Thursday, May 8, 2014

Out of Africa - Love, Freedom and the Savagery of Civilization

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), author of Out of Africa, with brother on Kenya farm

If you, like me, enjoy paying tribute to your favorite authors by visiting where they used to live or seeing the landscapes that inspired them, a wonderful resource is a book entitled Literary Trips: Following in the Footsteps of Fame, Editor Victoria Brooks, 2000.
It’s not a bad way to spend your time when you’re not writing but looking to keep inspired.
I don’t know why I’m such a fan of doing this, but I’ve been to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house in Salem, Massachusetts, and I’ve seen the moors that inspired Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, to name a few.  And although I know that so much of writing happens inside the imagination, I scrutinize the houses and the furniture, the grounds and the landscapes, as if there’s some magic that I can imbibe and take away with me that will make me a better writer.
This time I was inspired by the famous movie–Out of Africa starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford– based on the biography of the author, Karen Blixen, a woman who came to Africa to marry a Baron, but who ended up also falling in love with a big game hunter, starting a coffee plantation that failed, and when her lover was killed tragically in a plane crash, returning to Norway, where she took the pen name Isak Dinesen.
I came to Karen Blixen’s house because I loved her writing, her stories, but I also loved THE STORY OF HER CAREER.  Her literary career didn’t begin until 1934, when she was 49 years old, after she returned to Norway.  Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was rejected by numerous publishers in Europe before it was published in New York and went on to receive the Book of the Month Award.  Yeah!  She went on to write her memoirs–her second book–which inspired the film Out of Africa.  Yeah!   And then she wrote a slew of other stories, which eventually won her a Pulitzer Prize.  Yeah!
Wouldn’t you just love that to be your story???
I wanted to see this woman’s house.  I wanted to walk in her back yard.  I wanted to imagine myself living there–and yeah, I can hear what you’re thinking–as if I were the star of that Hollywood movie.
Front of Karen Blixen's house in Africa

Her life was both grand and tragic.  I suspect that it was the years she lived in Africa that influenced her to write great literature.  Once she left Nairobi, she never went back, but Africa was never far from her thoughts.
When I first read her memoir, Out of Africa, published in 1937, I was awe struck by her opening line, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Back then I tried to imagine those hills in the distance and how it would feel to gaze on their majesty everyday.
In Nairobi, when I stood in Karen Blixen’s back yard, I gazed into the distance and stared at those hills, hardly believing I was actually there.
Rear view of Karen Blixen's house

Famous view of the Ngong Hills, as seen from Karen Blixen's backyard

I imagined that no matter what had happened to her when she lived in that house–the death of her lover, the destruction of her coffee plantation, the news that she’d contracted a near deadly disease (syphllis)–all stuff of great drama, the hills remained a constant for her.
In truth, she’d written that she loved those hills and she was heard to say that if people could move mountains, those were the ones she would have taken with her back to Norway.
I love knowing that and knowing that I was there.
Karen Blixen’s house is a tourist stop, and you can see why when you traipse through rooms half filled with authentic period furniture and half filled with props from the movie that was donated from the film.
Oh, she was a pretty fair writer, too. You can’t walk through the house unescorted, which is a problem for me because the tour guide goes much too fast.   I can’t absorb my surroundings that quickly, and I like to examine everything and imagine myself in each room, imagine how her day would be, and then how I would live each day in each room.  So I’m always the laggard on every tour.
Maybe someday, people will tour through my house and imagine my life, then read my story, Wild Point Island.  Sit in awe and wonder at the words I’ve written.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

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