Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Out of Africa

Out of AfricaOut of Africa by Karen Blixen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

For better or worse, this opening sentence rekindled my love affair with literature. Granted, I never lost my love of reading, but from my late teens to my early-twenties, the relationship was rather shallow, mostly maintained through movies about books, comic books/graphic novels (still a great love for me), and role-playing game books and modules, all interspersed with one-night-stands with real books that I loved for a night, then left on the bedside. I still engage in some these dalliances, but Out of Africa, from its first sentence, grabbed me by the lapels and ripped my shirt apart. I was smitten. It was the new beginning to a lifelong love of the written word.

The book isn't without its issues, not the least of which are deeply embedded assumptions about "The Native". Thankfully, Blixen challenges and refutes some of her own assumptions about Africa and Africans while acknowledging her inevitable cultural distance from those around her. Of course, she has brushes with condescension, as any European colonial of the time would have had. But any analysis of the book that doesn't acknowledge that Blixen and her attitude are a product of the time is unashamedly disingenuous.

Blixen is careful to observe that she is also being observed. She is in Africa, but not of Africa:

If I know a song of Africa,-I thought,-of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

Throughout the book, Blixen seems to want to be a part of this place in which she finds herself. But even her separation from the spiritual ideal of full integration serves its own utilitarian purposes. For instance, when the locals ask her to judge between them in their disputes, it is precisely this distance that allows them to trust her impartiality:

It is likely that the Kikuyu of the farm saw my greatness as a judge in the fact that I knew nothing whatever of the laws according to which I judged.

But the heart of Out of Africa is not about intellectual stances or empty academic discussions about signifiers and signified. It is about the people, African and European, that Karen Blixen interacts with. On this level, I connected with the author and wanted to know more about those she interacted with. I don't think it's an accident, then, that four years after reading this book, I undertook graduate studies in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To say this book had an effect on my life would be a gross understatement. That first sentence shattered a number of possible futures and, eventually, opened up windows on vistas I might never have otherwise imagined.

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