Never been on a safari? Well, Out of Africa, with its lion-shooting, bird-photographing, coffee-farming narrator is as close as you can get without changing out of your zebra-striped slippers. It's part memoir, part amateur ethnography, and offers us a peek at what colonial Africa was like in the early 20th century.
Isak Dinesen was a Danish writer whose legal name was Karen Blixen. You'll notice that she is referred to as the Baroness in the book; that's because she married her Swedish cousin, Baron Blixen. Dinesen was her maiden name, which we can understand she'd prefer as her pen name, since her husband cheated on her and gave her syphilis. What a dirtbag.
Blixen lived in Kenya from 1914 until about 1931, sixteen years that provide the content for Out of Africa. It was published in 1937, giving her a little bit of distance from the emotional events she describes, including several deaths of friends, the loss of her farm, and her painful decision to leave Africa.
The Baroness did pretty well for herself, winning the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat, the Danish award for women in arts. While she didn't win the World Cup of Literature (a.k.a. the Nobel Prize), the Swedish secretary did say it was a mistake not to have given her one. What sucks is that he said this in 2010, when Dinesen was already long dead and buried. We bet she would have loved to hear this—who wouldn't?
Out of Africa is known for its poetic descriptions of the landscape, wildlife, and most controversially, native peoples of Africa. In fact, some call the author a racist for the way she objectifies her servants, the people who live on her farm, and pretty much anyone who isn't European in the book.
That didn't stop Hollywood from making a star-studded film adaptation of a memoir that is, let's face it, not really that narrative. But if anyone could turn textbook-style descriptions of landscape and philosophical musings into a romantic movie, it's good old Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. You're already watching the trailer, aren't you? We knew you couldn't resist.
Lions and tigers and beautiful prose, oh my! Wait, what? There are no tigers in Africa? Dagnabbit. There goes our Isak Dinesen catchphrase.
How about "lions and Colonialism and beautiful prose, oh my"? Sigh. It just doesn't have the same ring… but it does encapsulate the essence of Out Of Africa. This memoir is a vivid portrait of life in British East Africa, before it became the Kenya we know today.
Sure, the life of Baroness Blixen before she donned her pen name Isak Dinesen had elements of the Africa of travel posters: beautiful sunsets, incredible animals, incomparable scenery. But it also was filled to the brim with the trappings of Colonialism: racism, racism masquerading as a savior complex, racism disguised as diplomacy. Did we mention racism?
You might find Blixen's tone towards the "Natives" off-putting… there's just something about making broad declarations about how "all Africans" think or act a certain way that makes the narrator about as huggable as a porcupine. But, still, there is something to be learned from Dinesen.
It's this peek at life—and the mindset—of the now-dissolved protectorate is one of the things that make Out of Africa not only a fun read, but also a really important historical document.
And even with this horrifically outdated view of the world, Out of Africa is still breathtaking in the beauty and sadness of its language. Even Hemingway was uber-impressed with Dinesen (and he didn't like anybody), calling her "that beautiful Danish writer Isak Dinesen."
Underneath all the Colonialist malarkey lies a heartbreaking story of loss and nostalgia. It's a testament to just how freaking talented Dinesen was that her prose shines through even the scum of Colonial notions.
Also, the awesome lions don't hurt.
Get your internet! Fresh internet, about Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen.
Ladies Who Write
The literary ladies guide covers our dear Dinesen.
Go Glamping with Karen Blixen safaris!
Streep + Redford = Hot
Check out the star-studded film version of the book.
Chasing Isak Dinesen through Rome: Out of Breath
A great interview with the Paris Review.
A Brush with Fame
Author Margaret Atwood remembers meeting Isak Dinesen.
The Sampler Platter
Excerpts from various interviews with Dinesen.
Pass the Popcorn
Watch the trailer to the 1985 film version.
Give It a Listen
The BBC has got you covered for the radio version of the book.
A photograph of the author, in Africa.
The first American edition of Out of Africa.
That Wasn't in the Book!
Robert Redford as Denys washes Meryl Streep as the Baroness' hair.
The movie poster.
A stamp from British East Africa.