Are You Getting White With Me?
(Rediscovery Blog – Leg IX – Cracking the Coconut with Dr. Matlwa)
You are roughly half my age, yet somehow you have written a book that is unnervingly “mature” in its dissection of a theme that, in my opinion, is the placenta that feeds many of the world’s great novels – the quest for identity and autonomy.
To be quite honest, I was expecting African chicklit. Fortunately, you gave me a whole lot more. The purpose of my Voyage of Rediscovery is to broaden my horizons and to explore worlds that are generally inaccessible to a middle-aged, white guy (which is, sadly, what I have turned out to be). That means I read fiction in the hope that it reflects fact in such way that I am forced to reconsider my perceptions of the real world – my real world. In short, a good book raises questions. And your Coconut produced plenty of milk for my hungry mind.
To keep things in perspective, I have boiled my many musings down to a single train of thought (even blending metaphors to extract the coconutty essence of it all).
You may be interested to hear that the Creole community in Holland have their own term for “coconuts.” They refer to people who are brown outside but white inside as “Bounties” – a reference to a popular chocolate bar which has a white, coconut filling (how apt). This implies that the pursuit of “whiteness” (whatever that may be) is not only frowned upon in South Africa, but also in Amsterdam, where race is not necessarily a hot issue.
All this brings to mind the odd expression: “Are you getting white with me?” I’m not sure if this is still commonly used in South Africa, but in my youth it served to firmly remind supposedly inferior parties (of all races) of their place in the pecking order.
All of these terms – coconut, Bounty, white – are almost invariably expressed at an interpersonal level in reference to perceived attempts to achieve or express superiority. I suppose it all boils down to that age-old question: “Do you think you’re better than me?” This blunt shard of rhetoric becomes even more lethal when it is dipped in racial potion. In essence, the coconut or Bounty is accused of misplaced superiority with regard to an entire race or community, and not just at an interpersonal level.
What I find intriguing is that, to my knowledge, none of the characters in your book is ever accused of being a coconut. However, they all portray various dimensions of this theme: Fifi wants to be accepted by her white friends; Fiks wants to escape her dire circumstances; Uncle has allowed himself to be exploited to consolidate the superiority of his white bosses; and Tshepo is struggling to achieve superiority on his own terms.
Your book is especially impressive in that it does not choose sides, but allows characters to play out different dimensions of the struggle for identity, autonomy and superiority. Naturally, the encounters between these different characters also offer highly provocative food for thought.
That said, I am sure Coconut will be a source of endless debate once it becomes required reading at South African high schools. I wish I could listen in on these discussions, if only to confirm that the issue at hand has as many dimensions as there are people.