20 women writing about the outdoors

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Out of Africa (Cover image via Important Books)

19. Isak Dinesen

If you’ve seen the 1985 film adaptation of Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, then you’re already somewhat familiar with Isak Dinesen. Well, except not really.

First of all, Isak Dinesen is a pen name. The author in question was born Karen Dinesen in Denmark. She was part of a well-off family and in fact, was born in a manor house. Various turns in her life, including a marriage to Bror Blixen-Finecke in 1914, ultimately left her as Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke.

Karen had already experienced tragedy in her young life, with the suicide of her father when she was only 10. Thereafter, she spent much of her time with her mother’s family, including her aunt, Mary B. Westenholz. “Aunt Bess,” as Karen called her, often engaged in energetic debate with Karen over matters of women’s rights and the differences between the sexes.

After her engagement to Bror, Karen moved to Africa, where the pair soon married. They established a farm in what was then British East Africa (now Kenya and parts of Uganda). Eventually, Bror gave Karen syphilis and then asked for a divorce in 1920. The next year, Bror was dismissed as the farm’s manager. Karen took over the post and managed the former couple’s coffee plantation for a larger coffee company.

Writing takes over

Coffee and colonialism weren’t enough for her, however. During this time, she also began to write fiction and nonfiction. Her first book, a collection of Gothic tales, sold quite well. However, she secured her reputation as a nature-focused writer with her second volume: Out of Africa.

Published in 1937, Out of Africa (published under her pseudonym) is a memoir of Blixen’s time on the plantation. Given that it was written during a time of heavy colonialist influence in Africa, the legacy of her work is complicated. Some critics maintain that the book is so thoroughly colonialist that it’s hardly worth discussing. Others claim that Blixen’s status as a female manager and a foreigner add layers of complexity and make easy dismissals inadequate.

Certainly, there is no denying that Blixen was part of a system that exploited African workers and often unfairly prioritized white settlers over native people. Still, her work is beautifully written. Furthermore, it provides an evocative portrait of a distinct period of time in Africa’s history (though with a biased point of view).