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The last safari

Remembering James Kilgo, 1941-2002


When I dream of Africa, it's because of James Kilgo.

It was my junior year at UGA. I was a journalism major who was maxing out on literature classes on the sly, trying to sneak away with an English degree as well. I signed up for Dr. Kilgo's literary nonfiction class, despite my roommate's warning that the teacher was a "hard-ass," or my adviser's suggestion that I take magazine layout instead. I opted for nonfiction because I hoped it would bring a new dimension to my reporting. I had no idea.

The first day, Dr. Kilgo ambled in and loudly warned us that this class was not going to be a Sunday stroll. Anyone who was looking for an easy A had best exit now. My roommate, it appeared, was right. This guy was a hard-ass, and we were in for a dark ride.

Dr. Kilgo kicked off the quarter with a lengthy trek into Out of Africa. His passion for the text was palpable. He refused to refer to the author by either her pen name (Isak Dinesen) or her real name (Karen Blixen), but usually just called her "Karen," which he pronounced with a regal South Georgia flatness, like they were old friends who might go out on a walk later that afternoon.

By the time we finished the book, I'd caught the same malaria that infected my professor. Years later, when pressed to name my all-time favorite novel, I'd respond, red-faced, that my choice wasn't a novel at all, because Out of Africa is actually nonfiction. To this day, the book haunts my dreams, and I sometimes think I'll spend the rest of my life trying to recreate Dinesen's precise, heartbreaking prose.

After it became my job to report on books and writers, I'd heard that Dr. Kilgo was working on an Africa book himself. But then, what seemed like just a few months later, I heard the disturbing news that he had passed away. He died in December after a long fight with cancer. He was 61.

This weekend at the Margaret Mitchell House a group of friends and fellow writers will gather to remember the life of Dr. Kilgo. Authors Philip Lee Williams and Judson Mitcham will read from his work, as will his widow, Jane Kilgo.

The event coincides with the release of the author's last opus, Colors of Africa, published this month by the University of Georgia Press. It's a fitting final chapter for the late professor, an account of a hunting safari he took to Zambia in spring 2000.

The book is a triumph, a literary travelogue obviously influenced by Dinesen, but with the likes of Hemingway, Conrad and David Livingstone also lighting the path. In his nonfiction work Deep Enough for Ivorybills, Dr. Kilgo wrote lovingly of his experiences on hunting trips, but for this safari he went along as a photographer and observer, which freed him up to record the grisly, often primal details of the experience.

In an early chapter he brings forth the news of his cancer, and uses it as a reflecting pool to anchor the grand issue of mortality. Africa, he writes, has the sound of life. He had no choice but to go there.

Reading Dr. Kilgo's narrative on his fight with cancer, I caught myself tearing up, as if I'd found a lost letter from an old friend. Not that we were friends; he was a crotchety old professor in the twilight of his teaching career, and I was a smart-assed student. The single instance of tenderness we ever shared came from a very high compliment he gave me on an essay I'd written on Out of Africa. The topic was a passage in which Dinesen declares: "My life, I will not let you go except you bless me, but then I will let you go."

I can't help but think of that passage now, of Dr. Kilgo holding onto his life until he'd at last slept under the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. I see him there now, trading war stories with Ernest, asking Karen if she's ready for their afternoon walk.


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