Coconut is a book I have often picked up in the shops, and like many books I’ll review in this project, just never got around to buying. When I found it in my favourite second hand book shop in Salt River, Blank Books, I couldn’t resist.
It has been about a month since I finished the book, and at the time I just didn’t have time to sit down and write about it. I’m not sure whether it’s fairer to review a book immediately, when its impact is still physical, or to review it a while on, when you are left with the parts of the story that have become parts of yourself. I’m still deciding.
Coconut follows the stories of Ofilwe and Fikile as they try to work out who they are in a world that doesn’t provide much space for authenticity. Ofilwe is growing up in a family with ‘new money’, and Fikile is working in a restaurant in order to make a new life for herself. The story considers the idea of emulation as assimilation, and the discomfort of not fitting in.
One of the most powerful scenes in the story for me was the scene where Ofilwe’s language and pronunciation are corrected. It brought to mind images of ‘well meaning’ whites, saying what good English anyone who wasn’t white spoke, and the condescension that is involved in a statement like that, as well as the implicit for a black person.
Coconut left me with complicated feelings. I felt sad that people feel uncomfortable in their own skin. I felt angry about the class relations in South Africa, and the ability of some classes to separate themselves from the reality of others. I hated the restaurant owner in the story, and as someone who was a waitress for ten years between high school and the end of university, I must say that this character is very real for me.
I think it is an important read, especially for younger South Africans who might not be familiar with the ways that their lives have been influenced by the capitalist colonialism that surrounds them.
Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is a South African author and medical doctor. She won the EU literary award for Coconut, and was a 2010 Rhodes Scholar. She was also one of the Young Women African Leaders selected to meet with Michelle Obama in June 2011. She also has a second novel, Spilt Milk.
Follow Kopano Matlwa Mabaso on twitter here