10 October 2016

Hair, skin, eyes, the nose, or whatever else parts of the body are all used to portray a site of struggle in the novel “Coconut” by Kopano Matlwa. It is clear that identity is used in coherence with appearance. As detailed in the novel we as mere humans judge each other on the surface based merely on skin colour or even the accents we use when speaking. This causes the need for a change of appearance by the two main characters we encounter throughout this novel, namely Ofilwe and Fikile.

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Both characters, especially Fikile, in some way try to deny their heritage and focus on using the English language or changing their appearance in order to acquire a greater sense of superiority. During this essay I will be focussing on the need for a change of appearance associated with the pursuit of a more superior and successful self. According to the article “Identity and the Body”, by Susie O’Brien and ImreSzeman, we can identify two points of view concerning identity.

From an essentialist theoretical perspective identity can be seen as “a fundamental, unchanging core of meaning that precedes and transcends culture and politics” (O’Brien and Szeman, 2010: 184). The novel “Coconut” however is rather focussing on the social constructivist theory that attempts to “emphasize the cultural and political circumstances in which identities are produced” (O’Brien and Szeman, 2010: 184). This article continues to portray the “categories of gender, sexual orientation and race as markers of identity and social power” (O’Brien and Szeman, 2010: 185).

However during the novel the human body is used to represent the same idea by describing how a change in appearance can be thought to acquire greater social power and superiority. Hair comes through as a powerful image describing the struggle between suppression and superiority. On the first page of the novel Ofilwe is describing a little black girl’s braids by using adjectives such as plastic, shiny and cheap (Matlwa, 2012: 1). This immediately demotes the black girl’s character as being inferior. In contrast a white girl named Kate Jones is said by Ofilwe to have “the most beautiful hair I had ever seen” (Matlwa, 012: 1). This places Kate Jones on a more socially powerful level than her non-white peers. It is even stated that some of the black girls would even do Kate favours just to experience a touch of her hair. With this idea in her subconscious, Ofilwe prefers to endure the pain of straightening her hair just to get rid of every last curl. This is of course done in an attempt to have straight hair like her white peers, thus placing them on a higher socially powerful level than herself. The pain encountered during the straightening of her hair is also emphasised by the repetition “Burn. Burning. Burnt. ” (Matlwa, 2012: 3).

In the second part of the novel we find that Fikile has caramel-blonde hair extensions. This, in coherence with her Lemon Light skin-lightener cream, sunscreen, eyeliner, mascara, eye-shadow, etc. (Matlwa, 2012: 117) shows how Fikile is willing to change her identity to obtain a greater sense of whiteness, which she associates with success and wealth. This assumption is also emphasised where Mrs Zola asks Fikile what she wants to be when she grows up. Fikile replies with the answer “White” (Matlwa, 2012: 135). Fikile also describes her emerald green contact lenses as being her most expensive possession (Matlwa, 2012: 117).

In this sense we find Fikile going to the extent of changing her eye colour to modify her appearance and move closer towards a greater sense of whiteness. So in effect when looking into a mirror she will see a brown girl with green eyes moving closer to what she calls “Project Infinity”. By wearing the contact lenses Fikile is also literally altering her view on life. But what I found particularly interesting is the possible reasoning of why the contact lenses she uses is specifically green. Earlier in the novel Ofilwe states that her favourite colour is green (Matlwa, 2012: 55).

From page 32 onwards we also encounter the story of the Green Apples and the Pears. Here the Green Apples are associated with being white and the Pears with being black. Now the colour green is usually associated with the idea of new life and new beginning, but the colour green is also associated with the emotion of jealousy. So here we have three examples in the novel of the colour green as being a symbol of having a white skin and being successful. Thus we can extrapolate that Kopano Matlwa probably wants to showcase the jealousy towards whiteness underlying in the characters’ subconscious during the era that the novel is set.

A more obvious way of portraying the body as a site of struggle is by using the idea of skin colour. Ofilwe describes her future children as having “Colgate smiles” and being “painted in shades of pink” (Matlwa, 2012: 19). This again shows her tendency to associate a lighter or different skin colour with success. Also we encounter the phrases “Stop acting black! Stop acting black! ” (Matlwa, 2012: 31). This passage further echoes the idea of inferiority associated with a black skin. Next the story Tshepo told Ofilwe about the Green Apples and Pears ties in with the image of a difference in skin colour (Matlwa, 2012: 32-37).

As mentioned above the story describes the Green Apples as being associated with being white and the Pears as being black. The idea of a traitor Pear is also introduced. This traitor Pear denies the fact that it is a Pear and attempts to associate itself with the Green Apples. In this figurative sense we can associate Fikile as being a traitor Pear. This can be said as she constantly denies her heritage and culture, refuses to speak her home language and endlessly alters her appearance in a desire of being white.

This point can further be proven by looking at the part where Fikile makes the statement: “I am not one of you. You are poor and black and I am rich and brown” (Matlwa, 2012: 140). Tshepo basically calls Ofilwe a traitor Pear during the extract “you are not one of their own. Then you will turn back, but there too you will find no acceptance, for those you have once rejected will no longer recognise the thing you have become. ” (Matlwa, 2012: 93). This extract follows the scene where Tshepo saw all the posters on Ofilwe’s wall and realised that all the people she admires are white (Matlwa, 2012: 91-93).

Thus he feels that she is betraying her culture and denying her heritage. According to Tshepo Ofilwe is denying her true identity. “being black presents an untenable choice: become fully human by identifying with what you are not and never can be, or be your “self”- in effect a non-self, defined only by difference and negation. ” (O’Brien and Szeman, 2010: 190). I found that this extract in the article “Identity and the Body” ties in with the above mentioned denying of the true self. Now although language does not fall under the “body” category it does form a strong connection with skin colour.

The English language does come forth as a dominating language being associated with white people and is described as “the one that spoke of sweet success” (Matlwa, 2012: 54). This idea of the English language being associated with whiteness is used in contrast during the extract where Ofilwe does not tell her mom about the parents evening at school. This is because she is too embarrassed by her mom, because, according to her, her mother’s English is ghastly (Matlwa, 2012: 51). The next paragraph in the novel however starts off by Ofilwe describing her mother as being beautiful, having a soft metallic blue-black skin colour.

Through the above mentioned we can see that Ofilwe is not deliberately being offensive by not letting her mom know about the parents evening. Instead it shows the underlying idea in her subconscious of the dominating position of English being in connection to whiteness and being associated with success and superiority. Ofilwe continues by referring to English as being “the TV language” (Matlwa, 2012: 54). She also sees her dad as being successful and notes that English is also the language he uses at work (Matlwa, 2012: 54).

Both of the last mentioned views from Ofilwe’s perspective further support her idea of English being associated with success. The head as a symbol of struggle comes through in the passage containing the phrase “I need to spring clean my head” (Matlwa, 2012: 177). Here Fikile is basically admitting to having a fragmented psyche. She chooses to ignore the truth that she is rejecting her true identity and also chooses not to face her thoughts. This idea is also portrayed in the final scene where she walks away while in mid-conversation with the man on the train.

After describing his fear that his daughter will never speak her home language she just walked away without even greeting him. This shows that Fikile is running away from the truth. She even refers to the township (the same township she despises and sees as a symbol of poverty and lost opportunities) as being “home” (Matlwa, 2012: 190). In conclusion we have now seen many examples used by Kopano Matlwa of the body being a site of struggle. I find the change in identity a sad result of the pursuit for superiority. Both Ofilwe and Fikile undergo this change in identity and denial of the true self with different mind sets.

I feel that Fikile deliberately denies her true identity as she is jealous of the success that white people have gained according to her perspective. From my take on the novel I find that Ofilwe approaches the change in identity (or denying of true identity) as a result of being bombarded by media and growing up in a well-off environment. Both Ofilwe and Fikile have, in their own ways, undergone transformation with the end result of becoming traitor Pears.

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