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Note to self

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If ever I find myself graced with the good luck to enjoy an international bestselling memoir, let me not tarnish that work with a redundant, dated, cash-pandering follow up.  

Because, while in 1937, the observation that, "[i]n some respects, although not in all, the white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God" (Out of Africa, p. 358), might be thought-provoking, in 1960, the assertion that

The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages.  The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me on the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but the stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine.
(Shadows on the Grass, p. 382), is simply racist.

Because, if I'm going to pander for cash, let me do so whole-heartedly and write - not another allegedly quaintly charming book about my servants, about whom no one cared the first time - but about the lover to whom I referred with the exact mix of obliqueness and explicitness sufficient to pique a world-wide appetite lasting more than seventy years.

Someone should cash in on that appetite.  Why not me?

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.

A virtual "national park" - for books

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MacMillan_Library.jpgThe abuse of books depresses me almost as much as the mistreatment of humans; humans, after all, have an astounding capacity for resiliency and regeneration, whereas a book once beaten, broken and torn is dependent on a human for restoration.

In Nairobi's MacMillan library, the once grand interior is stained with dirt, water and - probably - mold.  The card catalog (something I haven't used for twenty years) is a jumble of worn rectangles of oak tag, occasionally misfiled, imparting unintelligible numbers - some of which correspond to the Dewey decimal system, others of which do not.  Housed in a cabinet that is itself beaten, broken and torn, the card catalog is also surprisingly inaccessible:  many of the drawers don't open - or only with minutes-worth of cajoling - and arrange themselves in an order than cannot be described as alphabetical.

Once in the stacks, the story is even sadder.  The relationship between the books listed in the card catalog and those on the shelves is analogous to that of a child with a pretend friend: only one of the four books I'd found in the card catalog was on the shelves, though the other three had not been checked out - they'd been stolen or hopelessly mislaid, since the library doesn't have a computer system.

The one book I found, Elspeth Huxley's Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, was dirty and held together with clear plastic tape.  Its jacket was long gone, the edges of the cover frayed, and the binding was broken in multiple places.  It was missing pages 49 and 50.

I love the look and feel of a book well read by many hands, but in my trek through Nairobi's National Archives, Museum Archives, and University of Nairobi Library, I've found circumstances to be as dismal as in MacMillan.  Books (and records), not burnished by good service to myriad voracious readers, but cracked, split, lost and neglected.  

Moreover, among these books are those that are out-of-print, unavailable for purchase, or which retail for prohibitive prices (e.g., $250).  Once these books are destroyed, humanity will permanently lose their irreplaceable contents.

The heartbreak of the situation is compounded by the obvious need for MacMillan and the other libraries and record repositories in Nairobi.  On the Saturday I visited MacMillan, I found that place packed - and silent - with busy readers.  (The same knowledge-hunger was evident when Huxley was writing 47 years earlier:  "In Kitwe I saw a young miner who was reading right through the Encyclopaedia Britannica from start to finish: he had reached CROCODILE." p. 259.)

Throughout the course of my research in Nairobi thus far, I've wished for online or e-access to the contents of the books I'm seeking.  Such access would phenomenally speed and simplify my research, which is crawling along because of inaccessibility and graft

In all the wrangling over Google Books, e-readers and libraries lending e-books, I have yet to hear the interests of the developing world represented.  Certainly with the ease of lending e-books, no reason exists why international patrons, including those in the developing world, should not be able to borrow e-books from libraries anywhere on the planet; nor, indeed, why institutions in the developed world could not or should not support the digitization of Nairobi's collections and make them available electronically to all.

For the sake of all the under-served readers in the MacMillan library - and all the book-starved people in the developing world - I can only hope that Nairobi's extinction-threatened collections find a conservation area online to which access will be provided on a fair, affordable and convenient basis.

(Image of the MacMillan Library courtesy of Government of Kenya's Office of Public Communications)

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.
I've been living in the developing world uninterruptedly for five years now.  I've long been aware of the corruption endemic to many, if not most, developing countries.  The bribes necessary to jog the sluggish bureaucracy in India, the open sales of visas in China, the on-the-spot payment of "fines" for traffic violations in Kenya - none of it surprised me.

I was an innocent.

I had managed to maintain my naive outlook through five years of living, working and traveling in developing countries because - up until the past few weeks - I'd never attempted . . . to use a library.  For insight into real corruption in the developing world, try accessing publicly available documents.

I am currently researching WWI in Kenya, to which end, I paid a visit to the Kenya National Museum archives.  The illiterate archivist who was "assisting" me by blowing his acrid smoke-breath in my face collected 1,000 shillings from me as a "research fee."  The fee was listed on a price schedule for the museum archives, and - even if I doubted the fee's necessity - I wouldn't begrudge the museum $13 for pulling records from the archives for me.  (Ideally the money would go towards preservation.)  What I objected to was the request for a bribe that came from the archivist's boss after I'd finished looking through the documents.  Given that I'd established that the museum's archives didn't have what I needed (and even if they had), I was hard-pressed to understand why I should "buy the office lunch."

Hoping for better luck at the University of Nairobi library, I submitted a written request for access to the stacks.  I was elated when the request was granted, but I was promptly disappointed when I learned that the access I'd gained didn't include borrowing privileges.  Given my full-time job, I couldn't make much use of the opportunity to read books in the library.  I appealed to the librarian who had granted me access to the stacks.  A big, middle-aged man, he responded to my request for borrowing privileges by saying, "I wish I was your neighbor, so I could come over sometimes."

So much for the library.  The information I needed, I decided, was at the National Archives.  I had a contact name at the Archives, and I sent him an e-mail describing the information I was seeking and asking if the Archives contained relevant documents.  He replied, offering to find the necessary information in the Archives for 50,000 shillings.  Taking a friend who is a reporter for Kenya's Daily Nation with me, I went to the Archives to meet this entrepreneurial researcher.  At the Archives, I learned that I could buy an annual permit to use the Archives for 200 shillings.  When I raised this point with the archivist, he said that I wouldn't be able to find what I needed without his help.  A reasonable point, to be sure - considering that the Archives' computerized index listed nothing under the topic "WWI" - but since his salary was paid by the Kenyan government for the express purpose of providing help to researchers, I was unconvinced that I would be getting value for my money.

With all the sympathy in the world for the hard-working, underpaid men and women of Kenya's public information industries, I remain nonetheless scandalized by the apparent absence of respect for transparency, circulation of information, ease of public access, and the sanctity of the quest for knowledge as an endeavor in life.  Call me the jackass I undoubtedly am, but I'd somehow believed that librarians and archivists were somehow different from the border guards, policemen, politicians, etc., who have put the lie to the signs proclaiming "Corruption Free Zone" that I see everywhere in Nairobi.

Say what you will about the Google Books settlement; it at least has the benefit of lessening the scope for corruption of the sort that's stymied my work in Nairobi thus far.

Ex Hollywood semper aliquid crap

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Out_of_Africa.jpgHaving read the book, I'd long wondered about the movie Out of Africa.  After all, Karen Blixen's memoir is overly-detailed about her relationships with her servants and maddeningly evasive about the topics that fascinate: her marriage, her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, and syphilis.  How could the non-chronological, evocative but not-plot-driven memoir be migrated to the screen?

Having just seen the movie, I can now answer that question: it wasn't.  Whether it could have been is an open question, but plainly Sydney Pollack & Co. did such violence to the book in transplanting Karen Blixen's story to the screen that - in a just world - the two would not share the same title.

Admitting at the outset that the memoir cannot be transposed to the Hollywood movie context without severe alteration, such alteration as was necessary must nonetheless aim to preserve the mysterious, elusive and attractive character of the memoir that remains its abiding power.  Instead, the movie systematically mangled that fragile essence. 

The movie's dialogue is the equivalent of taking a club to Blixen's authorial voice.  Bad in its own right - the dialogue in the movie caused me suffering - it was outright irresponsible as a representation of conversations that could have occurred between Blixen and others in Kenya in 1914.  As a historical matter, Karen and Bror most likely didn't openly discuss their shared syphilis or his philandering.  As a personal matter, straightforward expression like, "I want you to take a place in town" (after Bror seduces another woman) or "I like the way you're honest with me" (after Bror admits that he's dumping all the farm work on her), are absolutely contrary to Blixen's approach to conflict resolution, both in life and in her storytelling. 

But the dialogue is problematic, not because "it didn't happen that way," but because it misleads the audience about the way Karen Blixen related to the people around her and, in the process, kills the very quality of Karen Blixen's story that makes it worth telling.  In her relational approach to others, Meryl Streep's Blixen is a liberated, modern woman; in reality, Karen Blixen was not.  She was an atavistic romantic who idolized the aristocratic values of a century earlier - and she suffered for it, however much her wounds were self-inflicted.  The allure of Karen Blixen's storytelling is the way she refracts her realities through the distortion lens of her aristocratic ideals - and it's precisely that rich and strange distortion that the movie denies its audience.

Karen Blixen was - and is - the stuff of legends, so much so that she managed to preserve herself and Denys Finch-Hatton in a shroud of myth that has endured for seventy-five years and shows little sign of abating.  For this reason, she's a natural for the movie treatment.  That the movie had to refract her reality through the industrial distortion lens of Hollywood sadly diminishes Blixen's bizarre and enchanting legacy.

(Image courtesy of Britannica)
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