The Women I Think About at Night: Traveling the Paths of my Heroes
By Mia Kankimäki, translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson
Published November 10, 2020, by Simon & Schuster
Forty-something Mia Kankimäki doesn’t have children or a fulfilling job. But she does have a collection of what she calls her ‘Night Women’, women from around the world and throughout history who stepped away from the expectations of their societies and lived their lives on their own terms– through travel, art, or moving to a place entirely outside their previous experiences. These women were the ones Kankimäki read and dreamed about by night, and they were the ones who inspired her to, upon finding herself drifting aimlessly into her 40s, go out and see if she, too, could make a life for herself on her own terms.
Her first stops are Tanzania and Kenya, where Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa) lived and toured for much of her adult life after traveling to Kenya to marry a friend and help oversee his Kenyan coffee plantation. Kankimäki describes Blixen’s arrival in Africa and compares it to her own arrival in Tanzania– a century apart and worlds away from each other. As a white woman, Kankimäki stands out and becomes something of a spectacle among the locals. She doesn’t understand the customs and the food is strange to her. And she wants the sort of safari experience that Blixen encountered in the early twentieth-century, which seems impossible given the effects of climate change, the decline of Africa’s great wildlife, and the rise of the tourism industry. Kankimäki marvels at Blixen’s calm in Out of Africa, which seems unreal. But the more she reads about Blixen, the more Kankimäki realizes that the serene woman in the book came later, after Depression and illness, financial ruin, and tragedy. It was an older Karen Blixen who survived multiple trials who wrote Out of Africa. And the deeper she travels into the Tanzanian wilderness, the more Kankimäki begins to conquer her own fears to encounter, if not the same safari experience Blixen had a century earlier, the closest thing a twenty-first century woman could have. As she looks back on her experiences, the hardships fade away and she realizes how amazing it all was- just as Blixen might have done while writing Out of Africa.
But the African experience can’t last forever, and Kankimäki takes us through a whirlwind of travelers from Isabella Byrd to Nellie Bly and others, and if Kankimäki didn’t follow their round-the-world travels exactly, that’s to be expected as it would be impossible for a single person to follow in their intrepid footsteps. All the while, though, Kankimäki wonders at both their courage and ability to face all hardships that come their way and their reluctance to put away society’s expectations upon returning home. Is it the distance that makes us bold and encourages us to step outside our ordinary lives?
Kankimäki provides no solid answers, because there really aren’t any. The driving force that causes us to step out in the the unknown can really only be known to the individual. It’s not something that can be defined or fully explained on ink and paper. The best a person can do is find inspiration in those stories and then set out on their own. For their own reasons.
Turning away from world travelers, Kankimäki looks farther back into time– to the late Renaissance when women artists like Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Artemesia Gentilleschi proved that women could rival men when it came to painting. As the first female artists who made a living from their art during the Renaissance, they refused to let their talents be set aside to satisfy society’s expectations. They wanted to paint, and they were good at it. Among the best. So paint they did. And finally, hundreds of years later, the world is once more seeing their genius for what it was.
As she progresses through a lively discussion of each woman’s life, Kankimäki comes up with a bit of advice from each of them- short, trite little mottoes that are almost ridiculous, but somehow manage to encapsulate their remarkable lives. And while Kankimäki’s description of Florence in the late Renaissance suffers from twenty-first century preconceptions of the supposed lack of cleanliness of pre-modern times, her descriptions of her subject’s lives are full of life, making the reader want to look up the artists’ work or read the travelers’ memoirs. Doug Robinson’s skillful translation give the book a lightness that’s sometimes missing from works in translation, leaving in the dry humor and occasional sarcasm that makes it seem like Kankimäki is sitting just across the table and telling her story– a tale that shows that women of a certain age are capable of remaking their lives entirely, and that by stepping away from society, we might end up stepping more deeply into our own selves.
Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in anyway.
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