Sunday, September 6, 2009

Orientalists' Desire: Define and Explain

In a review of Judith Thurman's new biography of Isak Dineson, aka Karen Blixen, in the Nation, Joanna Scott dissects Dineson's stories ("Seven Gothic Tales) and her famous memoir Out of Africa. The memoir troubles Scott more than the stories. In the stories, Dineson allows the characters representing the native people of colonized Africa to speak for themselves. Scott writes of the memoir:
The memoir is about Dinesen's love of East Africa--the cultures, the landscapes, the animals. The feeling that saturates the book is reverence. Dinesen doesn't pretend to be an expert on the country; much of what she encounters puzzles her. But she is respectful of indigenous traditions and protective of the people. ... Dinesen's typical strategy in the book is to name something, define the name by a set of associations and then unravel her own definition.

Scott continues, considering her stereotypes at times blatant an other times insidiously naive. She doesn't call Dineson by the label Orientalist, but the implication pervades this consideration of a writer I certainly admire. Dineson's detailed descriptions mixed with invention, give a dangerous implication of authority, Scott claims just before quoting well known Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o who called Out of Africa : "one of the most dangerous books ever written about Africa."
Though inspired by love and a desire to understand the culture she'd immersed herself in, Dineson's attempt to "define" the people and customs and even the natural world reveal her lack of knowing.

I was recently taken to account by a musician for considering a certain style of belly dance "more Lebanese" and another "Egyptian." There is good dancing and bad dancing, he said. By creating labels, and then creating definitions to back up these labels (even "traditional" or "authentic"), it seems we distance ourselves even farther from what we're trying to understand. Like this blog, for instance. Am I trying to justify by explanation?

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