This year, I made my first visit to the home of the writer for whom this website is named. Her home at the foot of the Ngong Hills is now a museum. Most of her four-thousand-acre coffee farm has been carved up, though you can explore a bit more of the landscape by visiting the former farm house in a space now known as the coffee gardens -- there's a pricey bed-and-breakfast there, and wonderful coffee. It is a favorite of visitors.
It was this writer who first turned my mind to Kenya more than ten years ago. Her storytelling incited me to look for the books of authors native to East Africa, like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Grace Ogot, Binyavanga Wainana, Billy Kahora and the other writers of Kwani. When I started this website, which has become a fierce chronicle for me over the last going-on-six years, I wrote this:
"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea."
There's truth in Isak Dinesen's words, and also romance. After all, one might suggest that food and shelter could also be useful on occasion.
Dinesen, whose true name was Karen Blixen, was a Danish woman who operated a coffee farm in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. Her famed storytelling eventually emerged on paper. Out of Africa was her favorite of her many books "because it is true." But she was also a prolific writer of dark-edged tales -- long, luxurious stories that rattle and creak and slant reality with unabashed verve.
I don't mean to imply, by naming this website after her, that Isak will be a tribute site, or a research site, or a bio site. Rather, Isak is a space to celebrate tales and truth in the curious, loving way that embodies the spirit of the writer for which it is named.
By tales, I mean fiction (especially short fiction), as well as other literary and artistic narratives. By truth, I mean the world in which we live. I especially have my eye on creative social justice.
And I take the word "celebrating" in Isak's tagline seriously. The name "Isak," after all, means "laughter," as Dinesen was fond of pointing out. While there is so much to fear for in this world, and, dare I say, an equal amount to fear in the artistic world, it's impossible to ignore the causes for joy and hope.
Let's explore them together.
In the late spring of this year, it felt almost precarious to walk into her house, creak my feet along the wood, finger the limp lace of her old bedspread, look over the swath of land to the hills -- now filled with trees, though cleared for coffee farming in her time. I sat at the mill-stone in the back of her house (above), a stone that had a "tragic history", as she wrote in Out of Africa. It had been the upper mill-stone of a mill where two Indians were murdered.
After the murder nobody dared to take over the mill, it was empty and silent for a long time, and I had the stone brought to my house to form a table-top, to remind me of Denmark. The Indian millers told me that their mill-stone had come over the Sea of Bombay, as the stones of Africa are not hard enough for grinding. On the top side a pattern was carved, and it had a few large brown spots on it, which my houseboys held to be the blood of the Indians, that would never come off. The mill-stone table in a way constituted the centre of the farm, for I used to sit behind it in all my dealings with the (Kikuyu). From the stone seat behind the mill-stone, I and Denys Finch-Hatton had one New Year seen the moon and the planets of Venus and Jupiter all close together, in a group in the sky; it was such a radiant sight that you could hardly believe it to be real, and I have never seen it again.
Over time, I've become more attuned to Isak's colonial attitudes toward native Kenyans. She was, after all, a white European woman with a title who had come to take space in a country that the British still considered their protectorate. By the time she left, Kenya was still more than thirty years from independence. Indeed, Isak would never see Kenya call itself its own: she died in 1962, a year before uhuru day.
I know that. It's why I feel abashed sometimes in talking about what I find moving in Isak's writing, all the same. There is something I love in the quietly reverent way she understands the world, her habit of capitalizing the names of animals: Lion, Giraffe. There is something in her blurring of the practical and imaginary worlds, the spirit and the tactile. She is watchful, and her words seem distilled through the highlands air, carrying colors that are "dry and burnt, like the colours of pottery."
From Out of Africa:
One night, after midnight, he suddenly walked into my bedroom with a hurricane-lamp in his hand, silent, as if on duty. It must have been only a short time after he first came into my house, for he was very small: he stood by my bedside like a dark bat that had strayed into the room, with very big spreading ears, or like a small African Will-o'-the-wisp, with his lamp in his hand. He spoke to me very solemnly, "Msabu," he said, "I think you had better get up." I sat up in bed bewildered: I thought that if anything serious had happened, it would have been Farah who would have to come to fetch me, but when I told Kamante to go away again, he did not move. "Msabu," he said again, "I think you had better get up. I think that God is coming." When I heard this, I did get up, and asked him why he thought so. He gravely led me into the dining-room which looked West, towards the hills. From the door-windows I now saw a strange phenomenon. There was a big grass-fire going on, out in the hills, and the grass was burning all the way from the hill-top to the plain: when seen from the house it was a nearly vertical line. It did indeed look as if some gigantic figure was moving and coming towards us. I stood for some time and looked at it, with Kamante watching by my side, then I began to explain the thing to him. I meant to quiet him, for I thought that he had been terribly frightened. But the explanation did not seem to make much impression on him one way or the other: he clearly took his mission to have been fulfilled when he had called me. "Well yes," he said, "it may be so. But I thought that you had better get up in case it was God coming."
It was a beautiful thing to see this home, to move my body through it, to wave my hand in the kitchen air and slide my feet along the porch, to honor the stories incited by this haunted space -- hers, mine, ten thousand others.