I just finished reading Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla. It was a really good read, much better than I expected (to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t remember if it was going to be an essay, a biography or a novel)! I stumbled across the title whilst reading an article on my new favourite publication: gal-dem, who were speaking to the author about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry in the run up to Bare Lit – a literary festival for writers of colour (held in February). I didn’t manage to get tickets…I kept putting it off and putting it off and before I knew it, they were all gone and I was devastated. I really could have done with seeing successful writers to inspire me to get writing more about things I’m passionate about.
It’s a fiction narrative, but there’s obviously a basis in reality from the experiences of Shukla and people he has encountered (and probably still continues to). Now I’m quite clearly not of Indian descent, however I’m still a POC and a first generation born-here-but-not-white millennial girl living in a culturally diverse and sometimes hostile world. Let me tell you that some of the experiences and anecdotes rang so true in this is had me saying ‘yaaaas’ whenever there was something I could relate to – whether that was casual racism, growing up in very middle class 98% white neighbourhood/school or running into trouble when maneuvering around stereotypes.
” It’s Harrow in the 1990s and Amit, Anand and Nishant are stuck. Their peers think they’re try-hard darkies, acting street and pretending to be cool, while their community thinks they’re rich toffs, a long way from the ‘real’ Asians in Southall “
Protagonist Amit is an awkward teenager. His family are Asian. He goes to private school and lives in the middle class suburbs of Harrow. In no way are these bad things, but I can totally relate in his struggle to find his identity throughout his teenage years – remaining true to his heritage and making his family proud, whilst simultaneously trying to fit in and be cool for his peers. Although I am state school and proud. (I wholeheartedly disagree in the fact that the wealthy can pay children’s way through an education that only serves to perpetuate and increase the disparity between social classes, making movement within them even harder). Amit finds solace in Hip Hop and feels he has an affinity with the struggle of blacks in America at the time ie police brutality, systemic and institutionalised racism, poverty, drugs and crime. (We can’t deny Amit’s priviledge in his choice to align his struggle with that of black Americans in the 90s).Despite living a cushy lifestyle, attending private school with parents who work 7 days a week to fund this, Amit isn’t satisfied and persuades his closes friends to form a hip hop band with him. ‘Coconut Unlimited’ is its name.
…aaah being called a coconut…oreo…the ever present backhanded compliment that’s ben bestowed on me many-a-time. Black on the outside, but doesn’t ‘act black’ or doesn’t ‘talk black’ and is basically white in every way except for the skin. Yeah, let’s just divorce people from an essential part of their identity because they are well mannered and softly spoken.
When-people-expect-you-to-be-the-loud-overbearing-black-girl-but-are-surprised-when-you’re-not-because-wait, we’re not all the same!!
ANYWAY, to get back from that tangent I was going on, reading this book got me thinking more and more about my own experiences of navigating my own identity as a child/teenager/now. It’s kind of sad thinking back on it that I would sometimes consciously try to disassociate myself or be embarrassed of things that were deemed to be stereotypically ‘black’. I remember we used to cringe so hard when our dad would blast reggae music from his huge speakers on a Sunday afternoon, so loud that it could literally be heard from half way down the mean streets of Lady Bay. I also remember feeling so uncomfortable at that age where people started getting boyfriends (don’t worry, I never did!) and everyone just expected the one other ally in our year and myself to get together. ‘…Oh you and xxx would go so well together…’ And I would reply, ‘why though, we’re not even friends!’ I felt that if I did take their advice, I would somehow be perpetuating some kind of vision they had for me simply based on race. We never got together.
Although I tried to disassociate myself from my blackness, one stereotype that I couldn’t escape was that for being good at sports/dance. Yep, I was the fastest 100m sprinter in my year and longest triple jumper and I was naturally good at pretty much most sports I put my hand to (blowing my own trumpet a bit here). But it felt good to be the best at something so I was never going to not try and win a race on purpose…my family names was all over school athletics records from years gone by – I think/hope some still stand today, well out of my school years– so it was just a role I naturally assumed.
But why did I want to be different? Just that thought in itself is so problematic. Why did I feel it necessary to be ‘not like other blacks’ in order for people to deem my achievements/success as achievements/success? Did me not fitting the stereotype mean I was better than someone else who was? No. Get rid of the stereotype and you’ll see that I’m not different – we all are! I remember studying DuBois at Uni and his theory of ‘double consciousness’ and this really affected me in terms of how true it really is. It’s basically that black people have the ability to see themselves, but to also see themselves through the eyes of others, which often leads them to alter their behaviour in order to be see in a more favourable light.
But this in itself poses a problem. If people always see you as ‘other’, ‘exotic’ or ‘unusual’ (‘can I touch your hair?’ – no I’m not an animal for stroking!), is there even any point in changing your actions and behaviour in attempts to give a better impression? It’s a bit like predestination (this is getting a bit deep now, wow): if God already has a list of who gets to go to heaven or not, then there’s no point in demonstrating good actions and beliefs, since these will ultimately have no effect on the outcome!
SO, it all sounds a bit bleak. But here’s the good part. People are always going to have their own opinions of you. So why try and change yourself (and make yourself unhappy) to make them happy or at ease?! Just do you!
So back to Coconut Unlimited… It’s a really great read and I highly recommend. It’s not all heavy stuff about racial politics and prejudice, it’s laugh-out-loud funny (as I did too many times on the commuter train, forgetting I’m in a public place) and the characters and their experiences are so familiar it’s got a sense of nostalgia that makes it un-put-down-able.