Seeing a place through another’s eyes

Recently I picked up Out of Africa (Isek Dinesen).  With a well-known book like this one – especially since the 1985 Meryl Streep-Robert Redford movie won seven academy awards (including Best Picture) – I tend to pass over a book, thinking the book will never live up to its popular reputation.  But in this case, it would have been a mistake to miss it.  The book is especially engaging both because Dinesen simply presents events with little side-editorializing, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions, and because she shows Kenya and the Nairobi area at a particular time in history when it was adapting to a predominantly British rule and customs from a largely pre-Colonial culture, in the 1920s and ’30s.

Afterward I wanted to learn more about the life of Isek Dinesen (born Karen Dinesen). Reading about her struggle to make a go of the coffee farm financed by her married relations and knowing she was an accomplished writer, I began to imagine what it must have been like for her.  We have that in common, her and I – knowing the hard life of an agricultural business that never quite pays off, in our early adulthood.  I felt a connecting thread across the decades, across an ocean and two continents.  I imagined how our lives might have been similar, even with so much distance between us.

As a writing exercise I wrote a reflection on Dineson’s experience seen through my mind’s eye.  I tried to capture a little about the beauty of her writing and about the human-ness of her experience.


She took it on.  Isek, born Karen.  The coffee farm, the squatters, the mill, the liaison with a nearby Kikuyu chief, the lions, the ancient ferocity of the Masai, absentee shareholders, a now-and-again love affair, more off than on, with safari hunter and pilot Denys, the bureaucracy of a impassive Colonial government.  She took it all and she made it into a life.  The life beautifully told in a book that was at its heart a fiction.  In her book voice she is calm, unflappable; she is relatively unemotional, rational.  A good problem-solver.  Yet she takes off on horseback when she is not ready to face the Kikuyu elders on her veranda.  She lets Denys come and go, though her biographers report she hoped he’d settle down with her.  She worries all night about the coffee yield, about a place for the people on “her” land.  She tries new crops, she sets up the mill, trying to make the farm work if she can.  In the end it fails, like many farms.  The coffee will not grow at this altitude, she knew it all along.  Coffee and grasshoppers and drought do her in.  And so she goes home, and all of Africa goes home with her.

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Do you ever imagine yourself in the shoes of another writer, someone whose work you admire?  Do you sometimes try writing something “in the style” of a writer you enjoy?  If you have read Out of Africa do you have a different opinion of the book?  Those of you who live in South Africa, what are your thoughts?  (This was Nairobi, Kenya, so of course your South African experience will be very different, I realize…!)

14 thoughts on “Seeing a place through another’s eyes

      1. I always wonder about Jane Austen’s life. I think “Emma” is the closest to her own life, if not completely a biography. When I took the writing course. One thing I learned about writing in first person is to write only about the things of my first hand experience, not to include even logically facts. That would be a good discipline to write in first person.

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  1. I recently found an attempt to write like Emily Bronte. LOL. Spring cleaning definitely uncovers forgotten fun.

    As for keeping a small farm running in South Africa… My vegetable garden is under constant attack from hadedas and guinea fowl and rats (the rats are almost as big as chihuahuas), my Rottweilers chase them, hunt them and ignore them by turn. The veld also wants to take over and if the soil isn’t properly prepared with lots of compost, nothing will grow. Planting trees means digging a hole as big as a grave, mixing the soil with compost and other compounds before planting the small tree as per usual and covering it with lots of mulch. And even after all of that, everything might still die. Especially during droughts when water use is restricted and even the boorholes and their tanks run dry. Last year we lost several trees that either dried up or got uprooted during storms.

    On the other hand, early mornings mean thick fog filling the air as geese hiss, pigeons coo and grasshoppers chirp. Goats bleat as they are moved to a new pasture, horses whinny as their stables are opened, and if you’re lucky you’ll see the guinea fowl and hares move through the mist and long grass. Of course, my roosters will compete with the hadedas for the prize of loudest birds 😉 At least they all devour the ants and termites that make a nuisance of themselves.

    And though it’s easier to go to Woolworths Food to buy fresh vegetables, growing what you need (and what the chickens and horses need) has its own rewards. Even if you do want to go and hunt those who burn down the veld. And even if you might have a black thumb instead of green, living so close to nature (and as far away from the city and its noise as possible) is great for nurturing creativity. Hopefully we’ll have fewer snakes this year…

    Oh, and tomorrow I’ll tweet you a link to how my creativity has paid off 🙂

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    1. Ronel, what a treat – to read your lovely and detailed description of your farm. I feel like I’m there! Hah! “. . . living so close to nature (and as far away from the city and its noise as possible) is great for nurturing creativity.” So that’s your secret for being soooo productive creatively! 🙂

      And I’m looking forward to your tweet!

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  2. I didnt know the movie was based on a book! I will put it on my reading list – thanks! I remember seeing Out of Africa while in school – i didnt catch the accent and there were no subtitles then but yet I remember being enthralled by it and impressed with Meryl Streep which has only grown over the years.

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    1. Hah! I didn’t either, until I picked up the book! I’ve never seen the movie, I was a little out of touch when it came out, and just haven’t gotten back to it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dahlia! Always a pleasure. 🙂

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  3. It seems with each book we read Theresa we do put ourselves in the position of wondering about the person writing it. We wonder how much research they do before putting pen to paper. We know we are awe of writers and realize it isn’t an easy process.

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  4. I’ve always loved reading biographies and try to imagine what it was like to be that person. I’ve also wondered about the creative process that biography authors use. I imagine how much fun it would be to be them and embark on a research journey! 😀

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  5. Well done snippet of the author – enjoyed it and you are careful with your words in a way that gives the reader a lot with less – that is a gift!
    And I have no familiarity with agricultural loss and so I can see the kinship you felt/feel.
    And in a way it makes me grateful as it is another reminder about how many people have compete flops!
    And I know – I know – failure and setback are key parts of success – but I do think sometimes we forget that some flops are very big – and take a long time to love beyond – hm
    And as I leave this post – I can picture the author worrying about the yield – and just felt much of her journey / thanks for this.


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