Updated: Jan 1, 2022
Caroline Kautsire’s memoir What Kind of Girl? chronicles the author’s tantalizing journey of self-discovery as she contemplates this theme, all the while dreaming of traveling to America to become an aspiring actress. Growing up in the small east African country of Malawi, her perspective is that of the only girl and youngest child in her relatively affluent family. Her parents rose from humble beginnings, her father climbing upward through the ranks in an insurance firm, and her entrepreneurial mother cultivating a plant business from her front porch, despite ridicule from family and friends who felt she was wasting her time. They "didn't appreciate the beauty and significance of plants," yet the business grew.
Early on, Caroline seems poised not to reject outright, but to resist the traditional roles and expectations for daughters. Cooking is anxiety-provoking, wearing a Chitenje (traditional African fabric worn by women) feels suffocating, taking A exams seems pointless. Even as she avoids following customs, the author always shows deep respect and appreciation for her family. It was the author’s paternal grandmother who perhaps infused her with blessings of rebelliousness on the day Caroline was born as the elder woman refused staff orders to stop smoking in the hospital. Orders shrank to suggestions, which eventually dissolved entirely as it was clear this woman was not listening to anyone, or if she was listening, she was not about to follow their orders.
But it may have been a traumatic and terrifying attack on the family home by a marauding band of thieves when the author was only six years old, that propelled Caroline into a girl wanting to shed her childhood early with a fierce desire to protect her loved ones, and to find her place in the world. To cultivate superhero strength, agility, independence, and defiance. She was, after all, the only one in her family to reach the house alarm before the intruders gained complete unfettered access.
As the author grows older and gains experience, she grapples with understanding her identity which is often incongruous with that of her peers. She is the kind of girl who wants to be on equal footing with boys, in fights, bike races, proving herself equal in bravery, skill, and perseverance. She is the kind of girl who questions authority and stands up to nuns as they preach against hugging fathers or brothers, lest she inadvertently tempts them into incest. She chooses to challenge this absurd guideline as others dutifully took notes on how to be a “good” teenage girl. My admiration for the author is off the charts in this chapter when she inquires on the most basic level, “If this is a class, shouldn’t we ask questions?” The nuns say no.
The author manages to weave a variety of stories, some serious or even terrifying but many infused with humor. While away at boarding school and seemingly all other girls her age have already started having periods except for her, Caroline decides to pretend she has entered this stage of womanhood. She quickly tires of wearing a pad needlessly, “When I walked, I worried that people would see it sticking out behind me like a tail.” I am reminded of a high school experience when my best friend needed a pad from the nurse’s office and she complained that this industrial version felt like she had a “loaf of bread between her legs.” I think many women can relate.
Throughout, the author’s tone is inquisitive and self-reflective. She occasionally judges herself harshly and is her own worse critic when she claims to be a mediocre student, with poor grades in writing. She must have taken this as a challenge because her words flow seamlessly across the pages of her memoir. She aspires to be an actress and while in school demonstrates an aptitude for drama, but her father would prefer she take a more certain path to prosperity by becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
While she evolves with a deeper understanding of self, the author also recognizes she is a girl with a certain modicum of privilege. She is fortunate enough for security systems and guards, wealthy enough for boarding school, lucky enough to feel safe with her male family members. Having the means to travel away from Malawi to America, fulfilling her childhood dream, her ride to the airport awakens a wave of guilt over the deterioration of the local city and the pervasive poverty that she will soon be flying away from. A sharp contrast to the senses when recalling her childhood home in Sunny Side.
While I was reading her memoir, each time I reached for it, the title caught my eye What Kind of Girl? I was reminded of the 1960s television sitcom That Girl starring Marlo Thomas. The show opened with varied peripheral characters referencing “that girl” which would cause the main character Ann Marie to stop in her tracks. The camera would zoom in on her surprised face, allowing for the opening credits and intro theme song to begin. Although primarily a zany sitcom in the early days of color TV, this was also an early example of prime time television depicting a modern single woman who was reaching for her dreams which extended beyond traditional roles. Each time I picked up Caroline’s memoir from my nightstand my, mind would automatically answer back That kind of girl.
Caroline Kautsire poses her question all the while telling us from start to finish exactly what kind of girl she is. She is a force to be reckoned with, not one to sit idly by and let others tell her what kind of girl she should or will be. She decided from her earliest days to be the sole determiner of her fate. And stay tuned… I just read that we can now look forward to her upcoming new memoir, Some Kind of Girl. Can’t wait!