A Wandering Star: Catching up with Alexandra Fuller
I met Alexandra (Bobo) Fuller for the first time at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in 2009. It was a blustery wet night back when winter still delivered plentiful rain. The fanfare accompanying her memoir of her Zimbabwean childhood, Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, preceded her everywhere. So I was star-struck, and even more so when overhearing someone ask her how her visit to Zambia had been – she’d just come from visiting family there: “My parents are fine, and there was a puffadder living under my bed.”
I had grown up with boomslangs in the attic. Common ground? I loitered closer. And then the kind of opportunity fans dream of presented itself: Fuller continued, in the carrying tones of those educated in anglophone boarding schools: “I’m having the most appalling period pains. I want to curl up and howl. Truly, I might be dying, and I’ve got this whole effing evening to get through.”
Hallelujah! In my handbag I carried extremely effective meds for this very purpose. I stepped forward and offered them. I gave her one to take immediately, washed down with the glass of red wine in her hand, another to swallow if no relief within 30 minutes, and a third for the next day. She gulped down the magic pill with profuse thanks and zero qualms about accepting drugs from a stranger, and then tides of people took her away. Half an hour later, there was a tug at my arm. “It’s a miracle! I feel human again.”
So after that bonding experience, there was affection and connection whenever our paths and years crossed. She came across an anthology on landscapes of Southern Africa (Lovely Beyond Any Singing) that I had compiled; living thousands of miles from her heart-home, it became a portal to Africa for her. Meanwhile, I gobbled up everything she wrote.
Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight introduced readers to her piercing combination of honesty and generosity (“she looks back with rage and love,” said one reviewer), as well as a sometimes near-hallucinatory style. I found Scribbling The Cat, an account of her travels with a veteran of the “Rhodesian War” too intense and unguarded to bear, but her next book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, is a small masterpiece of biography. In it, she tells the true and haunting story of a young Wyoming roustabout who fell to his death from an oil rig because the drilling company had failed to install safety rails.
She told me she’d written her first three books because silence has never been an option for her: the first was an attempt to give voice to what had until then been unspoken, the second the unspeakable (“an impossible project”), and in the third, she tried to speak for the speechless dead.
It’s hard not to admire the honesty with which she writes of a dysfunctional (“operatic”) but loving home, of the struggles to locate herself within adopted, adored and ultimately alien countries. Her Africa memoirs culminate in Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness, a loving account of her mother’s extraordinary, messy and bravura life. One of the most striking scenes involves Nicola Fuller, who insisted on flying lessons, singing “Fly Me To The Moon” under a swollen gold moon as she comes in to land on a patchy Zambian airfield.
Relocating to Wyoming after marrying an American, Fuller forged ahead with writing the stories of yet another adopted home, and so came The Legend of Colton H. Bryant and Leaving Before the Rains Come. When she read from the former at the Cape Town launch at the Book Lounge, her audience held cans of Mountain Dew in one hand and tissues in the other.
Until I read her most recent work, her debut novel Quiet Until the Thaw, I found Leaving her most absorbing book: a memoir of the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, displacement and financial disaster on two generations of family. But this is no kitchen-sink drama; the book charges towards a cliffhanger that would be improbable in fiction. Against the backdrop of their crumbling marriage, she fights like a tiger to save her husband’s life after a riding accident leaves him on the point of death. It’s clear that even if she made a lousy wife (she is brutally honest about her failings), she’s a very good person to have in your corner when things go wrong.
Now, after producing memoirs of a range of unforgettable people, ranging from her closest kin to a stranger, she has turned to fiction. She is in South Africa to attend Stellenbosch University’s Woordefees, a festival that celebrates and attracts a wide range of cultural and literary artists. This gave us the chance to spend an hour talking about the past, her new novel, and the life she has recrafted in Wyoming, where she now lives in a yurt: “Impermanence has become important”, she says.
The thing about Alexandra Fuller is that if you ask her how she is, she will tell you. She is unflinchingly, almost unnervingly truthful. We pick up from our last conversation as if years, an ocean and two books haven’t intervened. She tells me of the shattering breakdown that followed the death of her father, to whom her novel is dedicated: of the family upheaval that followed, the self-medicating with alcohol, the flashbacks to childhood traumas, the struggle to come to terms with her parents’ failure to protect her from a predatory neighbour, which for her is wound up one of her lifelong tasks: comprehending and atoning for the complicity of her settler history and its embedding in colonial racism.
The connection might not seem obvious to the casual bystander, but it’s all about cycles of violence, she keeps telling me. They keep repeating, and so we have to understand how deep they run, the places they have their roots. Few people hold so squarely in their sights the mechanics of how patriarchal exploitation and abuse of women and children is tied into the structural violence of racism and colonialism, of the exploitation of the planet’s resources to the extent of making our only home uninhabitable, of genocides and the way military, political and cultural forces enact these, and then blame the victims for the host of ills that follow.
This brings us to her most recent work and first novel, Quiet Until The Thaw. Set on an Indian reservation (“The Rez”) of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation, in South Dakota, it tells the story of cousins who choose different paths in response to their experiences of being pushed to the barest margins of society in their own country. Written with deceptive simplicity, it engages with all the issues mentioned above, most especially the perennial problem of violence, and the only solution: to recognise the interconnectedness of all things and peoples, and thus to grasp that any violence we perpetrate will haunt, twist and scar us, and our children, and their children.
When giving testimony against the oil company on whose rig Colton H. Bryant died, she discovered that different procedures were followed when drilling on Indian land. She began to visit, to listen, joining in endurance rides where she was “invisible”. I tease her about rushing in again where angels fear to tread: a white woman, a double settler, trying to tell the story of another culture, another way of life. She acknowledges the enormity of this task, that she strove above all “for humility”. It shows in her writing.
I ask how it felt, making the jump from memoir to fiction – a stumbling block for many writers – and she laughs: “This is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.”
This might seem strange, especially if one reads the blurb on the back cover, which repeats all the familiar tropes of a multi-generational Cain-and-Abel story, of “broedertwis”, giving the impression one has picked up a family saga with an extra dollop of liberal earnestness. Nothing could be further from the truth: the book has no epic thrust or sprawling narrative. Instead, it is a series of beautifully wrought vignettes, written in chapters of no more than 250 words at a time, with chapter headings that advance the story. These near-fragments are funny, searing, lyrical and wise.
“They’re all true,” she tells me. “Everything in that book, all the characters: they’re real – it’s all reportage. I just listened and stitched the pieces together.” She goes on to explain that the structure of the book is modelled on Indian storytelling, where one voice will speak, and another will chime in with a detail or the addition of a character or event, and then another; the story belongs to all. Even when creation myths are told, they are spoken quietly to sleeping children.
One of the pleasures of the book is Fuller’s trademark lyricism: “Snow around the tepee became like mashed sweet potatoes, then like kernels of corn, then granular sugar, and finally it melted completely and puddled up in the tufts of last year’s old grass.” Even the throwaway phrases – “tiny wrens with their big songs” – are polished to perfection.
This is not to say that Fuller doesn’t also recount the bad, the ugly, the bleak and the frankly hideous: she pulls no punches about life on an Indian reservation, and the ills that bloom like black mould in these contexts of despair and deprivation. She manages that rare trick: effective sarcasm, and although the book spans seven decades, from McCarthyism to Standing Rock, trenchant commentary on current events is never far away: for instance, she writes that the absence of incest taboos among white settler Americans eventually created “a class of chinless, insecure, wig-wearing golfers”.
The book distills a great deal of wisdom, but this extract showcases both the extreme pragmatism and idealism Fuller learned from the Lakota – the “much madness [that] is divinest sense”:
Even if we stopped everything right now, all the war and abuse and hurt and injury, and treated each other with nothing but love.
We’d still have generations to go before we settled into real peace, but it would be real peace.
The question isn’t “Why bother?”
It’s “Why not?”
Perhaps the answer is that most people don’t believe in themselves enough to imagine one or two or seven generations down the line, the way the Lakota are trained to think. Perhaps they refuse to entrust the possibility of peace to some as yet unborn descendants because their own ancestors no such respect for their possibility of peace. An eye for an eye in ever-increasing cycles of violence going all the way around to where this all ends, and all begins.
So when I ask her about recent events in Zimbabwe, her message remains the same: while she is encouraged, even overjoyed by the departure of two Southern African despots, Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma, her question is: will these changes, upheavals even, break what in a National Geographic interview she calls “the half-life of war”, the pattern of violence that haunts both countries?
We also speak about the water crisis afflicting Cape Town in particular, but with the drought so severe that three South African provinces have been declared national disaster zones. We speak about the myopia of the middle classes, the consumerist grasshoppers who go on devouring resources as if they were as limitless as our appetites for stuff, for profligacy, for waste. This numbness, the profound disconnection between we who live on the earth and our immediate surroundings, as if we are not interlinked and inter-dependent, is something she tackles head-on in Quiet Until The Thaw.
We return, finally, to the yurt that is now her home. I tell her that she has come full circle: that after a life of wandering, she is now a permanent itinerant. She yelps with laughter: “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right.”
I wish her the peace she deserves. And look forward to reading about her future inward and outward journeys.