story are finally being told.
Overall, this is a good and really important read for Africans, young and old, in the journey towards understanding and changing the world we’ve come to realise isn’t what we thought it would be. Kopano Matlwa is a gentle and careful writer, able to sensitively portray the dizziness and difficulties of youth.
It’s also so inspiring that Kopano Matlwa wrote this novel while studying towards her medical degree at the University of Cape Town, and telling of the supernova that she is. We. Are. Led.