Jani Allan with Sheila Kohler of Princeton, author of “matchless SA memoir”

South African roots are strongly exposed in Jani Allan’s beautifully written interview with acclaimed author Sheila Kohler. Now 75 and a lecturer at the university where Albert Einstein kept students spellbound, Kohler’s 14th book is a powerful autobiography of life in the Apartheid State revolving around an unimaginable personal tragedy. Jani, who calls this a matchless SA memoir, is at her very best here with her first interview in “aeons”. She employs the style that made her a national icon in her native SA during the 1980s, proving that great writing is like riding a bicycle. Once learnt, always remembered. Good art. – Alec Hogg

By Jani Allan*

Sheila and I arrange to meet at Dinky’s on Princeton campus.

Jani Allan

Sheila’s memoir Once We Were Sisters’ has been described by Joyce Carol Oates as “a beautiful and tragic tale with echoes of cultural sexism and misogyny.”

Others speak of the book being viscerally compelling and intensely personal. JM Coetzee notes that “the most striking parts of this rich and poignant memoir…reflect on the necessary cruelty of the writer’s art, sacrificing the truth of the world to the truth of fiction.’

Who wouldn’t trepidate at the thought of meeting such a towering intellect? 

As I pootle along in my little yellow bug, I have Siri, also in a way, viscerally compelling, bossing me about how to get to Princeton. (“In three hundred yards, turn left. Turn LEFT” etc etc).

I sit outside the railway station waiting room that has incarnated as a coffee shop. It is my fervent hope that conducting an interview will be like riding a bicycle – something you don’t forget how to do.

Sheila arrives as if she had floated down on one of the Chagall cotton ball clouds. She flashes a smile. It is a dazzling book jacket smile.

Her wide-set eyes read me like an autocue. Let’s go inside, we agree. The traffic and the wind will make it difficult to talk outside. As it turns out, inside the acoustics, high-ceilings and raucous millennials will present another challenge, but Sheila and I have an instant rapport. We talk like old friends in mourning, as Nadine Gordimer once described it.

Karen Blixen wrote ‘Out of Africa’ when, in ill-health and having lost everything, she had to return to Denmark. She chose her pen name, Isak from the biblical story of Isaac. From her pain and devastation she birthed a writer.

In many ways Sheila’s story re-echoes this theme of transmogrifying tragedy into a gift. Before ‘Once We Were Sisters’ was to be the first of more than a dozen novels.

She lectures at Princeton, the Ivy League varsity (I adore the students. They are like so many sponges soaking up information) and writes a psychology blog.

One of her novels “Cracks” was made into a film by Ridley Scott’s daughter.

Her sister has been dead for thirty-five years, but ‘I still see her in the garden at Crossways’ – her L-shaped Herbert Baker house in Dunkeld, Johannesburg.

Last night, Sheila tells me, she was speaking on a panel of the great and good in New York. Someone referred to her memoir as ‘revenge porn.’

She is bemused by the description, as am I. She throws back her head and laughs. It is a macho smile, backlit with an innuendo of  private tragedy.

What does one do when one’s sister is murdered by her husband? What does one do when one’s husband takes a lover and expects one to comfort him?

“The only weapon left to me is to write about what has happened in fictional form… I am determined to keep her alive on the page. Here, I can give her the revenge she would have wanted to have. I can control her destiny.

“My mind turns back obsessively, as it does so often with trauma, returning to this theme in various permutations in an attempt to find meaning in the absurdity of our lives.’

What are the characteristics that will enable one to survive in this world?

“Well, certainly for me – perseverance. I think that came, from having basically a loving mother. For all her faults, she loved me and she wasn’t critical.’

She was in South Africa before Christmas for a wedding.

“Bad things are happening there. But at the same time I felt there were some good things too. We went to see the art, art galleries and young artists. I got this – she touches a bead necklace – there. I mean I feel strongly about the arts. That’s the one thing about Trump that really upsets me, that he’s cutting all the art funding. I think I would do that, that’s what I would do. If I had millions I would use it to encourage music, writing – all of that. I think that’s very important in the world.’

What constitutes a good memoir?

‘Memoir is like anything else, when it’s done very well and if it enables you to both leave yourself, leave your own life, go to somebody else’s life and at the same time maybe find yourself in someone else’s life.

That’s when memoir is good.’

At seventy-five Sheila is jaw-droppingly attractive. With her shoulder-length platinum blonde and her slender, girlish figure she draws comparison to Carmen dell Orificio, the 86 year old model who likes to tell people she goes straight from hip-replacement to the modeling ramp.

“People write to me from South Africa too, people who knew my sister. The lover in the book – his brother wrote to me. He said ‘I want to give this book to Michael for his 80th birthday’ (his name was Michael and I really call him Michael in the book). I thought oh no! He’s 80!”

Despite living in a dream Zip Code – Upper West Side Manhattan opposite the Lincoln Center, Sheila feels  “I don’t belong anywhere.’

Is she a citizen of the world, or of New York or her own experience?

“I think I don’t belong anywhere. I couldn’t really live in South Africa anymore, I miss it, and I love it. Whenever I go back there you just respond to that wonderful light, nature – it’s beautiful. You know you grew up in the Transvaal – with the flats distant around you. But I couldn’t really live there anymore.

So New York’s not a bad place, because no one really belongs in New York. And there’s lots of things going on. I mean, I could live probably anywhere. What’s important to me is the books.”

Following the death of her sister, Sheila decided to abandon her first marriage to move to New York to study the art of writing.

Was it her sister’s untimely death that allowed her to move forward in this way?

She met her second husband in New York. ‘He’s very good, I mean we fight like all couples do. We were both in our early 40s when we met and we were both from unhappy marriages and looking for someone. Friends would bring us together. He is a psychiatrist, so if I’m troubled by something, I run it by him.’

She claims to be frightened by everything.

“The train won’t come on time, all those kind of things. And travelling, losing your passport. Every situation is fraught with danger. People will say the wrong thing, you’ve said the wrong thing to a student or … I mean everything, everything. I rehash, I should have said that, no I shouldn’t have said that.”

Does she have any heroes or heroines?

“Only in books!” she replies.

Sheila is rather like a glass of fine champagne: Its arrival brings pleasure and its departure a yearning for more.

  • This column also appears in the forthcoming edition of Verve magazine.
  • Once We Were Sisters‘ by Sheila Kohler is published by Penguin Books.