I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell – Coconut (2007), Kopano Matlwa
Within a few hours of picking up the book from a family friends’ impressive bookshelves, it was all over. I didn’t understand why I had been so resistant to reading it when all those years ago, I stood hiding behind bookshelves listening to Kopano Matlwa; a precocious medical student then and now qualified medical doctor, health activist, Oxford Scholar and author of three successful manuscripts (Spilt Milk, 2010 and Period Pain 2017) answer questions about her debut novel, Coconut (2007) which had also scooped the European prize for literature in 2008.
It was interesting.
Her audience at the time, composed mostly of white people with some highlights, including myself. I can’t remember everything that was being said. But I do remember watching myself watch her sitting there, a young woman just like me who had achieved more with her life than I had in my entire my lifetime. Was it jealousy? Envy? Bring her down syndrome? “It’s a day in the life of a black school girl, it takes place in a day,” she said shyly. I wanted to ask a question but I had not read the book so I let the moment pass and continued to inhale the intoxicating smell of new books. I may not be a writer nor a published author but I can, at the very least, read.
It took me a decade, 10 years to be precise to finally read the book which peaked at me from other people’s shelves as if to ask, and me? Yes, yes she’s a gifted writer I would say each time her name came up in conversation about new reads. But I had no idea what was between the books’ covers. Now I understand why it took me so long to read it from cover to cover in just four hours.
The title of the book rubbed me up the wrong way. I couldn’t get past it even though the cover clearly said; A Novel. But now that I’ve read every word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter and all its parts – since I have gone through it. I get it.
I was a victim of words; language meant a lot to me.
I had been called a coconut ( a derogatory term used to describe black-African people who could speak English fluently – i.e black on outside and white on the inside) for so long that by the time Matlwa came out shining in all her brilliance I couldn’t bring myself to purchase or read the insult. It was too much, I didn’t want to relive the experience. The word Coconut had taunted, haunted, bullied, sneered, laughed, humiliated me at every turn. She wants to be white they whispered in front of me, who do you think you are, trying to be better than us eh? they shouted behind my back.
Instead, I drifted to the academic section at the Boekehuis and picked out a much lighter read than what Matlwa offered, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952).
It’s been a rough ride.
Today most (aspirational – middle class) South Africans appreciate that fluency in English(the imperial language) does not mean that the speaker desires to be white nor does it make the person more or less African or more or less intelligent. Neither does it make them a nice, good, evil or a bad person or vice versa for African language speakers. All these appendages depend on the speaker’s individual character and their motives for speaking or not speaking said language notwithstanding the power structures or systems governing society.
A language is a tool (a means to an end, not an end in itself). It can be used for just about anything under the sun if one has the power and influence to lubricate its application. I have spoken Afrikaans with white English-speaking South Africans in the Middle-East just so that the Arabic-French- English-speaking taxi driver would not hear what we were saying. In school, we invented code languages so that we could confuse others but understand each other just for the fun of it. We pretended not to understand others so we could hear them speak freely in languages we were fluent in. So we could see or know the man behind the mask.
The more languages a person cultivates the better. Words are only as powerful as the value you place on them regardless of where they come from – of course, life is easier if one can use and understand the dominant syntax (power and ideology). But what you believe ( i.e hold dear, value or love: the philosophy you live by ) is more important than anything else.
So, I am happy to finally put this delightful, sometimes funny and discomforting story about being a black African in the world today along with its long list of relatives including but not limited to race and identity to bed.
Besides, coconut oil is all the rage for growing Afros, naturally.
Read it if you can.