Addressing cultural clashes

2008-10-02 08:05

COCONUT is the third winner of the European Union Literary Award - last year it went jointly to Fred Khumalo's Bitches Brew and Gerald Kraak's Ice in the Lungs, while in 2005 the winner was Ishtiyaq Shukri's The Silent Minaret. The award was launched at the 2004 National Arts Festival by the embassies of the European Union in South Africa as a way of encouraging new writing from this country, with Jacana Media as the publishing partner, guaranteeing the winner publication.

This year sees the prize going to 21-year-old Kopano Matlwa, a fourth-year medical student at UCT who is flying high, and not just with this award. In 2005 she won the Goldman Sachs Global Leaders Award for academic excellence and leadership potential.

Matlwa is obviously a talent to be reckoned with in several directions, and, judging by Coconut, local writing will be the poorer if she eventually decides to channel her energies into another area. However, at least we can all enjoy her writing skills for now.

This is sassy, in-your-face, intelligent writing. Not didactic, not preaching, but laying out the problems faced by an important sector of society - upwardly mobile black youth. Cultural cringe has long been used as a convenient shorthand for the attitude that sees everything as superior if it comes from “overseas”. But Coconut shows an even more local version - the anguish that apeing white manners and customs can cause for young blacks. Why must they speak as if they they grew up in some South African concept of the Home Counties? Why must they lose touch with their own traditions? Because they are being told, overtly and covertly, that this is the way to succeed.

The first part of the book deals with a “black diamond” family. Brother and sister Tshepo and Ofilwe have been given all the material advantages, and are well on the way to becoming fully-fledged “coconuts” - black on the outside and white on the inside. But their white peers, however welcoming they may sometimes seem, are still fixated on that outside. And Ofilwe, thinking in English, knows that her parents' home language, Sepedi, will not take her where she thinks she wants to go.

Her family eat Sunday breakfast each week in a fancy coffee shop, where Fikile, or “Fiks” as she wants to be known, is a waitress, seeing this job as her way out of the township. The second part is her story. Who knows, maybe she will be “discovered” as she serves berry smoothies and decaf coffees to those she hopes have made it already. Her life has been grim and, although she can't see it, it seems unlikely to get better this way.

Perhaps, particularly at the beginning, the structure of the novel is overly complex, but it is not a major issue. Matlwa offers plenty to think about as she lays bare the signifiers and dichotomies of South African life. She is not giving answers to the problems - she's talented, but she's only human - but she articulates what faces her generation in a particularly appealing way.

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