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“I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller.”

February 3rd, 2014  |  Published in Blog  |  1 Comment

by Debbie Vance

A compendium of storytelling a la Isak Dinesen.

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.

— Isak Dinesen from an interview with in The New York Times Book Review (3 November 1957)

On how she began telling tales–the tale being a unique form of storytelling, often about imaginary events:

But earlier, I learned how to tell tales. For, you see, I had the perfect audience. White people can no longer listen to a tale recited. They fidget or become drowsy. But the natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds. And all kinds of nonsense. I’d say, “Once there was a man who had an elephant with two heads . . . ” and at once they were eager to hear more. “Oh? Yes, but Memsahib, how did he find it, and how did he manage to feed it?” or whatever. They loved such invention. I delighted my people there by speaking in rhyme for them; they have no rhyme, you know, had never discovered it. I’d say things like “Wakamba na kula mamba” (“The Wakamba tribe eats snakes”), which in prose would have infuriated them, but which amused them mightily in rhyme. Afterwards they’d say, “Please, Memsahib, talk like rain,” so then I knew they had liked it, for rain was very precious to us there.” (from Paris Review interview.)

Here is John Updike’s review of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales from 1986, for which he referred to Judith Thurman’s comprehensive biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller.

Here is a nice collection of quotes by (or about) Dinesen, including the following quote from Ernest Hemingway as quoted in The New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954):

As a Nobel Prize winner I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain, nor to Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen. Greater writers than these also did not receive the prize. I would have been happy — happier — today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.

And here is her beautifully sporadic 1956 Paris Review interview: Isak Dinesen, Art of Fiction No. 14.

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One Comment

  1. […] “I am not a novelist, not really even a writer; I am a storyteller” — A compendium on the art of storytelling a la Isak Dinesen. […]

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