Hair; black women’s hair. They battle with it, tease it, tame it, and straighten it. The politics of hair. Right in the beginning of Coconut, Kate’s sleek, soft, long slightly wavy hair is compared to Ofilwe’s pain and agony while getting her hair straightened. Beauty defined by the white standard.
Ofilwe, her older brother, Tshepo, and their parents live in Little Valley Country Estate near Sandton city. Tshepo is a counterpoint to Ofilwe; she wants to be integrated into and accepted by white people, be invited to the parties, be one of them but Tshepo questions the way they have to adapt to white people with no quid pro quo. Yet she is often rudely reminded of the prejudices that are so inherent in her white peers and sometimes even her black peers. Imagine the hurt when the black boy she has a crush on tells her that he only dates white girls?
Coconut, as most people probably know by now, is a derogatory term denoting that someone is black on the outside and white on the inside. The ‘coconuts’ often went to previously all-white schools and have a certain twang (an accent similar to an English-speaking white person). They want to fit in amongst whites and appear to reject the values of their own community. In Ofilwe’s case, she is torn between the two worlds. She yearns to know more about the religion of her ancestors, the customs of the Pedi people and wonders about the history of her people. At school she has only learnt as far back as the Dutch East India Company. She realises that she has lost her language too and wants to get it back.
The narrative switches from Ofilwe’s middle-class perspective to that of Fikile, who works as a waitress at the Silver Spoon where Ofilwe’s family go every Sunday after church. In stark contrast to Ofilwe, she has a very tough life where every minute of every day is a struggle. Her uncle is a security guard who loves Shakespeare but he is being used as a front for the company to earn BEE points. She lives with him in a one-room shack in the back of someone else’s garden but has taken to sleeping on the cold, cement floor to avoid having to sleep in the same bed with him. She is very ambitious and has visions of using her job at the Silver Spoon to launch a glittering future. She is also antagonistic, unfriendly and not a very likeable character. Yet the reader is still able to empathise with her through an understanding of the context that shaped her personality.
The style in which the book is written reflects the turmoil of both young women’s struggle to make sense of their identity and their place in the world. The present world action takes place in one day but each looks back to earlier times when they had not been disillusioned by the way the world treats them. Their earlier naiveté and trust has been replaced with a cynicism that is sad to see in such young people.
Reading this book I was saddened, angered and frustrated at the everyday racism both Ofilwe and Fikile experience; at the daily indignities each suffers. Unfortunately the difficulties of progressing in a world of whiteness causes Fikile to turn her nose up at other black people as if they are too blame for the structural ills of society. This is represented very well in the novel and exposed for what it is by the man in the train that Fikile meets. An excellent way to complete the novel, giving one pause to consider what it means to give up your language.
Despite having been published 9 years ago, this novel is still very relevant. Written with insight, humour and a wonderful ability to capture interactions between different people, it will either open your eyes or give you a sense of recognition, depending on whether you are black or white.