Out of Africa, a memoir by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is a love story. Reading her descriptive passages, I too fall head over heels with the Africa that exists in her memory. The first sentence is a simple declaration that sets up her longing: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
13 words with comma
I could go on an on about this sentence and what we can learn from it for our own writing. It has stayed in my mind since first reading it years ago—the gentle, sure voice, solid grounding, and ring “Ngong” that echos throughout the book. The sentence gives just enough information and makes us want to read on. It’s a master teacher, whether for writing memoir or fiction, so perfectly crafted that seeing the 13 words with comma again, years after finishing the book, catapults me into Dinesen’s feelings for the landscape, animals, people—even the air—as if I’d glimpsed the face of my own long-ago lover.
Let’s examine it:
Simple. Standing alone. Tells us we will hear the story from the person who experienced it.
Establishes the distance where we join her in remembering and from where she will draw us into her love affair with her beautiful and haunting Africa. If she’d written “owned a farm,” the sentence would not have resonated with such personal loss.
Pages later, we learn that she “had six thousand acres of land, and had thus got much spare land besides the coffee-plantation [600 acres]. We learn it’s not the dairy farm she’d thought her husband was buying. It’s a lot of work. But as an opener, “a farm” sets a warm, intimate tone. We all have seen farms and know something about them. Her story is exotic in its depiction of place and people, but she begins with the familiar. It’s comforting.
She drops a hint at the vast and exotic scope of her story. Africa is huge. Here’s her little farm, and now it’s overwhelmed by Africa. She takes us from the intimate to the vast and then with the comma, next, places us.
The sentence would work grammatically without this punctuation, but she needs it for her sake and for ours. The comma acts as a fence would, marking her territory.
at the foot
Elevations play an important part in the story—the altitudes of weather and social hierachy. Her farm may be at “the foot,” but still it’s at 6000 feet. The mountain above her is at 8000. The town of Nairobi is at 5000. “The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere.” This contrasts to the privileged European life she’d known. In Africa, she lives at high elevation but doesn’t flaunt her privilege.
of the Ngong Hills.
This literal “gong” sounds the exotic vocabulary and culture of her spiritual home. We can nestle here, inside the reverberation, and then roam over the hills to the next sentence—”The Equator runs across these highlands…” feeling again the vastness.
Declarative to descriptive detail
For the first 14 pages, she begins her paragraphs with simple declaratives about geography, landscape, and the farm, and then layers detail upon detail, each prose section depicted in words that want reading aloud.
Declarative: “The geographical position…” Detail: “and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle…”
Declarative: “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.” Detail: “In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”
Declarative: “From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view…” Detail: “The brown desert is irregularly dotted with the little marks of the thornbushes, the winding riverbeds are drawn up with crooked dark-green trails; those are the woods of the mighty wide-branching Mimosa-trees, with thorns like spikes; the cactus grows here, and here is the home of the giraffe and the Rhino.”
Declarative: “Coffee-growing is a long job.” Detail: “the black-jack, which has long scabrous seed-vessels that hang on to your clothes and stockings.”
Declarative: “There are times of great beauty on a coffee-farm.” Detail: “with many hurricane lamps in the huge dark room of the factory, that was hung everywhere with cobwebs and coffee-husks, and with eager glowing dark faces, in the light of the lamps, round the dryer; the factory, you felt, hung in the great African night like a bright jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.”
Declarative: “Whenever you walk amidst the Kikuyu shambas…” (as if this was the most natural thing in the world that we all do!) Detail: “I used to shoot spurfowl in the sweet-potato fields round the squatters’ houses in the blue late afternoons, and the stock-pigeons cooed out a loud song in the high-stemmed, fringy trees, which were left over, here and there in the shambas, from the forest that had once covered all the farm.” (Whoa! Read that last sentence aloud a few times, take a spurfowl and two fringy trees, and call me in the morning. Whatever ails your writing will be much better.)
Lessons for writers
Love is in the details
How could we not love Dinesen’s Africa? Her Ngong Hills? And how could we not feel bereft in leaving, as she does at the end, and as we do when we close the book? The lesson here for writing our love stories is in the details and in her delivery of them. She gives them to us slowly—sensation by sensation. We see, hear, touch, taste, smell, using our whole bodies, becoming intimate with the ultimately incomparable, immeasurable love of our life.
There is also a romance in the memoir. You may be familiar with the characters played in the film by Meryl Streep (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) and Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton). I’m a fan, especially of Streep, but the movie is a different animal than the book. I don’t think an actor can say “fringy trees” and get away with it. But a writer can. And that’s one of the reasons we write and read—to walk amidst the shambas in our minds.
Have fun with language
And how about this one: Declarative: “Out on the Safaris…” Detail: “I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers advancing.”
Break the rules
Dinesen breaks “rules” you read about in writing craft books regarding using too many adjectives. It’s a caution to abide in most cases and to consider in all, but in her abundant stringing together of words, she brings to life her lover—the marvelous, incongruent, often absurd, demanding and memorable Africa, which I’ve never known but feel that I have through her writing.