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.
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…!)