Friday, 27 June 2008


I've been editing books for (oops, can this be true?!) more than a quarter of a century now, but because I fell by accident into the non-fiction furrow, and for one reason of another have never ploughed myself across the other side of the field, the times when my work has impacted on my fiction reading habits have been rare indeed. But when it has happened, the effect has been notable.

For example, I've mentioned before that, had I not been familiar with the name of Alexander McCall Smith through my work on successive editions of the textbook on Medical Ethics which he co-authored, I might not so quickly have happened upon his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books before they became big news in the UK. (And now he's one of the few writers for whose latest novel I will willingly queue at the bookshop door and gladly part with my hard-earned £££ for one of the first hardbacks off the press!.)

And then there was The Equal Opportunities Handbook, through which I encountered Martin Edwards, whose Harry Devlin and Lake District novels, short stories and erudite reviews have subsequently deepened my appreciation of crime fiction no end.

And now I have just finished reading a book which I'm sure I wouldn't have discovered, or purchased so eagerly, had it not featured in a fascinating article I copy-edited for a recent issue of the journal English Today. In '"Death of the mother tongue" - is English a glottophagic language in South Africa?', Rajend Mesthrie, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Cape Town, uses insights from Kopano Matlwa's novel Coconut to illustrate the viewpoints and dilemmas of the new young Black elite in South Africa.

The term coconut ('dark on the outside, white on the inside') is a term of disparagement used in South Africa to describe a Black person who has allegedly lost their culture, by becoming 'assimilated' into activities, education and occupations once associated with Whites, or by having mixed racial friendship groups:

'Coconuts, it is felt, have crossed over culturally and linguistically, since they speak with a White accent. It is also alleged that they have lost proficiency in their home language. The sociology of the new elites is a fascinating one which is still being explored by applied linguists, educationalist and sociolinguists.'

So what is it like to be a young, beautiful, aspirational, Black South African, highly educated yet cut adrift from the bedrock of native language and culture? This is the central theme of Coconut. Written by Kopano Matlwa when she was a 21-year-old medical student at the University of Cape Town, it is a quite remarkable literary debut, and little wonder that it scooped the European Union Literary Award for the best first novel in English by an African writer.
It actually reads more like two sequential novellas, loosely linked by setting and character (the two protagonists, Ofilwe and Fiks meet, briefly, in a restaurant where one is a customer and the other a waitress) as well as by general theme.

Ofilwe lives with her wealthy family in a security-guarded executive housing development. She is beautiful, clever, attends the best school in the area and is encouraged by her upwardly mobile parents to associated with White friends wherever possible. Yet despite having, superficially, every advantage in life, Ofilwe is neither happy nor contented. She finds herself living in a kind of cultural limbo. She speaks and acts White, yet of course she is not, but neither is she 'properly' Black, since her parents have deliberately cut themselves off from their own family roots, rituals and, most importantly perhaps, their native language. Ofilwe lives, ultimately, a soul-less, dysfunctional family life and her popularity at school is constantly tempered by an undercurrent of ingrained racism amongst her White contemporaries.

Fiks, by contrast, is poor and sees becoming 'White' as a way of leaving behind all that she regards as 'bad' about being Black. To be happy, for Fiks, is to be rich and to aspire to the Whiteness which, for her, represents the passport to material success. She has a difficult relationship with her employer and with her customers at the restaurant and her propensity for escaping into a self-deluding fantasy world is largely explained by her complicated, sexually abused, childhood, which emerges little by little as her narrative unfolds.

Strangely perhaps, and unlike the South African-based book I read immediately before it, Frankie and Stankie (an accidental but most illuminating juxtaposition), this is by no means a political novel - in fact it seems to have no 'agenda' at all. It simply states the case for these two particular girls. As Matlwa says at the end of the book, this is just 'our story, told in our own words as we feel it everyday'.

The writing is in turns lyrical and dreamy and brutally yet unselfpityingly frank. And it is no accident that it has been taken up by academic linguists - one learns as much about the characters from their use of the English language as we do from what they actually say. Kopano Matlwa has an acutely keen ear.
The girls' stories offer no solutions and point towards much sadness and disappointment yet this is not a bleak or hopeless book. I found it both compelling as a story and full of the kind of insights which perhaps only fiction can deliver. Highly recommended.

You can read an excerpt from the book here , and see Kopano Matlwa herself reading from her novel in the video below.

Author photos by BOOKphotoSA


Susie Vereker said...

How interesting. I was fascinated by the language in the extract.

monix said...

This looks like a must-read, J. Another one to add to the list of excellent African literature you have recommended.

Juliet said...

Susie - I don't think I made enough of the language in the post, actually. It's so well done. One can really *hear* the characters speaking. Ofilwe's mother, for example, who has escaped from Township life via a fortunate marriage, makes little or no distinction between 'he' and 'she' when referring to other people and uses them interchangeably which presumably reflects the language which she has now abandoned.

M - It's an amazing piece of writing for one so young, and very haunting. It's been quite an African year for me, though it's entirely coincidental and I certainly didn't set out to join in the 'African Challenge' or have any other plans. My reading just hops around on a whim. But having recently read Salt & Honey and Frankie & Stankie, both set in the early years of apartheid, shed so much light on this one, which gives glimpses into aspects of the 'aftermath' of that nation's recent history which one does not really ever glean from reading more 'factual' books and articles.

Martin Edwards said...

What you don't say, Juliet, but I will presume to say it for you, is that you really care about your editing work and that is the secret of being a great editor. I'd published plenty of non-fiction before I wrote the fourth edition of the Equal Opps Handbook, but suffice to say that, when I received your comments on the ms, I was greatly struck by the quality of the work you had done. I've had good editors in fiction, but in non-fiction they aren't too common. You did a great job on the book, and I thank you for it.

Juliet said...

Aw, *blush*! Thanks. Now I feel as though I'm the 'solicitor' round here!

As I said - stumbling upon good novelists (or indeed *any* novelists!) has not been a frequent perk of my day job, but those rare instances have all been significant. I must have read over a dozen of your novels in the past 12 months, Martin, and I'm pretty sure the only writer who beats that record in my reading lifetime is ... Shakespeare!!! :-)

60GoingOn16 said...

Thanks for this, J. There's a wealth of exceptionally good writing coming put of Africa - from north to south and from east to west. Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe - credited by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche (Purple Hibiscus/Half of a Yellow Sun) as being a major influence - is wonderful.

And, although I haven't read it, Unconfessed by Yvette Christianse, comes highly recommended. This is what her fellow South African writer Gabeba Baderoon says about it: ". . . a luminous novel set in nineteenth century Cape Town. The startling story, drawn directly from the archives, is told through the perspective of a woman looking at the city from Robben Island. The prose shimmers." I'm hoping my Kalk Bay friend will bring a copy with her when she visits in August!

Juliet said...

D - these certainly sound excellent - I shall have to investigate. Thanks for the recommendations.