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Who's my daddy? The audience.

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Recently, referring to one of my manuscripts, a publisher made a comment that can be summed up in this joke:  "Knock knock."  "Who's there?"  "The audience."  "The audience who?"  

Apparently, the answer wasn't manifest on the face of my manuscript.

The question is cogent.  Stories are obviously told differently depending on the audience.  (I recall, for example, an excruciating presentation I gave at a law firm during which I wildly - and inexcusably, since I'd been working at the place for four years - misjudged my audience's ability to exercise their imaginations or laugh.  Dead silence.  Vacant stares.  Awkward shifting in chairs.)  

Equally important, stories are sold differently depending on the audience.  And if one endeavors, as I do, to be a published author, one needs to care about how a book might be marketed, even if this job isn't rightly the author's (and, indeed, excessive interference on this end of the operations might be considered to be lunatic behavior).  

Nonetheless, despite all the wisdom I recognize in the "whose the audience?" query, I can't seem to get too enthused about it during the writing process.  When I think of who might read my work, I think "everybody," and probe the answer no further.  

This approach isn't (merely) laziness on my part.  I really do see myself as writing stories for everyone - for men and women, the generalist and the specialist, for those who hail from the developed world, and for those who are slogging through the developed.  (From the sales perspective, of course, my self-image is sub-optimal because not "everybody" buys books: women buy books, and more specifically, middle- and upper-class women, mostly from developed countries.)

But my approach is also informed by a simple pragmatism: if I thought too much about what other people would think of what I was writing, I wouldn't be doing my best work - if I'd be doing any work at all.  Self-consciousness is a notorious drag on creative output.  Writing to her Aunt Bess in April 1914, Karen Blixen remarked, "I believe that it would be impossible to write if one gave consideration to who is going to read one's work . . . ."  (Letters from Africa, p. 5.)

Is it a coincidence that it took Karen Blixen twenty years from that toss-off comment to sell a book? 

Out of Africa, inside colonial thinking

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Karen Blixen seems never to have met a native who didn't remind her of an animal.  In Out of Africa, she wears out the animal kingdom in her comparisons, metaphors, analogies, or descriptors for black Kenyans.  Some examples:

What I learned from the game of the country, was useful to me in my dealings with the Native People.  p. 15-16.

[I]f you frightened [the Natives] they could withdraw into a world of their own, in a second, like the wild animals which at an abrupt movement from you are gone, -- simply not there.  p. 17

When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their anthill; they wiped out the damage with unwearied energy, swiftly and silently, - as if obliterating an unseemly action.  p. 18

Like the spurfowl
, the Natives might be mimicking a fear of us because of some other deeper dread the nature of which we could not guess. . . . It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. p. 18-19

[Kamante's] intelligence sometimes failed him, and he came and offered me a Kikuyu delicacy, - a roasted sweet potato or a lump of sheep's fat, - as even a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present.  p. 37

[The stork] followed Kamante about between the houses, and it was impossible not to believe that [the stork] was deliberately imitating Kamante's stiff measured walk.  Their legs were about the same thickness.  p. 60

[The mother and father of the deceased girl] sat down and waited outside my house.  They were poor people, small and underfed; they looked like a pair of badgers on my lawn.  p. 98-99

I was prepared for the appearance, a few days later, before my house, of the Nyeri people, who belonged to a low class of Kikuyu, and had all the look of three dirty and shaggy old Hyenas that had slunk one hundred and fifty miles upon Wamai's blood-track. . . . The three strangers sat on the stones with no more manifestation of life than three ticks upon a sheep.  p. 112

Kaninu also came round to my house late in the evening, like an old badger out reconnoitring, to sound me out about the child.  p. 125

[The Masai] were fighters who had been stopped fighting, a dying lion with his claws clipped, a castrated nation.  p. 126

[The Masai's] weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.  p. 129

[Giving Kinanjui alcohol] was like having shot an Elephant: by an act of yours a mighty and majestic creature, which has walked the earth, and held his own opinions of everything, is walking no more.  p. 138

[The Somalis'] relation to the Natives was nearly exactly that of the sheepdog to the sheep.  They watched [the Natives] untiringly, their sharp teeth bared.  p. 143

The juvenile Masai soldier-girls, very lively and pretty, came into my tent . . . . [and] always ask[ed] me for the loan of my hand-mirror, and, when they held it up to one another, they bared their two rows of shining teeth to the mirror, like angry young carnivora.  p. 259

Karomeny was very dar, with fine moist black eyes and thick eyelashes; . . . altogether much of the look of a small black Native bull-calf.  p. 295

Kanuthia . . . a slim young Kikuyu with the watchful eyes of a monkey, now . . . sat by the house like a sad and chilly monkey in a cage.  p. 342-343

It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take.  It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. . . . This applies in a higher degree to the primitive people than to the civilized, and animals again will wander back a long way, and go through danger and sufferings, to recover their lost identity, in the surroundings that they know.  p. 359-360

The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant, - they are alike; you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land.  p. 362

When we met [the old Kikuyu woman] stood dead still, barring the path to me, staring at me in the exact manner of a Giraffe in a herd, that you will meet on the open plain, and which lives and feels and thinks in a manner unknowable to us.  p. 369

The consistency of her equating of black people with animals raises questions.  Was she racist?  Was she simply a cliched and unimaginative writer?  Was her thinking merely a function of the times?  Was her use of animals as parallels for black people - in her opinion - a compliment?  Did she see honor and value in one's existence evoking the animal world?  If so, why didn't she describe her colonist friends, like Berkley Cole or Denys Finch-Hatton, as animals?  (Others seem to have.  Llewelyn Powys, in Black Laughter, described a stand-in for Denys as "a sinuous-limbed dog-puma indolently sunning himself under the swaying palm-trees." p. 168.)

My own sense is that comparisons to animals, in and of themselves, are not necessarily invidious.  A black woman I know - in her poise, beauty and carriage - reminds me of a gazelle, and I think of the description as a compliment (perhaps because Song of Songs praises women thus); but, to be honest, most of the black women I know don't remind me of animals.  Tough business women, sweet grandmas; gorgeous, enthusiastic, boisterous and gentle friends; adorable, Puck-ish toddlers - these categories encompass most of the black women and girls I know.  

And this consistency in Karen Blixen's descriptions of black people is what gives me pause.  Every native - however much she likes or dislikes them, depends on them or finds them a burden - is like an animal; colonists she likes are not (her chapter on Berkley Cole is called "The Noble Pioneer," not "The Hawkish Pioneer" or "The Vulture Pioneer").  This divide suggests a pattern of organization in her thinking: natives and animals were categorized together - or closely - while white people were categorized in nearer proximity to classical music, painting, opera, ballet, and literature.  Nature for blacks; culture for whites.  

This structure to her perceptions isn't necessarily racism; indeed, it corresponds to her reality: black people lived in less developed environs in which wilderness was either predominant or ever threatening to dominate; white people were bringing gramophones, easels, brushes, paints and books into the same landscape.  

But not all white people were cultured - indeed, Karen Blixen's letters overflow with her distaste for the British "middle class" colonist; and this same variety no doubt existed among the black people with whom she interacted.  Her failure to see some blacks as "noble" - as Beryl Markham, for example, sees Arab Ruta, her closest servant - or to recognize the individual outstandingness of certain of her black cohorts - as Elspeth Huxley recognizes in Mbugwa ("a rarity in any country, and in any age," Forks and Hope, p. 171) - suggests a limitation in her capacity to appreciate black people as individual humans.  (Yes, she sees Farah as aristocratic, but she also refers to him as a "sheepdog"; yes, she says that Kamante is a "genius" in the kitchen, but she also - repeatedly - emphasizes that he was "never quite right in the head" p. 30).

In Out of Africa, Blixen's reliance on animals to parallel blacks betrays sentiments she made explicit in her letters:

I have come to realize that one of the greatest passions of my life is the relationship with my "black brother."  I also know that there are no representatives of this race that I personally could not do without, without the relationship being radically changed . . . .
Letter to Mary Bess Westenholz, 20 November 1928, Letters from Africa, p. 390.  To Karen Blixen, black people were - on a level that is unacceptable to us in our day and age - an undifferentiated mass.  "They" needed her and saw her as powerful, which she appreciated to such an extent that she made "them" the object of her passion; but "they" didn't include any individuals whose presence or absence could change this dynamic.  "They" were just like the game in the wildnerness; without "them," the landscape isn't as fascinating, but if you were to replace one impala with another, the switch wouldn't impair Karen Blixen's enjoyment of the scenery.  

Karen Blixen's honesty about her perspectives grants us - from the distance of a century - a valuable insight into colonial thinking in that era.  It also, by comparison to her contemporaries (Markham, Huxley, and others), reveals Karen Blixen's serious limitations as a human, surrounded by many others - white and black - who were able to transcend the narrow, constrained thinking that passed for received wisdom in the era.

Ex Hollywood semper aliquid crap II

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At the risk of flogging a horse that is not only dead, but was dead on arrival, I feel compelled to continue my unfavorable critique of the movie, Out of Africa - call it a rash that I can't resist scratching. 

One scene in the movie that made me recoil is when Bror shows up at the farm to ask Karen for money, and he finds Karen and Denys together: 

"You could have asked," Bror says, all unwarranted hurt and bruised male ego. 

"I did," Denys replies, dripping American insousiance.  "She said 'yes.'"


Who knows if, instead of gagging, I would have tittered at the tired attempt at humor if I didn't know the truth, but I do know the truth.  Karen Blixen and her entourage were anything but bourgeois in their sexual attitudes.  Here's Karen Blixen, in a letter to her brother, Thomas, on sexual morals:

I have the impression that most people at the moment are in a state of absolute confusion about everything concerning rights and duties in the field of sexual relationships, marriage included.  I think one exception to be found in a small advanced minority, the "smart set" in the larger countries (and to a certain extent my circle of acquaintance out here), where a sexual relationship is more or less regarded as the normal social convention among young people, in which no one - spouses, parents, or former lovers not excepted - have a right to interfere, and where everything is all right, providing neither partner loses his temper or in any way pretends to take it seriously.
Letter to Thomas Dinesen, 19 November 1927, Letters from Africa, p. 323.

The veracity of her impressions is proved by the fact that Bror, far from begrudging Denys his affair with Karen, introduced Denys happily as "my wife's lover" and continued to hunt professionally with Denys - including when the Prince of England was Denys' client.

I don't in any way argue with Hollywood's prerogative to entertain, even at the expense of the truth.  But Hollywood is abusing this liberty when its "entertaining" reimagining is so much less diverting than what really happened.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Letters from Africa category.

Kenya: Contrasts and Problems is the previous category.

Letters to his Wife and Friends is the next category.



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