Okay, time for a little book review.
So for class we read this book called Coconut by Kopano Matlwa. It’s a two part book that tells the story of two girls in South Africa trying to come to terms with their black selves, traditions and cultures in a country that’s experiencing increasing globalization and westernization. In the first part, a little girl named Ofilwe is struggling to get back to her African culture when her family is growing more and more apart from it and into the economic empowerment of post-apartheid South Africa. Her dad even tells her brother Tshepo, that he should be going to school to be an accountant, make a living for himself and not in African literature as he wants. Some people in the States may relate to this, but Matlwa is has a deeper meaning in writing this: traditional African values are very non-materialistic, and yet there’s this new notion that Tshepo should be doing something that will make him and his future family rich. He shouldn’t be pursuing something that should be enriching his mind, only for the sake of learning and the sake of being in touch with his African roots, according to his dad. His mom supports his pursuits, but she is also prey to the materialism. Her focus is on making her family look good, making sure her house is clean, that she has the latest cosmetics, etc. Meanwhile, Olfilwe tries to get her dad to talk to her about the past, and he seems to brush her off when she tries to talk with them in their native tongue when English is growing more and more common.
And then in part two, there’s Fiks. She’s a young girl who we see grow up into the becomings of a black girl pursuing white affluence. She has a box full of cosmetics and she reads glamour magazines because she feels that black is inferior. It’s kin to dirt, she says. She spends her days working at the Silver Spoon—a play on words for her career and personal pursuits into “the good life,” which she can never aspire to reach the full potential of. Her self-makeover project to be the best she can be, the “whitest” she can be is manifested in what she calls Project Infinity. There’s a certain economic and sociologic theme at work here. Sociologic because she’s a black girl trying to be white. Through the internal dialogue the reader can see how pompous she is and how good of a person she thinks she is in serving white customers. Economic because, though she lives out in the townships, she’s trying to overcome that lifestyle and rise into a new social class, I think. While Tshepo does it through academics (the American way, eh?), Fiks does it through hard work and thinking that the harder she works, the more noticed she will be by her white boss and get ahead in the Silver Spoon life (I suppose that’s also the American work ethic). She often calls out fakers, when she is the biggest faker of them all. In the end, though, the same man she met on her way to work which sought to only reinforce her notions of posteriority, also unravels those same feelings. When she finally talks to this man, hears his story and his genuineness, we see Filks suddenly be pulled back out of this dream she has of leaving behind her black culture and trying to be something she can never be.
There’s a lot of irony at play in the novel, and I’ve only covered the basics here. But for me, personally, it really struck a chord with me when I realized something, and it set me off on yet another path of philosophizing, reasoning and coming to terms with myself, which is what I would like to try to explain here. As I’ve said before yesterday, I find myself to be much more European than American. Everytime I travel, I come back to the States, and I detest doing so. I’ve finally made the decision that, when the time comes, I’ll move to Europe for my career and leave behind my American nominal identity. But that’s where I catch myself: can I ever really leave it behind? I’ll always be the American in Europe, because I was born American. Yes, maybe by blood and by geography, I’m American, but mentally I’m more European. So which takes predominance? I feel like Filks, who is trying to shed her past that she can’t hide from, in exchange for another that’s entirely not her own. If she or I really, truly think in her or my heart of hearts that I was born in the wrong society and seek to correct it, is that justified? I won’t begin to justify it in terms of purity. I’m not pure American any more than I’d be pure European, despite my Irish and German heritages. I can learn who I am and who I want to be and try to reconcile the two, but at times I feel that I just don’t believe in the American dream anymore. Is that wrong of me, or am I just coming to terms with reality and seeing beyond that piece of propaganda that attracts people here? I told my friend about my plans to move, and she actually tried to dissuade me from it. Lately I’ve been thinking of that Mark Twain quote, “love my country always, love my government when it deserves it.” Maybe it’s the political scientist in me, but I tend to equate a government with a country. A good government means a good country, right? I mean, sure a country can have a terrible government but have a lively culture and people, but I don’t usually look that far into it. I’m caught between the Filks in me who wants to leave this place for another, and the Ofilwe in me who has a desire to learn about her past when nobody else around her seems to care about it. Maybe in the book, and in myself, there’s some overlap and fine lines between the two.
I know, I know. This is basically just a rant and me getting my thoughts down so I can sort them out, but any writing should have some sort of conclusion, right? I can conclude that, as much as I may detest America, I don’t have to live with it, but I can’t bash it either. I would be just as hypocritical as Filks. If I’m supposed to follow my dreams and my heart, and that just so happens to lead me 2,500 miles away, does that suffice for the American dream though I’m not within its geographical borders? I just feel that I fit in more there. Sure, I could find someone else who is a multilingualist here like me, but my chances of such are much easier in Europe, and people there are much more enthusiastic to be polyglots. Unlike Filks or Olfilwe’s dad, I’m not going there entirely to fulfill my financial needs. While my career may lead me there, I’m also going because I genuinely want to, so I can’t be accused of following that route, I reason. I’ll always remember where I came from, because that’ll always be a part of my identity. Ryan Freer—former American citizen. When I was in South Africa and I’d go out somewhere where I didn’t feel entirely secure, I would put on a false English accent to disguise myself. In hindsight, it was foolish because South Africans probably like Americans more than they do British, I didn’t feel myself and a small part of me was ashamed for it. That’s an experience I still can’t shake, and it’s something I’ll have to reconcile in the future. If I have to go somewhere and completely disguise who I am, is that a place I want to be? There are so many things that are conflicting in my head and my heart here. Against a background of natural nationalism (definition pending), at the foreground there’s a dialogue of false identity. As Thoreau once said, “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”