There’s life in ‘Killing Karoline’

KILLING KAROLINE: A MEMOIR by Sara-Jayne King (Jacana Media)


A word that is woven into the fabric of South Africa, stealthily slipping into our everyday language.

See a cute puppy? “Shame.” Tell a friend you had a bad day? “Shame.”

Someone stressing you out? “Ooh shame! Do they even know me!”

This strange, slippery word has, like “sorry”, taken on multiple meanings that are neatly folded into its letters.

“Shame”, we utter casually.

I wonder why.

The word has become a signature of our South African vernacular: dextrous, fluid and multitextured. But it reverberated differently as I read Sara-Jayne King’s remarkable memoir, Killing Karoline. Here, shame sprawls out in multiple directions: touching South African history, family connections, internalised emotions and tangential echoes that reflect my own experience of navigating the world as a coloured person.

My fascination with shame’s dimensions began while reading academic Zimitri Erasmus’s paper, Shame and the Case of the Coloured. She writes about how the myth of racial purity in strictly defined black and white identities created a fear of “racial mixing”. This came to be known as miscegenation, which, as author JM Coetzee writes, has connotations of “blood, flaw, taint and degeneration”.

There are multiple sites of shame for Erasmus too: “Shame for our origins of slavery, shame for the miscegenation, shame, as colonial racism became instituted, for being black.”

Of the multiple use of the word in South Africa, she writes: “It is no coincidence that the word ‘shame’ has been reduced to an utterance of tenderness, sympathy or empathy so that we would exclaim ‘shame’ on seeing a baby or a beggar, whilst the meaning of disgrace has been excised in common usage.”

Although we can deny and reject this imposed shame, which claims agency over ourselves and our bodies, it marks us in varied and inescapable ways. Reclaiming ourselves is, therefore, a radical act.

Killing Karoline, a novel rooted in such reclamation, unfolds a personal history that cuts the reader to the core. It’s a narrative that is both shocking and subtly unsurprising, given the race politics in our country.

Karoline’s story begins with a crime: a white woman’s affair with a black man during apartheid. As Kris falls pregnant, hoping the baby is her white husband Ken’s child, she remains silent about her transgression. When the baby is born, she is declared white — a box ticked atop a racial hierarchy, a safety net that would serve to keep a family intact and a secret safe — if only for a while.

A few weeks later, however, it becomes clear that the baby is not white and, with this, an apartheid sin morphs into an unthinkable evil. Kris eventually spills the secret and, alongside Ken, they spin a story of sickness, for which the baby requires treatment in London. They take her abroad and give her up for adoption, telling everyone in South Africa that she has died.

They kill Karoline. In another country, she becomes Sara-Jayne. Same, different and forever altered.

There are books that seep into your skin: you root for some characters, despise others and cling to the story as pages turn and words connect with some part of you, of your story or sense of humanity. Killing Karoline is one of these books. With vulnerability, honesty and openness, Sara-Jayne King deftly crafts a personal narrative into a compelling memoir that speaks to our soil and society, and resonates beyond it.

I read the book after having met King. Through the Inescapable Social World of Zuckerberg (also known as Facebook), I’d kept up with her life and writing. And through her writing, I felt that I got to know her more deeply. This is the mark of a great memoir; the construction of closeness and intimacy through language and narrative.

Commenting on the nature of the modern essay, feminist author Roxane Gay writes: “In the song Poetic Justice, Kendrick Lamar raps: ‘[when] You’re in the mood for empathy, there’s blood in my pen.’ This is how we might consider the essay — blood in the pen of the essayist, inking the personal to bring about an empathetic response.”

This, too, is perhaps how we can consider King’s writing. But instead of setting her target at external empathy, her pen aims inward, as she writes herself into existence, belonging and emancipation with humour and pathos. Part of the novel’s success lies in making us question our journey on this path to feeling at home in our skin, in our familial bonds and in our country.

King, a radio and television broadcaster, is a gifted writer. There is poetry in these sentences. They show and do not tell. Her measured words are weighted, landing elegantly, heavily and smoothly, according to King’s intended effect.

One dimension that makes the story fascinating is the way it adds to conversations about family, belonging, adoption and mixed-raced identities; ways that complicate our easy understandings and sugar-spun stories. As more writing, documentaries and online conversations occur about mixed-race and coloured identities, King’s story adds the often overlooked experience of transracial adoption to these discussions.

Published during the same cycle as Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, King’s memoir undercuts the idea of connection through appearance. Experiences, even when we look similar, can have vast oceans between them.

In the memoir, shame emerges in a letter to King from Kris, who writes: “My dearest Sara-Jayne, I must admit with shame that your future rested on your race — I cannot put it any other way” and, later, “We would have kept you if there had been any way possible but there was not.”

My chest tightens while reading these words. My jaw clenches, and breath quickens. Shame used in this way is where it belongs. It is not Sara-Jayne’s to bear. It remains with a woman who had choices, in spite of her claims to having none, and is attached to the society of people who enabled and were complicit in killing Karoline.

Sara-Jayne lives. Her existence is etched into her sentences. The exceptional memoir she has penned is the act of writing as transformative resistance. Although her story seems singular, it is echoed in other apartheid experiences and has universal elements in asking who we are as a South African society and how race made, and continues to make and unmake us, against the backdrop of personal and political history.

In writing this, I am reminded of the opening lines of Joan Didion’s book of essays, The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line, upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Bending Didion’s words, we write our stories in order to live, with ourselves, our history and towards our future. We look for ourselves in words, and search for the rupture and reason, and emerge, if we are lucky, altered by our texts, achieving personal revolution.

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