Coconut, by Kopano Matlwa

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Marcel Hamman2009096286
ENG31401 March 2013
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. 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, 2012: 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...
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