Interviewed by Andrew Duncan
Born in England in 1969, Alexandra Fuller moved with her family to Rhodesia, Africa, in 1972. In the early 1980s, the Fullers left Rhodesia -- which was in the middle of a bloody civil war -- for Malawi, and then to Zambia. In 1994, she moved to Wyoming, where she still lives with her husband and two children. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is her first book.
Why did you decide to write a memoir?
I had written eight or nine novels that had been spectacular failures. I had a massive box of rejection letters spilling over next to my desk. It has been said that there are no truly "fictional" novels, and so it was with the manuscripts I had written. They were all based on my experiences in Africa, and the characters were all versions of my family.
The problem with trying to filter the "truth" through "fiction" is that I kept trying to prettify it, so it came out, I think, sounding stilted and essentially like lies. Finally, when my first agent actually told me that she really didn't think she could read another word of my writing -- or words to that effect -- and dropped me, I decided to write the truth (I think it was really some kind of desperation).
At that same time, my husband had gone away to Mexico to climb volcanoes, and he had left a note on his desk for me. In the letter, he reinforced his belief that the best story I had to tell was my own. I really didn't think anyone would want to hear the story of my life, and I was concerned about how an audience would perceive the drinking, the racial slurs, the chaos -- but I had nothing left to lose by trying to write it.
What was the writing of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight like?
After all the frustration of being so unsuccessful, and trying so hard to write a book set in "Africa" (I specifically mean the countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi), and with the clearest idea I'd ever had about what I was going to say (this story had been in me, I think, for so long) it was quite easy to write Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. People have asked me if it was "cathartic," but that implies that the writing was purely therapeutic, and that makes for horrible literature. I think I had done my catharsis in the novels, because when I came to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight I was able to write it without (I hope) judgment or self-pity, and without bitterness -- feelings that might have been inevitable if I was writing this as a diary, say, or as some kind of healing for myself. The book came out of me more or less as it is, although I shuffled around the chapters to make it -- I thought -- more poetic, and I added bits here and there as I remembered events.
The actual core of the book probably took me six weeks to write. The final product took me about nine months.
Why did your family first go to Africa?
Mum's grandfather left England in the early 1800s and went to Kenya where he built a church -- he was a priest in the Church of England -- and grew coffee. The church burned down and the coffee rotted, and his third son died of septicemia. So he and his wife took their two surviving sons back to England. But my grandfather and great-uncle both went back to Kenya as soon as they could. Grandfather was an engineer on the railways and great-uncle Dicon was the first to document the Nandi language. In fact, he lived with the Nandi people for some years.
Mum grew up in Eldoret, Kenya, where she met my father who had left England after college to travel around he world. He fell in love with Mum and with Africa, and hasn't left either ever since.
After all they went through, why did they stay?
When people ask why we stayed in Africa after all we went through, I feel as if I have failed, as a writer, to express the great passion my parents have for the place, the land, the life, and, yes, for the people. In any case, it's not as if "all we went through" happened all in one fell swoop. Tragedies and misfortunes came episodically, so my parents -- who are illogically optimistic -- would say, "Well, that was tough. But tomorrow will be better." And sometimes tomorrow was better, and sometimes it was worse, but my parents got out of bed every morning and faced whatever had to be faced with courage and determination, and sometimes with appalling arrogance.
Africa is their home. It is ridiculous to suggest that they had a bolt-hole to somewhere else anymore than you should suggest that people of German extraction living in Minnesota should consider going back to Germany, or African Americans in Georgia should "go back" to Africa. The world is too complicated and chopped up, and people are too far-flung from their roots now to say, "Everyone go back to they came from" or to classify someone by their racial make-up (a terrifyingly inexact and dangerous habit). Also, my parents weren't expatriates, or empire builders. They weren't there to get what they could from the land and then go back to England to reminisce about Africa for the rest of their lives. They are in Africa because they are Africans. Anyway, we never had enough money to leave and make a life elsewhere even if we wanted to. And we never wanted to.
When did you first realize that your mother harbored racist attitudes towards black Africans? What kind of effect did that have on you?
I don't think I woke up one morning and dug around in my bag of labels and decided to pin the word "racist" on Mum. Racism isn't as simple as the word used to describe it. I suppose it dawned on me when I was about 14 that I was not "racist," that I did not see people of different ethnicity as being "different" from me in any way. I went to school (ate, slept, bathed, played, fought, and learned) with girls of every imaginable racial and ethnic mix, so I suppose I learned -- without really knowing I was "learning" -- that skin color is an irrelevant and dangerous way to judge someone's character. What I did discover is that people have different souls. It wasn't as if Mum was constantly roaring around ranting at black people, so I didn't really challenge her on being a racist until I saw her behaving in a way that offended someone else, and then I would climb in to defend whomever she was slurring.
Over the years, she has changed her attitudes completely. Mum and Dad now live in a fishing camp in the middle of a village of over 60 000 people mainly from the Tonga and Goba tribes. They now eat, live, play, fight, and learn with their fellow Zambians (of all colors) much as I did in school. Like me, they've learned that color of skin is irrelevant to color of soul.
Have you been back to Africa since moving away? What are your perceptions of Africa like now that you're older?
I left Zambia nine years ago, and I have been back every chance and excuse I get since then. I can't speak for my perception of "Africa" as a whole, since I only know such a tiny part of it, so I'll speak for the slither of it I DO know. I would say that Zambia, with its three more-or-less democratic elections since 1992, is in a period of great hope. Of course, HIV/AIDS is an enormous health and social problem for us, and it is a matter of great urgency that this tremendous scourge be addressed -- life expectancy in Zambia is now estimated to be between 37 and 38 years.
Zimbabwe, on the other hand, has entered into a period of such horrible, unthinkable oppression and savagery with its corrupt and poisonous leaders targeting and killing and raping anyone who opposes them. My great hope is that my generation and those who are coming up behind us force our governments to be accountable for their actions, for the budgets, for their ruthlessness. Why so many African leaders (Mugabe, Arap Moi, the list goes on and on) are allowed such a wide lassitude of corruption astonishes me. It's as if the whole of the developed world feels so guilty for the legacy of colonialism -- and leaders like Mugabe use this to their full advantage, blaming his own corruption and ineptitude on the British, 22 years after independence -- that they turn a blind eye to the immorality of so many African leaders. That, I think, is the most devastating remnant of colonialism. We Africans need to drive forward, looking ahead, not in the rear-view mirror, if we are going to avoid crashing.
As you wrote in the book, "place" is very important to you. How do you like living in the U.S. as opposed to Africa?
The U.S. has been a wonderful place for me to feel safe and to learn the joy of freedom of speech and to test out my voice. But I miss Zambia terribly. I am determined to go back to Africa and live there again. I certainly envision myself growing old (if I make it that far!) in Africa. I know that there will be some hot, malarial afternoon sometime in the future when I will look back and wonder how I could ever have left Idaho, and I will hanker for the wonderful mountains and the forests and the cool elevations of the Rocky Mountains, but there isn't a day that I am away form Africa when I don't miss it.
Did your family members have any input on the writing of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight?
No, I wrote the book at 3 a.m., all alone, with no input from anyone. My family have only recently acquired a telephone, so it's not as if they are very easy to consult, anyway!
What was your family's reaction to the book?
My family reacted in a completely predictable way: Mum was furious to begin with, and now she's decided that the book was a brilliant achievement, Dad won't read it on the grounds that's he's illiterate and anyway, "Lived it, why do I have to read about it." And Vanessa also pleaded illiteracy, until I made her listen to the book on tape. When I told Dad that he could listen to it on tape he said, "Can't. I'm deaf. You said so yourself in the middle of page 13!" My family are tremendously supportive and, in their own reluctant way, proud of me.
What are you working on now?
I think that's an illegal question, isn't it?
What are you reading these days?
Michael Cunningham's The Hours is so breathtakingly brilliant that I have read it twice in two months and still find my jaw at my knees. I took Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit home to Zambia which Mum and Dad read (Dad's not REALLY illiterate unless he wants to be). We all had a great evening reciting the book to one another -- except Vanessa who loathes horses and fell asleep with her face in her salad.
And I have also just read Alexander Kanengoni's astonishing short novel, Echoing Silences.
Do you have a favorite bookstore?
Dark Horse Books in Driggs, Idaho, and Jackson Hole Booktrader in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
What books on Africa do you recommend?
- Nega Mezlekia- Notes from a Hyena's Belly
- Chinua Achebe- Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah
- J.M. Coetzee- The Life and Times of Michael K
- Doris Lessing- The Grass is Singing
- Bessie Head- A Question of Power, When Rain Clouds Gather
- Ngugi Wa Thiong O- The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood
- Ferdinando Oyono- Houseboy, The Old Man and the Medal
- Mongane Serote- To Every Birth Its Blood
- Bernardo Honwana- We Killed Mangy Dog and Other Stories
- Nelson Mandela- Long Walk to Freedom
- Tsitsi Dumerenga- Nervous Conditions
- Alexander Kanengoni- Echoing Silences
- Yvonne Burgess- Measure of the Night Wind
- V.S. Naipaul- A Bend in the River, In a Free State
- Graham Greene- In Search of a Character, A Burnt Out Case
Dark Horse Books, 76 North Main Street, Driggs, ID, 1-888-434-8882
Jackson Hole Booktrader, 970 W Broadway, Suite F, Jackson, WY, 1-800-722-2710
Author photo by Charlie Ross, courtesy of Random House.