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Back to Africa with Alexandra Fuller

In her 2001 debut, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller recalled in vivid, often excruciating detail coming of age in Rhodesia as a long civil war raged in neighboring Mozambique and her own country slid down the violent path toward an independent, African Nationalist regime. Alexandra FullerDogs astounded readers with its candor, describing from a young girl's point of view a wild landscape of far-reaching beauty and a continent in the throes of a vicious political antagonism she could not yet comprehend.

Narrating from within her own family's constant struggle for survival, Fuller brilliantly assimilated the dangers of war (land mines planted on the road to the local store, guerillas camping in the nearby hills) into the relentless domestic tumult around her, so that readers could hardly distinguish between the two. The Boston Globe, echoing the opinion of critics and readers around the world, marveled, "The extremely personal and unguarded understatement of this memoir is far more powerful than any sociopolitical analysis or apologist interpretation could hope to be."

Now, in Scribbling the Cat, Fuller tackles the Rhodesian War head-on. Visiting her parents in Zambia, she meets a veteran of the all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry Commando Unit whom we come to know simply as K. Together, they return to the remote bush of Mozambique to confront the disquieting reality of their shared past.

"I put in a little bit of history in the first book so readers could orient themselves, but I slipped out of my voice to do that," the author explains. "I needed to write the second book so I could explore the war from an adult's perspective."

Scribbling the Cat is "one of the strangest, best books ever about the ravages of war," Malcolm Jones raved in Newsweek. "But it's also a masterfully written travelogue," Outside magazine adds. "Fuller's portrait of the African landscape—where 'the air seemed softly boiling with song'—is so entrancing that her reader yearns to experience it, even as K describes the atrocities it once hosted."

Dave: In Scribbling the Cat, you write, "It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible."

You begin the book by dropping people right into the Sole Valley, "where even the Goba people—the people who are indigenous to this area— look displaced by their own homes, like refugees who are trying to flee their place of refuge." You don't exactly ease the reader in.

Alexandra Fuller: There is, in all my writing, a real desire to take readers where very few of them would go on their own. One way to do that is to not allow them the luxury of a tour guide, if you like. This cold bath of reality is to shake people into the realization that this is not going to be a romantic handholding; this is really what it feels like to be there. This is the shock of reality.

The other thing I try to do is dispel the romantic myths of Africa, the Out of Africa motif, which really exists only in safari camps anymore. Very few people live that existence.

Dave: You describe the smells of Africa in great detail.

Fuller: There are smells. We do things on such a mass scale in the Western world; we cover up so many of our natural smells. I got out of the car last night where we live in Idaho and commented to my daughter, "Oh, there's that ripe smell of summer drifting across the fields from the dairy next door" —but, for instance, the dairy I'm alluding to is a good two miles away. The thing is packed with so many cattle that it reeks.

In Africa, unless you're in the cities or a refugee camp, there tends to be a symphony of smells. You can pick out the violin, if you like, from the piano. In the States, one smell tends to dominate. Very rarely, a single piece trickles down and lets you have a distinct bouquet. The only place I've really, truly experienced that is in the heart of Yellowstone, once you get off the main tourist drag.

Dave: In both books, you frequently put words into the mouths of birds. I wondered if that's something you started doing as a young girl or if the habit developed in the process of your writing.

Fuller: I grew up with that. If you're six years old, lying on a lawn somewhere, and no one is talking to you—they're all fed up with you or they've gone out on the farm or they're at boarding school... I spent an awful lot of time on my own as a kid. There was no television; I couldn't yet read, or at least not very much; so I would lie on the lawn and the birds would talk to me.

You would start to distinguish. Pik-may-flur. Oh, that sounds like work har-der? work har-der. The adults around you will also tell you that. You'll be camping, and they'll say, "Oh, listen to that. It's saying, 'Work har-der. Work har-der." It was Dad and me that were down at the river one day, and he said, "Boy, the hippos are talking." And I said, "Yeah, they're saying, 'It's hot. Too damn hot today.'" And my Dad just fell over laughing because that's exactly what it sounds like.

Dave: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight tells the story of your family, your growing up, while the war and the politics of Rhodesia are looming the whole time, and often intruding. Centering the book on your family life kept you from going into too much detail about the politics. Scribbling the Cat takes readers further in that direction.

Fuller: In Dogs, what I wanted to show people is that if you're a kid in war you have no idea what's going on. You try to make sense of it the best you can, but you can't really explain it; you don't have the vocabulary for it yet.

I put in a little bit of history in the first book so readers could orient themselves, but I slipped out of my voice to do that. I took off the clothes of the child and slipped into my adult voice, saying, "Here, for the record, is what was going on." But as a kid you don't understand that, so there was no real forum for me to write about the politics. As a kid, we didn't know what horrors were going on because that was all kept from us by the propaganda machine.

I needed to write the second book so I could explore the war from an adult's perspective. It's something, probably along with the death of my sister, that more than anything else has shaped who I am.

Dave: For the war to be going on around you, for your family to drive down the road perpetually in fear of landmines or guerrillas coming out of the woods?

Fuller: Here's the brutal truth about that situation: My childhood was pretty fat compared to, for instance, how children in Liberia and Mozambique —child soldiers, for heaven's sake—are being treated. The majority of the world's children do not exist in this luxurious bubble, this sanctuary of childhood that we in the West are trained to believe is their right. And perhaps it is their right, but the reality is most children don't grow up this way.

If you look at the world's population, most children don't grow up with the security they should have. We have the Middle East, we had Bosnia, we continue to have Congo, Somalia, and Northern Ireland, to say nothing of Iraq and Afghanistan. The list goes on and on and on. As an adult, I look back and I think, Yes, I was sometimes hungry. Yes, I was often frightened. Yes, there was war and there was violence; there was no sanctuary of safety. Was that a normal childhood? By the majority of the world's standard, it was okay.

Dave: Your parents have shared a long, tumultuous life. It's been quite a marriage.

Fuller: People often comment on their relationship. Here in the US, where we have such a high divorce rate and the slightest excuse sends us running to the lawyer's office? My parents simply didn't have that option.

First of all, they spent a lot of their life really struggling financially. That, in a way, binds you together. It's just not an option to say, "I'll take my money, you keep yours, and we'll go." They really needed each other.

They have a deep connection that I think has come from so many incredibly lonely days and nights together. And I mean that in the best sense of lonely, where they're just alone and they're each other's best friend.

No, it hasn't always been easy, particularly watching my Mum go through what she has, but it's not as if Dad's a saint, either. The guy can be really difficult to live with. He goes for months without saying more than three words. They have a very accepting relationship.

More than anything else, I think what has made their marriage endure is that they've completely admired and respected each other's strengths but they've never blamed each other for their failings. They've never looked to the other person to change or be someone they cannot. My Dad has never said to my Mum, "You need to not be manic depressive or whatever you are." They have a very pragmatic attitude toward it all, which I think is so healthy.

Dave: When you were in Portland last month, we talked a bit about Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family. You raved about the book being "not literally honest, but emotionally honest." How literal should readers consider the depiction of events in Scribbling the Cat?

Fuller: For me, this is a really fine line. I feel like I have an enormous debt to the people and the places to be as truthful as I can be. I would like anyone who read this book to be able to go and see and meet the people I describe and say, "This is absolutely nail-on-the-head. I know these people."

I don't know if you've ever heard of a Polish journalist called Ryszard Kapuscinski, who wrote The Shadow of the Sun and various other books about Africa. I was so excited to buy his books because I'd read an excerpt. As I started reading, I thought, This is different. This is an Africa I haven't heard of. About a quarter of the way into the book, I realized, This is why I haven't heard of this Africa: It doesn't exist. It didn't take away from the writing—the man is beautiful writer—but that lack of honesty... we've had so much of that on the continent.

Every single story in Dogs is true. The stories are open to my interpretation, but my sister read the book —you know, one hears that siblings will often say, "That wasn't at all my reality"—but Vanessa said, "This is absolutely it." I think it's because the stories of my childhood were so vivid. I spent so much of my time thinking I was going to snuff it that I have a remarkable memory for what was happening.

With Scribbling, I was slightly more conscious of needing to have a literary, or at least a narrative line. But the book was born out of an article for the New Yorker— the article covered almost everything in the book—and anyone who has gone through the New Yorker's fact checking regime will know that there is not even the slightest room for interpretation, let alone lies. They emailed the characters in question and asked if this is what they had said and done, and they made sure I had all my facts correct. It's both literally true and emotionally true.

There were times, I suppose, when I underplayed the character of K because I needed to make him accessible for a US reader. And there were certainly times when I probably played up the tension that came about because of Mapenga and K and I being alone on this little island with a lion. But maybe not. If you asked K, he might say, "No, tension was worse than that." I'm sure there's room for interpretation here.

There were incidents K had told me about that I couldn't really know because I didn't see them myself. I had to imagine. I'm thinking of the time he rescued the woman who'd been eaten by a crocodile—that story I told more vividly than he told me. I'd seen so many real instances when he put himself to considerable danger and effort to help local people, and I wanted to help demonstrate that even though it seemed very easy to call him a racist and be done with it, his relationship with the locals was far more complicated than what was coming out of his mouth would indicate. That story seemed like a good vehicle.

Dave: You've mentioned in interviews that you see the ongoing struggles in Africa driven not so much by race as by power. On that note, I was pretty floored by the "Or Why We Are Here" chapter in Scribbling. First, you have three people caged in from the wilderness, these three whites; then that "not race but power" idea was vividly played out in the scene with the wild dogs.

Fuller: Why?

Dave: Because the actions of the participants had little to do with anything except who was going to live through it.

Fuller: That's so true. You know, I hadn't even thought of it, myself.

I think the thing I took away from that story that was so chilling was: Here was a world completely turned on its head. The rules of civilization had been aborted. Domesticated dogs shouldn't turn on humans in that way. There was something truly sick and devastating about war that had made this happen.

I think that's what I took from it, but yes, a lot of this has to do with power. It is, in a very profound way, the survival of the fittest. And there is a respect for people who survive these things together. Soldiers will very often say that when it's all said and done and the enemy has retreated, when the war is over, they have some kind of respect for the enemy.

Dave: The government of Zimbabwe, I read last week in the New York Times, is now going to claim whatever farms haven't already been seized from white landowners. What is the future of that part of the world, do you think?

Fuller: Do you think I'm magic?

Dave: As someone who's more connected to it than most Americans, what do you see?

Fuller: Well, funny enough, I just got an email from a woman I really respect, a black Zimbabwean who was a friend of mine years ago. She works in publishing in the UK now. In a way, she said it the best of anyone. She said, "This country I no longer recognize, but I do recognize the people, and that's what makes me think we might prevail."

I stared at that email for a long time. I think she's right. That's been my experience when I've gone back there: I don't recognize the country anymore —it's sort of been eaten from the inside out—but the fundamental power of the people who exist on that soil has not gone away at all. And they will prevail. You can destroy and destroy and destroy, but as long as there is life there's hope.

There are some brilliant Zimbabweans in exile, just waiting to go back. I think the quicker Mugabe leaves power the better, and I do think that for there to be no war as a result of this there needs to be some kind of free and fair election. I just don't know if it's possible anymore. Had there been some kind of international intervention four years ago, there could have been hope for a peaceful reconciliation, but the West was duped for a long time by Mugabe's ridiculous assertion that everything that was wrong had to do with the whites. Political correctness paralyzed a moral obligation. Instead of seeing what was going on on the ground? Political correctness has its place, but it can be a paralyzing force; it can be quite dangerous because it scares people into behaving in ways that just aren't reasonable given what's going on on the ground.

Dave: You write about being a voracious reader as a child, but you rarely cite any of the books by name. Do you hold back the titles and authors for any particular reason?

Fuller: I have a hard time remembering what I read. I read so much, and now I watch my daughter do the same thing: just inhale books. I sometimes think, How can she possibly keep track of what she's reading?, and I think in a way the same thing happened to me.

I think I named The Chronicles of Narnia, didn't I? I read voraciously, anything I could get my hands on. The books that really stayed with me, I remember those vividly—where I was sitting when I read them— and I remember feeling them as a real exposure. One of the most important ones was Anne Frank's Diary when I was twelve. I couldn't put it down. But then I read a lot of junk. I'd go into my mother's library and just work my way through.

I also think one of the reasons I didn't go into some of the literature was that there I was living on a continent so rich in its own literature and I wasn't really exposed to it until I was eighteen or so, or I didn't expose myself to it. That was a real pity.

Dave: I had a strange experience with your book on Sunday. I was driving back to Portland from Hood River, sixty miles east, and traffic was stopped by a car wreck on the highway. I was sitting on I-84 with the engine off, reading Scribbling the Cat to pass the time. It was there that I got to where you write, "Sometimes, an accident on Kapiri Ngozi can hold up the flow of traffic on the escarpment for a week or more, and when this happens, entire, spontaneous villages erupt out of the face of the hill."

I thought, Okay, example number thirty-four of my spoiled, impatient, American nature. And, actually, I wasn't too bothered with waiting, having the book with me, but you could tell that most of the people around me were going out of their minds.

Fuller: Half an hour.

Dave: Forty-five minutes, tops.

Fuller: That's what I was talking about when we started this discussion with the question of jumping from the African experience to here. It's one of the things I found really threatening when I first got to the US: people were in such a hurry, even in sleepy little Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It made me completely nervous. My hands would sweat when I got to the checkout line at the grocery store. People would bump up behind me, and I could never figure out my checkbook.

We were always so strapped when we first got over here. I knew how much I had to spend, but I used to stand there and feel just like my mother— my mother does the same thing. She comes over here and she's fiddling around with an assortment of credit cards and she doesn't know how to use them. People are just so impatient, and the more impatient they get the more she drops everything. I went into Kmart when I first got over here and walked out in tears. I just couldn't cope.

It works both ways. When I get home, it takes me a day or two to remember where I am and to stop expecting everything to happen yesterday. And I'm so offended when people from the West go over there and are rude to service people. It's just so unfair to expect things to crack along at the same whipping pace when, for one thing, one of our biggest problems in Zambia is that life expectancy is thirty-three. Your odds of being able to train someone and have them hold down a job for more than a few years is really small. That's a constant battle.

You learn this stuff. You learn it at birth. My children, for instance, are way more efficient at getting on and off ski lifts than I am. They have to hold my hand and make sure I don't kill myself. It's something they learned very early and something I didn't. The same goes for being able to drive in cities; I can't do it, but I'm sure they'll be able to. We don't have the kind of cultural programming that allows you to all of a sudden slip into this speedy way of life and know what to do with it.

Dave: Are you working on something now?

Fuller: I am. I'm having some really great fun with some short stories. A few of them have been published in an anthology of Zimbabwean writers, which I was very proud to be included in. I'm churning them out, and when I have twenty or so I'd love to let them see the light of day. I envision a series of stories connected only in that they're nonfiction and that they're me and my family's experience of Africa.

I'm hoping that at the end I'll have, say, half a dozen or less, three or four, about Idaho, about the experience of being over here. I think I've been here long enough to start to get a feel for it. I did once say I would never write about Idaho because everyone needs a place to go home to, and you can really put yourself in exile as a writer. On the other hand, I'm ready to move away from the continent.

There's also a longer book that I've had in the works for ages—I just haven't been able to find a voice for it yet. It's the story of my grandmother, who started out in Scotland and came out to Kenya. She was such a fierce, powerful woman. I've sort of followed her around, the course of her life; I went to see where she was born, and I have gone out to Kenya to see where she lived there. I think her story would be a wonderful vehicle to write about Africa and not have to write about such dark stuff. Maybe I'll bring a little more of that romance that I rail against back to the poor old continent.

Dave: What else do we need to talk about before I let you go?

Fuller: One thing I want to acknowledge that often gets overlooked is the people that grew me and helped create the voice that comes out in both books, maybe more so in Dogs: the indigenous black Africans. I hope they exist as full-blown characters. I wanted to show how effectively silenced they are in this power struggle that we were talking about earlier. In a way, the most effective way for me to ensure that they were not lost completely from the narrative was to allow a little of their music into my voice. I hope that comes across.

Dave: In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides writes, "I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, 'the happiness that attends disaster.' Or: 'the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy.'" You tackle those language limitations in your own way with strung-together phrases like "full-of-nothing-aching-hungry."

Fuller: Right! I want sometimes to sound as if English is my second language.

Dave: There's an elemental nature to your writing. It's rich, but it won't go over anyone's head.

Fuller: I once had an English journalist say, "You know, you have far too many adjectives scattered in the body of your work. Somebody needs to reign you in. Why do you use so many adjectives strung together?" And I said, "Well, actually, I just can't think of a longer word." But that wasn't true. What I was really trying to capture was the staccato of the sound when you're there, this constant rat-a-tat-tat of the birds and the voices of Africans.

As far in Africa as I have traveled, the language is primarily Bantu. It's a clipped, hammer-on-rock noise, say, if you're just hearing it out the window and you're not hearing the words. I really wanted to try and capture the essence. If you were there, this is what the air would feel like to you when it was vibrating to your head.

Alexandra Fuller visited Powells.com on May 27, 2004 to say hello and sign a cart full of books. On June 23rd, she spoke by phone from her southern Idaho home.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight:...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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