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Author Alexandra Fuller on how growing up in Africa inspired a ‘very honest’ divorce memoir

February 17, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Alexandra Fuller’s childhood in Southern Africa was the inspiration for two past memoirs. In her third, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” she writes about moving to the U.S. and the collapse of her decades-long marriage. Fuller joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Alexandra Fuller grew up in Southern Africa, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia. This backdrop of war, beauty, hard living and two almost larger-than-life parents has been the inspiration for two bestselling memoirs, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” and “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.”

And now comes a third, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” about her move to the U.S., the end of her marriage, and her continuing connection to all she left behind in Africa.

Alexandra Fuller, welcome.

ALEXANDRA FULLER, Author, “Leaving Before the Rains Come”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start with that last thought about connections to place, because part of this is — at least it struck me as about belonging and not belonging. That’s something you wanted to explore and gnaws at you?

(LAUGHTER)

ALEXANDRA FULLER: I think that’s just part of the condition of being a white Southern African. You’re just — particularly at my age, you’re dispossessed at birth, and you’re very aware of it, particularly when you have parents like mine, who sort of fought on what I consider the wrong side of history, but then felt so connected to that land that they stayed.

And so you’re a sort of living disconnect. You’re white African, and then — and you sort of move to the U.S., and you look like white, middle-class U.S. housewife.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re not, really.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: But I’m African.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your parents, who you have written about now in the three memoirs, I used larger than life because I wasn’t quite sure what to say, because they are. You almost can’t make up these two in a way.

There’s the quote from your father in this one that says, “The problem with most people is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.”

ALEXANDRA FULLER: And I think the extraordinary thing for me is, the older I get, the more I realize, they’re not larger than life; they’re simply alive. They’re just deeply authentic.

They have, I think, eschewed every tribe that would have them be a member and really deeply become more themselves. And it’s not a bad model to follow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, there is a passage in here that I loved because it kind of goes to the talk we have in this country about how to raise children, you know, and coddling them and scheduling them.

And your father says to you — he tells you to run around freely and he says, “You have got the whole of bloody Africa to play in.”

I love that. Just get out there. And that was his philosophy of parenting?

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Pretty much. My sister and I were laughing about that.

It wasn’t just — we were also free to do anything we wanted, as long as we didn’t shoot each other above the knees. That was the limit.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And you laugh, but guns were around quite a bit. Right?

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Yes.

And I think it’s — one of the things that I explore in all my work is that there’s this constant sort of conflict that’s not easy. It’s a lot of contradictions. I adore my family. I don’t love their politics. I think they’re wonderful parents. They were dreadful at parenting.

I admire them enormously. I, you know, assiduously do not follow most of what they have told me to do. And yet the one thing my father did say is, you know, live your own life. That’s it. And you will know it’s your own life because it’s lonely and it’s frightening. And there’s — when you look back, there will be only one set of footprints, and they’re yours.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, this book is also, as I said, a memoir of a divorce.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Mm-hmm.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was one reviewer had a line that I liked. It said, “Alexandra Fuller has written a divorce memoir for people who may not like divorce memoirs.”

And it’s interesting, because you sort of say that yourself in the book. Right?

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You go around and start reading these things as your own marriage is breaking up, and you don’t like what you’re reading.

So what did — how did you come to it? How did you find your way to writing about it?

ALEXANDRA FULLER: I think that’s what I do, right? I write and I read, and I write and read my way into and out of ideas and life. And that’s what we do. That’s what storytellers do.

And the closest I could come to anything was actually Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” because it felt to me not like a divorce.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: It felt to me kind of like a death. I mean, 20 years with someone, when you have committed so much of yourself, when you have made such an attempt, I think, to mold yourself in a relationship, and then find yourself in what feels like really solitary confinement, to break out of that, there must be a kind of death.

I mean, anything else, it — you know, I think the one thing I really was allergic to was this idea that was divorce was some kind of celebration. It felt to me like a really catastrophic ending. And, yes, something new came from it, but it was much more Carl Jung than let’s celebrate the freedom of some — yes, whatever the other paradigm…

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you said you’re a writer, so you write about what happens. That sort of goes to my — the larger question is, where does this compulsion to write about — because you’re sort of telling your life story in all these memoirs. Right? Why?

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Well, you know, I wanted to be a writer.

That was just it. Right? So I think you either have that compulsion or you don’t. And it’s — for me, it’s like breathing. I mean, I want to make words out of life. That’s bigger than me. That’s as big a creative force as — bigger than, for me, even having children. That felt more accidental, wonderful, but accidental.

This is a deliberate and very enormous feeling in me. And I did try to write fiction. I wrote 10 novels. And they were all just awful.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEXANDRA FULLER: And my agent at the time fired me. And she said, you may have a minuscule bit of talent, but you have got no story, and so you’re on your own.

And I thought, no, wait, I do have a story.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got a story.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Yes, I have got a story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And I’m going to tell it.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: And then what sort of happened was that first book, ” Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” which was really a memoir of growing up with my extraordinary mother, everyone called it brutally honest.

And it really made me realize how much everybody else must just be lying through their teeth all the time. And I think that is part of the gift of growing up Southern African. For all our faults, we really hash things out.

We’re very funny. We’re very direct, and we’re very honest, I think, because, if someone is not waving a gun at you, really, what’s the worst thing that can happen if we tell the truth? So, we don’t have freedom of speech, and we use it. And here, there’s freedom of speech, and people take the Fifth.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, the new memoir is “Leaving Before the Rains Come.”

Alexandra Fuller, thank you.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Thank you.

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