May 6, 2012

Karen Blixen: The Kenya-Wisconsin Connection

When I was growing up in Nairobi, the name of Karen Blixen naturally came up quite often. The neighborhood in what used to be her old farm, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, is to this day called Karen, and everyone, of course, had read Out of Africa (even before the movie came out). My violin teacher, Anna Martin, was the wife of Remy Martin, who had bought Blixen's farm. I read Out of Africa and Shadows in the Grass and her cook Kamante's memoir Longing for Darkness when I was twelve or thirteen, and enjoyed them (though they weren't nearly as evocative as Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika). In 1982, Judith Thurman's wonderful biography Isak Dinesen: Life of a Storyteller came out, and  in 1985 the movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and suddenly she epitomized the romantic notion of Africa. Her house remains a massive tourist draw.

Partly because I was tepid on Out of Africa and partly because of her new fame, I ignored Blixen's other writings till I was in my twenties. Then I discovered Seven Gothic Tales on a bookshelf in Atbara, Sudan. What a revelation! "The Roads Round Pisa" and "The Monkey" are, in my opinion, the two finest, strangest stories ever written. I reread them every year - they're like a little holiday to an exotic country.

When we moved to Wisconsin a couple years ago, I remembered that Blixen's father, Wilhelm Dinesen, had lived in northern Wisconsin. He'd spent a year or so with the Chippewa, had a relationship with his cook, Nesuw-wge-zhicqo-quay (later "Kate"), fathered a daughter, Emma "Denson," by her, and contracted syphilis. His cabin has recently been restored, and is open to the public. You can see a picture of Joseph Ackley, Wilhelm Dinesen's great-grandson, and Blixen's ... what? half-grand-nephew? here. I think he looks a bit like her!

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