Chasing Ghosts: Not Just an Adoption Memoir
By Kamila Zahno
Published by Rona Books, 2016
Review by Claire Whittenbury
Chasing Ghosts by Kamila Zahno is subtitled ‘Not Just an Adoption Memoir’ and it’s far more than that. Part political record, part love story, part family saga with a mystery at its heart and entirely the story of a life lived without answers, but with determination.
Writing a memoir when you don’t know who you are, but you know that you won’t be that person for much longer must feel desperate; the need to find the answers before it’s too late makes it a gripping read.
When I first met Kamila through World Land Trust (WLT) in 2014, it was immediately apparent that she had a story to tell. Kamila’s strength is evident. She’s a charismatic woman who tells it as it is, and we discussed her quest, her incurable illness, and her desire to support WLT. When she decided to leave a legacy she took legal advice, ensuring that any inheritance tax was avoided having discussed her wishes with her adoptive family of three siblings. At this stage she hadn’t traced any new family members, but already it was clear that this was no ordinary family history.
At the beginning of 2015 we worked together to make a video explaining how legacies benefit WLT projects around the world. By this time her research was well under way and she came to Suffolk to write the bones of Chasing Ghosts, to wander the marshes and continue her (then covert) research. When the video was finished she was at such a crucial stage of the research that she wasn’t even sure when we could publicly use her new name, which reflected her history, as it could have blown her cover; she knew who she was but her birth family didn’t yet.
‘Kamila Zahno’. It even sounds mysterious, not quite pin down-able, eastern perhaps, or is it even made up? Yet it reflects exactly who she is: with Swiss, British and Indian blood, she is a culturally mixed and completely individual.
The subject of choosing names is an important theme for the book. At one point she remembers a time when she worked with a support group who contemplated using the curious abbreviation Leg-Midge for Lesbians and Gay Men of Mixed Heritage. Somewhat sensibly they decide this is perhaps not the best choice, and adopt for the more elegant moniker Mosaic. This is very much how the book begins to come together, a beautiful picture forming from mixed origins, chips of different colours and shapes held together with the cement of hope.
Chasing Ghosts doesn’t follow a strictly linear or chronological path, and the story is all the better for it. You discover intimate details about the family she has grown up with through transcripts of letters between her parents, kept secret for years, and the way each sibling behaves after a death in the family gives clues to their individual stories. Each of them is mixed race, adopted by a mixed race couple with impeccable credentials and a desire to give these four children the best lives they can offer.
It’s easy to forget that in the 1950s this ‘slightly coloured’ family was very unusual and you get the sense that the authorities were finding their way, and not always getting it right. It’s particularly devastating then you read the sequence of events leading up to Kamila’s adoption and the way her mother was initially treated. At school Camilla, as she was known then, doesn’t seem to make sense to the teachers who assume she’s Jewish ‘because Camilla’s definitely not English, I mean look at her.’
It’s very clear that Kamila’s determination is not simply a force driven by her mortality. As she remembers her time working for local and central government you feel her strong sense of what’s right, what needs to be done and how important it is to empower people in order to help them.
She’s not one for glossing over the truth and what you get is an honest and open account of her journey, her personal insecurities but political conviction, and the highs and lows of finding out who and where her family are. In the end it’s the proof of her identity that allows her to claim a legacy and be proud of who she really is.