“Once We Were Sisters” is Kohler’s memoir about the tragic death of her older sister – and only sibling – Maxine. Devastated upon learning of her death, Kohler returned to Johannesburg from New York determined to understand how her brother-in-law could have driven them both off a deserted road, killing only Maxine. Kohler taps into issues of apartheid, hate, and violence that surrounded her life as an upper-middle class white in South Africa. Kohler recounts their childhood, their boarding school years and their marriages. Kohler elegantly portrays the bond between the two sisters. La Jolla Village News caught up with Kohler to ask her about her writing, “Once We Were Sisters.”
Lucia Viti (LV): The backdrop of apartheid in South Africa is an important element in “Once We Were Sisters.” What were your experiences with apartheid?
SK (SK): Apartheid was very important in my childhood because the people we loved – those who took care of us – were black. These people were treated as not fully human but as children or even animals. “Once We Were Sisters” illustrates the example of my mother wrinkling up her nose with distaste and telling John, the servant who cared for us, a tall and distinguished Zulu, "Clean up this cupboard, John. It smells Zulu,” unaware that it was insulting.
LV: The powerlessness within the marriages experienced by the women within your family appears to stem from the time and place – during the '50s and '60s within upper-class white South Africa. Do you think you would be writing a different story within today’s settings?
SK: Although I hope so, I’m afraid that even today there may be battered women who feel helpless and afraid to leave their husbands. The 1950s and '60s were a terrible time for women, particularly young women from South Africa, to do such a thing.
LV: Your work clearly states that you wish you did more to prevent Maxine’s death. What would you do differently if you could?
SK: I would hire a body guard, with her permission, to stand by her to make sure she was safe. But I question, would this have prevented her death in a car? It’s difficult to protect someone at all times.
LV: As the author of 14 works of fiction, “Once We Were Sisters” is your first foray into nonfiction. How was writing this book different from adapting your life experiences into your previous works?
SK: Writing “Once We Were Sisters” was different, but at the same time, it was the same. I discovered that I had to use the same techniques that I do writing fiction. I had to structure the story to write it as a story. Although I’m aware that it may be difficult for family members to read. It was difficult to write such truth as directly as I experienced it.
LV: You have often drawn upon your life and family history while writing your previous novels and stories. What was the catalyst for writing a memoir?
SK: My sister’s children are now grown and married with children of their own. My brother-in-law is dead. The people who might have protested are no more, including my mother. Also, I’ve been able to distance myself from this material. After so many years, I hope that others can profit from my experiences or at least retain an awareness that these experiences are a part of life.