September 2011

Alexandra Fuller

An African love story
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After chronicling her African childhood in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller turns to the adventurous and sometimes tragic lives of her parents in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

What compelled you to return to the subject of your parents’ lives in Africa?

In the decade since I wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, I think age has worn me down a little and I am both kinder and less judgmental. For one thing, I have made plenty of messy mistakes with my life—it’s not easy to have dreams of your own and to make room for the dreams of your children and spouse, I see that now. If someone were to make a memoir out of my life and to focus on the messy parts, instead of the dreams that inspired the mess, I can see how hurtful that would be.

Now, with a little wisdom and time on my side, I can see that my parents’ dreams became inextricably tangled in their culture and with their core values and beliefs (many of which I don’t share—but many of which I admire). That was what drove them, and if it got us into the occasional tragedy or mess, it certainly wasn’t their intention. In that way, it seemed remiss—given the hindsight I now have—not to write another book that explored my parents’ story from their point of view: their childhoods, dreams, aspirations and beliefs.

Your mother often refers to your first memoir as “The Awful Book.” What does she think of this one?

It’s never easy to read about yourself. You think, “Well, yes, I said something like that, but that wasn’t the whole context, truth, intention of what I meant. . . .” So I can understand Mum’s hesitation at being too enthusiastic about this book, although she does seem to prefer it to Dogs about which she was initially furious!

How did you go about learning more about your parents’ younger selves? Did they cooperate in the research and writing of this book?

Mum was so cross about the first memoir. She said, “You really know nothing about me. You have no idea why I did the things I did.” And it was true—I knew very little about her family or childhood beyond the conversations that she would have with my grandmother or the things my grandmother had told me about Scotland and Kenya. So I offered to hear Mum’s side of the story and the result was a marathon multi-day interview which I taped in 2002 in Scotland.

When I got home, I put the tapes in my office and didn’t listen to them until 2009 when I had whooping cough and was in bed for 100 days, too sick to read much, and bored of the radio. So, over the course of that illness, I lay in my bed with a slight fever, eyes closed, and listened to Mum’s voice for hours and hours and gradually the shape of this book took place. I began to write it while I was still recovering from whooping cough, and then I realized that I needed Dad’s side of the story too. So a few months later, we met in South Africa and my parents talked to me for a week—again, I taped the conversations—and their story was just so much more poignant and wonderful told in their inimitable voices than I ever could have imagined.

Subsequently, as I was writing and rewriting the book, if I had questions or problems, Mum was very good at answering the phone and clarifying. I gave them the finished manuscript and they read it and were able to make objections and corrections. Mostly, though, I think they feel the book is “all right.” But I know it’s hard for them to revisit some of the very painful material—and I know Dad would prefer that wasn’t part of the book. He likes “nice” books with “happy stories,” he says.

Did you learn anything about your parents that surprised you?

I don’t think I was surprised by what they told me—some of these stories are the old standards that come out at dinner parties—but what I was surprised by was how much they have lived. “Never a dull moment,” as Dad often says.

And now with nearly 20 years of my own marriage to look back on, I am surprised—or maybe more impressed—by my parents’ unflagging commitment to one another and their support of each other nearly 50 years after they first met in Kenya. Given their lives—the death of children, war, the loss of so much, the occasional really bad decision—their continuing, dare I say deepening, love seems so miraculous.

This book is partly my parents’ love story; the way they have always been so delighted in one another, so deeply impressed by one another’s gifts, even as drought, war, madness, tragedy and bad luck ensued.

How did becoming a mother change the way you view your own childhood and see your parents?

I think I am kinder and certainly slower to judge my own parents now than I was before I had children. I also have more compassion for them: I can’t imagine surviving the loss of one of my children, let alone surviving the loss of three.

Your parents lived as expats in Africa; now you live as an expat in the United States. How are those experiences similar or different?

The whole point of Cocktail Hour is to show how my parents have made a decision to relinquish their expat status and live in Africa as Africans. This is essential: As long as they lived as expats and fought Africa (literally), their losses accumulated. Once Dad accepted that he was African (fundamentally, Mum has always been African), their lives took on something approaching peace.

I am not an expat here in the United States. I have become an American citizen. That being said, I don’t feel “American” (whatever that is), but also I don’t think living in the United States has forced me to relinquish the lessons and values I learned from my African childhood. Partly, this is because I am not an ethnic minority in this country: I am white so it is easy for me to fly under the radar as an “American.”

No one yells at me to “speak English” and no one insists that I “assimilate” because I already speak English and, at least on the surface, I appear to have assimilated just fine. In actual fact, I think I am still more African than American in my belief systems, but since “belief systems” rarely come up in casual conversation, I don’t often have to defend my values the way an obviously Hispanic or Asian or Arabic immigrant might have to.

My parents had to work at becoming African—their journey from expats to Africans is the major theme of the book. But I have not had to work at becoming an American nearly as hard. A lot of people question the place of whites in Africa but no one in America (except a wonderfully outspoken Lakota woman I met recently) has ever questioned my right to be in America as a white woman.

Of course, if I were Hispanic, or Asian, or Islamic or another obvious ethnic or religious minority, a lot of people (not just indigenous Americans) would question my right to be here. I think this is a major failing of the American culture, and one that has kept us arm-wrestling ourselves into an exhausted heap, even as the environment and the economy collapse around us.

Please tell us what animals you now have in your family—horses, dogs, hermit crabs?

I have had a tragic couple of years, so am reduced to two horses and a dog. It’s manageable, but I miss the chaos of all the animals.

You briefly allude to certain writers in your book—Isak Dinesen, Beryl Markham—how do you see yourself fitting in with this literary tradition, if at all?

I attempt to be the antidote to Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham: the white writer who refuses to swallow the nostalgic view that it was all so wonderful under colonialism. In that way, I would hope that my African work falls more under the tradition of writers like Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head and Chenjerai Hove.

Review of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

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