(1969 - )
Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight http://arlindo-correia.com/fuller.html
Cocktail hour under the tree of forgetfulness http://arlindo-correia.com/021011.html
Scribbling the cat - http://arlindo-correia.com/alexandra_fuller.html
Leaving before the rains come - http://arlindo-correia.com/200215.html
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Picador, London, 2002
'People think the book is a love-letter to Africa, but really it is a love-letter to my mother'
Alexandra Fuller talks to Louisa
Young about her acclaimed memoir of her African childhood
Thursday March 14, 2002
Alexandra Fuller, known universally as Bobo, grew up on a succession of ever-poorer tobacco and cattle farms in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zambia in the 1970s and 80s, with alcoholic parents, a manic-depressive mother, civil war going on all around, and three out of her four beloved siblings dying in infancy. She noticed quite early on that she was the wrong colour for Africa: a "marshmallow".
Now she has published a childhood memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, that is being compared to the Diary of Anne Frank; to the works of Michael Ondaatje and Arundhati Roy. Richard E Grant has described it as "hilarious and insane". You can hear it this week on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week. Several friends have told me about how they wept to hear of Fuller's sister, Olivia, drowning as a toddler; Fuller, a couple of years older, had been told, "Keep and eye on her," and has never quite escaped blaming herself.
Swooping into a swanky London club, Fuller doesn't in the least resemble the "worm-bellied, mud-spattered sprog tearing round the farm on a motorbike" that she used to be. She is sunkissed, beautiful, hungover ("I hope none of the people in here were in last night," she says, peering around in trepidation) and astounded by the reception her book has had - translated into 12 languages, a six-week world tour, and the rest.
All good? No accusations of being an apologist for racist imperialism? "Well, at a reading in the States I had some of the: 'What right have you to write about Africa, privileged white girl?' You know. I just said no one has a right to write, it isn't a choice. I have eight or nine novels musting on a shelf and in the end I had to write the truth as I saw it."
Fuller was conceived beside Victoria Falls, born in Derbyshire, and at the age of two moved back to Africa. Both her parents had lived in Africa for years. "My father came out to Kenya as a young man to see a giraffe and escape alcoholic relatives. Mum was living the life of a colonial beauty in the twilight of Kenya's empire days, and my grandfather had built a church there, which burned down. We weren't imperialist bureaucrats, out for a year or two and then going back to Britain and saying, 'Oh, yes, when I was in Zambia...' We were settlers."
She isn't defensive about this at all - you get the feeling that she has been thinking about it all her life: how it is to belong to a place that does not belong to you. Her parents are still in Africa, in a "rudimentary dwelling on the banks of the Zambezi". Her surviving sibling, Vanessa, "lives in a rock house balanced on top of a kopje [rocky outcrop] near the Kafue river [in Zambia]". Fuller has been living in Wyoming (loves the landscape, not sure about the mindset) since 1994 with her husband and two children, but is moving back to Africa this year - to Tanzania.
The Rhodesian (as was) civil war was the background to her life. She grew up with conflict, hunger and disease constantly at the door (or doors, rather, as their farms were repossessed and they ended up in an area marked on the old maps "NotFitForWhiteMan'sHabitation"). Her father would set off into the bush for days on end to fight the "terrorist guys"; her mother was meanwhile rounding up wild cattle, abusing squatters, and shooting a cobra in the pantry.
The baby before Bobo, Adrian, died ("The story changes depending on what mum is drinking"), and Fuller was born "to replace him". Then Olivia drowned; then a baby brother never came back from hospital, and her mother had a nervous breakdown. A servant practically murdered another: her father tracked him down through the bush, and the last Fuller saw of him was as he was dragged off behind a pick-up. There are minefields and malaria, and an old woman by the main road who beats a gong when a convoy goes past, so the rebels know to hide, or to attack. At seven she was stripping down machine guns, her dad telling her: "You'd have to do it faster than that."
Not surprisingly, "I never felt immortal - always a breath away from dying, and that gives it a supernatural clarity. There was so little stability you had no time to heal, no way to forget. And longing makes you remember." She recognises that: "You wouldn't wish alcoholic parents, a manic-depressive mother and war on anyone. But to know the fabulous resilience of human beings, and the value of being alive?"
Here is Fuller's mother's conversational repertoire with a new guest, as reported in the book: (1) the war; (2) dead children; (3) insanity; and (4) being Nicola Fuller of central Africa. Here is the guest's repertoire of reaction: (1) delight; (2) mild intoxication coupled with growing disbelief; (3) extreme intoxication coupled with growing panic; and (4) loss of consciousness. Young Bobo falls asleep to the sound of her mother saying, "We were prepared to die, you see, to keep one country white-run," and wakes to find her staring into the dawn with a warm beer still in her hands, and the guest passed out on the lawn. "We're all mad," says her mother some chapters later, "but only I have the certificate to prove it."
Did her mother like the book? "She said: 'Elspeth Huxley wrote a very nice book about her family.' She felt betrayed. I told her more people would have been more betrayed if I hadn't written the truth. I love my mother so much, because I see the whole of her. People think the book is a love-letter to Africa but really it's a love-letter to her."
And how do they reconcile, these ferociously racist parents and a daughter who, when she heard that Nelson Mandela had been released, rang her boyfriend and told him: "Go and buy all the beer in the shop, Mandela is free!"?
"I was so so happy: I was in Canada, and the washing was frozen on the line. I thought: 'It can all be over, everything can be all right, I won't have to be a marshmallow any more.' I'll never forget the moment that I heard." And the parents? "I don't judge them. They live more purely and in touch with Africa than patronising liberals. They say stupid things but they live so close to the earth, so close to the wind, so African, that it's pointless. My mother said recently: 'All of us are guests, not just in Africa but on the planet.' So..."
Her love for her mother is beyond worry, blame or forgiveness. "You never stop longing for your mother if she's inaccessible to you - as mine was, for long periods, through drink and madness. I used to sniff her handkerchief at boarding school - the smell of Vicks and tea." (Boarding school was a mixed relief from home life. After Mugabe was elected in 1980, the other white children all left, almost overnight, and for the first time Fuller met a black person with a surname: a fellow pupil, Oliver Tendai Chiswe.)
"I always knew mum loved me - tough, look-after-yourself love, as if she knew she wouldn't always be there." This was a woman who would make her daughter ride all day without water, then cut off her own hair to wrap it round bits of meat to tempt an injured owl to eat. Fuller remembers all these details: even the sound of her mother rubbing her nyloned feet against each other during a dull shift as a police reservist, for example. Does she really remember that sound? She smiles with recognition as the memory pops back again: "Yes! Because if she was doing that, she was happy."
I suggest that there are those who may think it a little premature to write a memoir at 31. Fuller cuts in: "Do you know what life expectancy is in Zimbabwe? Thirty-seven. I'm an old lady. It took me 30 years and a brilliant education to find my voice. And I wrote this in Wyoming - I couldn't write it at home. There it's as much as anyone can do to survive the day."
So what about Mugabe, and the election? "Do you know that his son died at three? His name in Shona meant 'Suffering of the Country'. Mugabe wasn't allowed out of prison for the funeral. What does that do to you? He was a brilliant man. A brilliant man prostituted to power, and now he's going to his grave and wants to take the country with him. It's a corruption which grows out of a sense of entitlement."
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is a child's-eye view, a "babbling", Fuller calls it, but she has her adult view of the country she loves, and we may see it in print yet. "Thirty-seven," she says again, and her sadness is palpable.
Rout of Africa
A memoir from Alexandra Fuller and a study from Martin Meredith give a timely and frightening reminder of Zimbabwe's descent into anarchy
Sunday February 24, 2002
Go to the Dogs Tonight
Picador £15.99, pp310
Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe
Public Affairs £15.99, pp243
VS Naipaul, in his 1971 Booker Prize-winning novel In a Free State, offered a vision of the future for whites in sub-Saharan Africa in his portrayal of a European couple in flight from civil war. The couple eventually reach a fortified city at the southernmost tip of the unnamed country, where other whites are anxiously clustered and where they speak, as they do today in Cape Town, that last authentic white stronghold in Africa, of atrocities witnessed and prepare for the violence ahead.
In a Free State can be read as a parable of the collapse into anarchy of Zimbabwe and, more generally, of the white retreat from southern Africa, as settlers have fled first from the Congo and then from Zambia, Malawi, Rhodesia and post-apartheid South Africa, not forgetting the catastrophic exodus of the Portuguese from Angola and Mozambique, which condemned those states to perpetual conflict.
Today, Africa is a continent of failed states. Influential thinkers such as Robert Cooper, who advises New Labour, are calling for a new kind of benign, disinterested colonialism to counteract endemic corruption, tribalism and the failure of the African elite to produce workable civil societies.
But the stain of imperialism is deep. The traumas of nation-building of the kind being experienced in Zimbabwe, with its corrupt system of patronage and control, as outlined by Martin Meredith in his lucid new study, are the inevitable consequences of attempting to impose inappropriate Western models of government on artificially constructed nation-states. If Africa is ever to flourish - and perhaps the truth about Africa is that it may never flourish - it must be allowed to find its own way in the world, free from outside intervention.
Alexandra Fuller arrived with her parents and elder sister, Vanessa, in Rhodesia in 1972, seven years after Ian Smith had made his disastrous unilateral declaration of independence in opposition to black majority rule. Her parents were old African hands, having lived before in both Kenya and Rhodesia, and they had returned restlessly seeking something that had always eluded them in damp, restrictive Britain. Happiness, perhaps.
The family soon moves to a struggling farm in the remote Burma Valley on the eastern border with Mozambique, from where Robert Mugabe's Shona Zanu guerrillas are launching cross-border raids at the start of the bush war, killing farmers on their isolated settlements.
As many local whites prepare to flee, often under the cover of darkness, the Fullers become ever-more perversely entrenched on their farm. Protective razor-wire fencing is erected around their compound, the girls receive shooting lessons, and suffering and violent death are accepted as mere facts of life, rather like the weather. Fuller recalls how one girl, who attends the local high school in Umtali, has her legs blown off; on another occasion, a bus explodes after hitting a landmine and body parts hang from the trees like 'black and red Christmas decorations'.
When independence finally arrives, in 1980, and Mugabe, learning from earlier post-colonial struggles in Mozambique, cannily pursues reconciliation with the remaining whites, the Fullers decide to stay on in Zimbabwe. They move further south, to manage another ruined farm, but their lives there amount to little more than a chain of calamities and woes: a newborn child dies (Alexandra has already lost two siblings), the weather is relentless and debilitating, and Fuller monitors, out of the corner of her eye, her mother's slow decline into alcoholism and madness.
She writes with wit and a tough, self-revealing honesty of the loneliness, boredom and poverty of life in those shadowy borderlands, of the shattering silence of the long nights after the generators have been switched off and of continual fear. She does good weather, too; her book is saturated in heat and dust and dirt. Like many first-time writers, she invents her own idiom, at once mangling and stretching language as she seeks to speak and see with the immediacy of the child she once was.
At times, she experiments too much - with alliteration, compound adjectives and short verbless sentences - and in so doing her book becomes an engine of self-delight, a work of exhibitionism: look at me! Yet, once she relaxes into her style, the exuberance and magical readability of her narrative compels the suspension of all critical judgment. Fuller, like Arundhati Roy, whom she stylistically recalls, has the stardust of future celebrity all over her. Her memoir is terrific.
Fuller's parents still live in Africa, in Chirunda, Zambia, in 'one of the least healthy, most malarial, hot, disagreeable places' in the entire country. They are two hours by car from the home of Vanessa and a long way from urban life - 'far from the madding crowd,' her father jokes.
The author is baffled by the wilful eccentricity and stubbornness of her parents and by the strange vacancy of her sister who, she concedes, for most of their time together resided in a place of 'such profound, unreachable pain that she didn't exist for me except as some shadowy, silent, very beautiful unattainable creature'.
From her new home in Wyoming, Fuller refuses to condemn her parents. They have suffered too much because of their profound love of the mysterious continent, never ceasing to mourn the death of their three children.
When I was last in Zimbabwe, shortly after the 2000 general election, I was encouraged by how everyone I met, white and black, seemed to be garrulously opposed to Robert Mugabe. There was a renewed atmosphere of candour and liberation. It was hard not to imagine the old tyrant falling soon. It did not happen - and now millions face starvation.
Perhaps I made the familiar mistake of observing Africa through Western eyes, because Fuller, who was in Zimbabwe at the same time as me, saw something quite different: the past repeating itself in the immediate violence washing over the country. 'What I saw,' she says, 'was yesterday's terror.'
Which will become tomorrow's terror as well if Mugabe wins the forthcoming presidential election, condemning the last remaining whites of Zimbabwe to move on again, perhaps this time heading even further south to Cape Town and the end of Africa, where they may remain, like Pincher Martin on his blasted rock, living out their last days in that increasingly fortified settlement on the southernmost tip of the continent.
Living in the twilight of empire
Claire Armitstead on two memoirs full of humour and horror - Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood by Carolyn Slaughter and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
Saturday March 2, 2002
Knife: Memories of an African Childhood
254pp, Doubleday, £12.99
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
310pp, Picador, £15.99
Mention wildlife to white children brought up in Africa and nearly every one will talk not about the lion but the antlion. Generations have whiled away hot hours dropping ants into the powdery stiletto holes of this mysterious insect and watching, fascinated, as the miniature monster claws its way up through the sand and grabs its prey. The antlion encapsulates a daily life that, as Carolyn Slaughter and Alexandra Fuller know better than most, is full of creepy-crawlies, boredom and casual cruelties. It's a life of learning to deal with death and dirt and the disfiguring diseases of poverty.
Slaughter, the older of these memoirists, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the Kalahari desert, one of three daughters born to an abusive Irish father and a self-deluding mother who could not come to terms with being cheated of the glamour of the Raj for the drab life of a colonial officer's wife in postcolonial Africa. Before the Knife is loaded with bitterness; the father rapes his daughter while the mother turns a beautiful, blasted face to the wall, like Blanche DuBois. The wild African landscape gives Slaughter a refuge from this ravaged and ravaging family, but also provides an almost gothic setting for a sensational life. The young Carolyn tries to murder her father and repeatedly mutilates herself, most memorably by exposing her bare body to the African sun, suffering a near-fatal bout of sunstroke from which she is nursed back to health by a good Afrikaner with the maternal common sense her own mother lacks.
This matron takes her to visit an English "lunatic", an abandoned wife who plays a grand piano in a disintegrating bungalow while her husband runs wild with the local women. "The lid of the piano was propped open with a limb of a mopani tree. A woman was sitting there in a grimy, dark dress, bent forward over the keys, swaying a little, her head tilted to one side... I looked at the walls that seemed to be caving in, and the mounds of droppings all over the floor... her English complexion had curdled and her pale blue eyes looked like the eyes I had seen once in the face of a very old black man, bleached and blind." There is a point at which an anecdote so perfectly illustrates a state of mind that you begin to question how much it retains of itself. Before the Knife is so full of such stories that, however evocative and passionate the writing, you start to mistrust the perceptiveness of its observations and by extension the validity of its witness.
It is not being fanciful to suggest that Slaughter sees her abusive childhood as a metaphor for the rape of Africa by white male colo nialists. This grandiosity is partly the fault of the memoir form itself: so many appalling stories have been told and sold that this bankable genre is always looking deeper into the heart of darkness. In Africa, Slaughter finds a setting for what - for all its descriptive highs and politically recriminatory lows - is a story of surviving child abuse.
Alexandra Fuller, writing as a child of the 1970s and 1980s, does something much earthier and more persuasive in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. She, too, has loopy parents, but she depicts them with humour and affection rather than horror. Slaughter pontificates about the "white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the snow-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago". Fuller shows your average nice, polite Englishman "lying greyly on the lawn" after a night up drinking with her mother, who regales him for hours with the impossibility of African rule (this is after Rhodesia has become Zimbabwe, and the family have left for Zambia).
Fuller is aware that her mother is a preposterous figure, but her descriptions of such scenes are hugely perceptive. "Tub" Fuller's prejudices are a part of the landscape, in a way that the young Englishman could never understand. "People like this never last beyond two malaria seasons, at most. Then he'll go back to England and say 'when I was in Zambia' for the rest of his life," writes Fuller.
In his Raj quartet, Paul Scott described the generation who stayed on in India once the privileges of empire had gone. The Fullers are Africa's stay-ons: they spend the "war" defending a white Rhodesia that will inevitably disappear. When their farm is repossessed, they move on to Malawi and finally Zambia, taking on the most run-down farms in land so unyielding that no one else will touch it, harvesting the last of the tobacco crops and rounding up cattle that have reverted to wild after their owners have fled or been pushed from their land. They collect stray dogs and minister to the deserving poor with a Victorian condescension. They are stuck in the timewarp of a modern, rural Africa that, to their farmers' eyes, seems to be sinking back into the middle ages. They will never renounce their claim to the "worm-smelling soil" of Africa, yet they never settle or get rich, and for this they pay a terrible price: three of their children die, one from meningitis, one in a farm accident, and one due to inadequate prenatal care. They are are quixotic, brave, appalling and strangely admirable. Their daughter's memoir does them the honour of permitting them to be all these things. She has placed on record a neglected corner of social history and written a book that deserves to be read for generations.
The young white
ANNE CHISHOLM compares two accounts of African childhoods and the way they were shaped by personal and political troubles
Once upon a time, a memoir of growing up as a child of the British Empire was likely to be an agreeable, nostalgic read. For the most part, until they were sent "home" to be educated, such children chose to remember only golden years of warmth, security and exotic beauty; the worst that happened to them was a dog with rabies, or a snake in the bath.
These two accounts of growing up in late-colonial and post-colonial Africa are very different. Empires do not end overnight; both these books are set in an uneasy imperial twilight, and show how two British families struggled to come to terms with a world in which their race no longer guaranteed them a living, let alone status or respect. Above all, they show in painful close-up the human cost, to the children caught up in the struggle, of their country's and their parents' loss of power.
Both writers also celebrate the beauty and mystery of the African landscape; but there the resemblances between them end. Twenty years separate the two accounts, and while one tells an exhilarating story of survival and love despite all odds, the other shows the tragic and lasting consequences of a childhood blighted by fear and hate.
On the second page of Carolyn Slaughter's account of growing up in the 1950s in the Kalahari Desert she confronts the reader with the appalling fact that her father, a minor colonial administrator, raped her when she was six, and the no less awful fact that although her mother and sister knew what had happened, no one did anything about it. The abuse continued until she was 12; the family looked the other way, and she herself buried the truth of what had happened to her in order to survive.
Carolyn Slaughter grew up to become a novelist of some repute, living in America. In her middle age, an emotional crisis led her to re-examine her childhood, train as a psychotherapist and write this book. It soon becomes clear that she now identifies her personal violation and powerlessness with the invasion and exploitation of Africa by the European powers. Hence she writes with lyrical imprecision about of the primal innocence and beauty of the African way of life before the white man brought greed, violence and cruelty into what had been a natural paradise.
The trouble with writing as therapy is that the emotional drama can swamp the book. Slaughter has tried hard and bravely to write about a crumbling society and an empire at bay as well as about her tormented family, but this is really a book about herself.
Alexandra Fuller, on the other hand, succeeds wonderfully well in making her account of her 1970s childhood in a beleagured tobacco farmer's family in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia more than a tough, funny, poignant personal story. She pulls off the difficult trick of writing as, rather than about, the child she then was; her prose is fierce, unsentimental, sometimes puzzled, and disconcertingly honest.
Fuller too now lives in America, but regards herself as "a daughter of Africa"; her grandfather settled in Kenya, she writes, "to farm coffee (it has rotted) and to build a church (it burnt down), proving, perhaps, that a predilection for bad luck and worse choices ran in the family".
Through her eyes, the visceral attachment of the white African farmer to what he regards as his land becomes not only understandable but almost admirable. Her parents have spent their lives moving from one farm to another, working ferociously hard, turning wilderness into fertile fields, enduring natural and political disasters with caustic humour and, except when drunk, little self pity.
Of the five children born to them in Africa, only two, the writer and her older sister, survived; the bewilderment and guilt Fuller endured as a consequence of these tragedies are conveyed without self-indulgence. She grew up at home with danger, guns and sudden death; she conveys, with chilling honesty, the white community's belief in its right to protect itself: "We cheer when we hear the faint, stomach-echoing thump of a mine detonating. Either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed."
In the end, it is Fuller's clear vision, even of the most unpalatable facts, that gives her book its strength. It deserves to find a place alongside Olive Schreiner, Karen Blixen and Doris Lessing.
December 21, 2001
The country was in the midst of an armed struggle — pitting white settlers, determined to hold onto white rule, against black nationalists, agitating for independence — and the author's parents patrolled their farm with loaded weapons. Like most white children over 5, Ms. Fuller recalls, she and her sister, Vanessa, learned "how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill."
To go to town, the family was required to travel in a convoy, accompanied by a mine-detecting vehicle and two or three trucks filled with Rhodesian soldiers. On such occasions family members would dress up in their best clothes: in case they were killed in an ambush or blown up by a mine on the way to town, they would "be presentable to go and sit on the left hand of Godthefather."
Ms. Fuller's gripping memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," is made up, in equal parts, of stark, matter-of-fact reminiscences about her childhood and fierce, Dinesen-esque paeans to the land of Africa. Although short, italicized passages chronicle the wrongs that whites committed against black Africans in the region — from the Rudd Concession of 1888, which "tricked King Lobengula of the Matabeles into surrendering mineral rights to the British South Africa Company," through the Land Apportionment Act of 1930, which allotted "21.5 million acres for `Native Reserves' " while reserving "48 million acres for occupation and purchase only by Europeans" — Ms. Fuller does not judge, rationalize or explain her parents' commitment to white rule.
Instead she simply describes what it was like to grow up in Rhodesia in the 70's, knowing that she had the power to fire her nanny if she wanted to, knowing that she attended a Class A school while black children attended a Class C school. The resulting narrative, much like the early fiction of Nadine Gordimer, gives the reader an intimate sense of what daily life was like in a segregated and racist society and its insidious emotional fallout on children and grown- ups alike.
Some of Ms. Fuller's memories are alarming to say the least. She recalls family members cheering when they "hear the faint stomach- echoing thump of a mine detonating," which means that "either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed." She recalls her parents' bitterness over the establishment of majority rule and the transformation of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. "We were prepared to die, you see, to keep one country white-run," her mother says. And Ms. Fuller recounts her own initial unease at boarding school at having to use the same table linens used by black students.
The change in government meant that the Fullers' farm in the Burma Valley was put up for mandatory auction under a new land distribution program, and the family embarked on what would be a series of moves: first to a ranch in a hot, oppressive region of Zimbabwe once deemed on a map "Not Fit for White Man's Habitation"; next, to a big, Spanish- style house in Malawi, where the Fullers feel they are "dangerously, teeteringly close to disease and death (in a slow, rotting, swamp- induced fashion)"; and later to a lovely farm in Zambia, which seems like "the logical place for this family to stop. And mend."
Certainly there is a lot to recover from. In addition to losing their Burma Valley farm, the Fullers lose three children: one dies of meningitis; the second wanders off while no one is looking and drowns in a neighbor's pond; the third dies at birth. After the death of baby Olivia, the author observes, her mother is never quite the same: her giddy social drinking gives way to alcoholic despair and a series of breakdowns. Eventually, a diagnosis of manic depression is made. The author's father meanwhile succumbs to bouts of reckless behavior, driving wildly while drunk and taunting armed soldiers at roadblocks to shoot him or let him by.
What sustains the Fullers through these difficulties and what lends this book its power is the family's unaccommodated love for Africa, a love untainted, perhaps even galvanized, by their isolation and their travails. In their arduous efforts to farm the land — to plant and harvest a crop of tobacco and see it safely to market; to reclaim a farmhouse from termites and rats and the encroaching jungle — there is a hard-won respect for nature and Africa's tropical defiance of human order.
In these pages Ms. Fuller conjures up a tactile sense of the landscape she loves. Its smell: "hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft," like "black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass." Its noise: "at dawn there is an explosion of day birds, a fierce fight for territory, for females and food"; at midday, "the sound of heat," the whining of grasshoppers and crickets, the crackling of dry grass, "the sound of breath and breathing, of an entire world collapsed under the apathy of the tropics"; in the late afternoon "the shuffling sound of animals coming back into action to secure themselves for the night."
She shows us droughts so advanced that crocodiles are seen in farmers' fields, prowling the dirt in search of water, and she shows us rains so intense that six-foot monitor lizards are washed from their swamps into people's homes. She describes landscapes populated by leopards and snakes and a cruel plant called the buffalo bean, which has hairs that "can stimulate a reaction so severe, so burning and persistent, that it has been known to send grown men mad." And she describes mosquito-humming nights "so dense with humidity we feel as if we might absorb water through our skins, as sheep are said to do."
In short Ms. Fuller gives us in this book the Africa she knew as a girl, a place of cruel politics, violent heat and startling beauty, a land she makes vivid in all its "incongruous, lawless, joyful, violent, upside-down, illogical certainty."
The Darkening Continent
By Stephen Clingman
DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT
An African Childhood
By Alexandra Fuller.
Illustrated. 301 pp. New York:
Random House. $24.95.
''Rhodesia,'' Alexandra Fuller writes, ''has more history stuffed into its make-believe, colonial-dream borders than one country the size of a very large teapot should be able to amass in less than a hundred years. Without cracking.'' On the map, Zimbabwe -- still named Rhodesia when Fuller moved there with her family at the age of 2 -- indeed has the look of an overlarge teapot, and the image in this case is apt: her memoir is a tale of hard but fragile surfaces, of cracking, and of endurance.
Just what that cracked history is would be a long and complex story to tell, reaching back to the country's naming for the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes (whose ambition was an African map colored British pink from Cape to Cairo), forward to Ian Smith's unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965 (to stave off majority rule in an era of African independence), forward still further to the second war of liberation (or chimurenga- the first was in the 1890's), and culminating in the ascension of Robert Mugabe to the presidency in 1980 and more than 20 years of his rule. That in turn has led to chronic crisis in Zimbabwe, including, recently, the seizure of white farms and serious signs of political repression.
It is a relatively familiar colonial and postcolonial story, but it is not one that interests Fuller much on its own terms. Instead, the center of gravity (and, not infrequently, comedy) of her book is elsewhere. This is the story of someone born on the ''bad side'' of history, who presents her account with wit and verve and no apologies. Of the ''bad side,'' however, there can be no doubt. The main reason the Fullers left Kenya to settle in Rhodesia was ''to live in a country where white men still ruled.'' Or at least this is the version Fuller's mother is liable to relay in a half-drunken stupor to anyone who will listen.
This then is not your average white tale out of Africa, or not the kind that usually makes it into print, but this is precisely its strength. In setting out to write such a book, Fuller is of course heir to a rather weighty lineage, stretching from Conrad and Dinesen to Lessing and Gordimer. More recently, Peter Godwin's ''Mukiwa,'' a memoir also set in Zimbabwe, detailed his own complicities and growing disillusion with white rule. (Looking at the map, it seems as though the Godwins and Fullers lived within shouting distance of one another on the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border: one wonders if they knew each other.) But following these recognizable paths, Fuller pushes off on her own, rather original track.
This is because the ''cracked'' story she has to tell is primarily that of her family: what it is to make your way, to survive in these surroundings. Scudding across the African landscape like a flatbed truck barely under control, the Fullers move from place to place, from farm to farm, during the war in Zimbabwe, and then later in Malawi and finally Zambia, surrounded perpetually by dogs who mark a kind of movable boundary between the domestic and the untamed. There is a wildness here, extremity and abandon. As much as the Fullers are pushed by external circumstances, it is also personal tragedy that drives them. Yet one of the achievements of the book is somehow to make it clear that their private anguish mirrors the larger lunacies in which they are involved.
In this the key figure is that of Fuller's mother -- surely one of the most memorable characters of African memoir. Having lost three children -+one to illness, one in childbirth, and one, Olivia, in a drowning accident for which the young Alexandra (or Bobo, as she is called) feels responsible -- the mother lapses into habitual drunken melancholy, then full-blown depression and paranoia. Swaying in front of an open window and covered only by a slipping-down towel, crooning over and over again ''Ahm gonna leave ole London town,'' she is a haunting presence. Charging out among African squatters who have come to occupy her farm, screaming racist obscenities at them, she is transfixing for other reasons. There is a long history of madness in white African fiction, but this is different from the usual symbolic terms in which it is rendered. When Bobo's mother finally turns out to suffer from manic-depression, she says, ''All of us are mad. But I'm the only one with a certificate to prove it.''
A number of things save all this from the maudlin. One is the way in which Fuller tells a story that follows its own reality, no matter what the usual prescriptions. She tells of their cook, a man named July, who slices up their maid, Violet, nearly killing her, before taking off into the Mozambican hills with all of the Fullers' worldly goods -- only to be brought back and beaten unbearably by the black farmhands and then dragged off behind a truck by the white militia. Before Olivia's drowning, the Fullers are likely to belt off through the bush in their car, children clinging to the roof, singing ''Rhodesians never die'' at the tops of their voices; afterward, Bobo's father drives hazardously drunk as if his only wish were to slam into a tree and kill them all. Threading through it all is a narrative that finds its own nonlinear way through the realms of memory, and Fuller's remarkable ear and mimicking voice. And there is of course the comedy, often involving copious amounts of alcohol -- not least at a totally drink-sodden Christmas party where a brandy-soaked cake explodes.
''Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight'' is surprisingly engaging and even moving. This is not a book overly concerned with the suffering that white madness in Africa has caused others, and certainly there are black Zimbabwean writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga, Chenjerai Hove and Yvonne Vera whom one should read for a different picture of the political and personal in Zimbabwe. Yet there is a sense in Fuller's account of the rough way in which new identities are forged out of the old, what the hard truth of that experience is like. Sick almost to the point of death in the bush, the young Bobo makes a vow ''never to leave Africa.'' Her love for the place is vividly apparent, even though she eventually leaves (she now lives in America). In Malawi, she is invited at the age of 13 into an African home for the first time -- as distinct from the usual barging in -- and suddenly has a glimpse of a world she realizes she has never understood. It might be a moment of hope.
Stephen Clingman's ''Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary'' won South Africa's Alan Paton Award. He teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
April 2, 2002
WILSON, Wyo. — As a little white girl wide-eyed with fear, Alexandra Fuller looked up at Africa from the lowdown, losing side of a war over minority rule.
She saw "terrorists" (blacks fighting whites) who wanted to chop off her ears, lips and eyelids — or so she was told. She saw her mother splatter a spitting cobra against the kitchen wall with the family "oozie." She saw her baby sister floating face down in a duck pond, accidentally drowned and extravagantly mourned by parents who often drank too much.
Having survived and having written all this up in an unblinking and much-praised memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" (Random House, 2001), Ms. Fuller has lived for the past eight years here in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. Surrounded by elk, moose and seasonal herds of high-income humanity, her handsome home near Jackson Hole is a place that she says is all but unimaginable for an African, which is what she says she is and will always remain.
On a recent bone-chilling Sunday afternoon, with great chunks of ice choking the nearby Snake River, Ms. Fuller, 33, led a reporter on a brisk walk up a snow-slick mountain road. As she walked, she explained what has become of the Rhodesian girl who studied first aid but was authorized to find a vein and organize a drip only "if All the Grown-ups Are Dead."
She has acquired a soft-spoken
American husband who sells real estate, and two exceedingly polite children,
ages 8 and 5, who are rarely allowed to watch television and never allowed to
eat at McDonald's
Ms. Fuller and her husband, Charlie Ross, who met and married in Zambia when he was a safari guide, moved to the United States in 1994 to give their children (Sarah was born in Zambia; Fuller in Wyoming) a grounding in America. Mr. Ross's grandmother owned a farm near the Tetons, and he spent many summers there as a child.
Ms. Fuller said she had no idea what she was getting into. She quickly came to appreciate that Jackson Hole, in large part because of the wealth and worldliness of its vacationing rich people, is considerably more cosmopolitan than its Rocky Mountain environs.
"If we had landed in Idaho Falls, you can bet I would have been on the next bloody boat home," she said.
At 5 feet 5 inches tall, she looks extraordinarily fit, although she complained of "midwinter blobbiness," which she said had been heightened by several weeks of traveling around the United States to talk about her book. The African and Rocky Mountain sun has done what it often does to fair-skinned people who spend long hours out of doors, chiseling premature crow's-feet around her eyes. With a first book in its fourth printing and selling well, with a second book nearly done (a sequel to "Dogs," it recounts her adolescence in Zambia) and with a gainfully employed husband, Ms. Fuller is on the verge of something she seems to find deeply discomforting: upper-middle-class comfort.
"I hate the celebration of wealth in this country," she said. "I hate the construction of 8,000-square-foot houses with a dozen bathrooms. I think it is a criminal waste. I hate that George W. Bush's first instruction to the American people after 9/11 was to go forth and go shopping. I really try to consume responsibly."
She concedes, though, that her protests sound a bit tinny.
"Yes, I am aware of the ironies here," she said with a nod toward the custom-built mountainside house, the garage with its two S.U.V.'s, the Arabian horse she boards at a neighbor's ranch and the other signifiers of affluence that have settled around her family since it settled in Wyoming. "If I wasn't aware, I would be unconscious and arrogant."
Still, she's uneasy with what she says is the unreal ease of life in the United States. Searching for the familiar ground of hardship, she exercises. She skies cross-country for three hours nearly every winter day. When the snow melts, she rides her horse and trail bikes and runs up low mountains.
She also climbs high mountains. Twice, she has scaled the Grand Teton, a 13,770-foot peak that requires some technical climbing skills and considerable endurance.
"There is a rope between you and a big splat," she said. "When I am climbing, there is a sense that all the talent and looks and whatever else we hang our identity on mean nothing."
It is only since her book came out in December, though, that Ms. Fuller has had sound reason to fret about escaping her talent or the fruits thereof. That's because until the reviews came in (writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called her book a "gripping memoir" made of "stark, matter-of-fact reminiscences about her childhood and fierce, Dinesen-esque paeans to the land of Africa") there were no fruits.
Ms. Fuller wrote and failed to publish eight novels about a southern African country that closely resembled the Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she grew up. The novels were about hapless aid workers, isolated farm wives and old married couples, all of them white and all of them confused by change as white-minority rule lost out to the black majority.
When she wasn't exercising or writing books that no one wanted to publish, she worked: as a waitress at the Snake River Grill in Jackson Hole, as an office manager for a local environmental group, as a copy editor for a local newspaper. Work put her in proximity to the many rich Americans who have vacation homes around Jackson Hole.
"So many of them were so demanding," she said. "Yet they had a complete lack of realization of what they really needed."
Ms. Fuller then discovered a paperback copy of "The Liars' Club," a 1995 memoir by Mary Karr. Without moralizing or judgment, the book tells unsettling stories of working-class parents, relatives and adults who often behave badly.
"It was the lack of judgment in that book that freed me up," Ms. Fuller said. "In fiction, I kept apologizing for behavior for which there is no apology. In `Dogs' I decided not to be beautiful. I decided to be honest about race and about alcohol."
She knocked out her 301-page memoir in about six weeks. Getting up 3 a.m. in the early winter of 1999, she wrote as fast as she could type until her family began making noises about breakfast. She said she had no difficulty recalling the sensory details that permeate and enliven her book (the "woo-ooping" of nightjars, jackals and hyenas; the crackle of dried grass; the viscous gleam of a human body slathered in fresh blood).
"I have been writing these details down ever since I was 5 years old," she said.
In deciding not to write beautiful, Ms. Fuller put the warts of her parents' personal lives — especially their racial attitudes — on public display. She turned a particularly glaring light on her mother's problems with alcohol and mental illness.
"My father won't read the book, but he is very proud of me," she said. "My mother read it and felt betrayed. She was hoping I would write a book like Elspeth Huxley, where everyone comes off smelling like a rose."
As she trudged up the mountain road here in Wyoming, Ms. Fuller explained that while her book has strained her ties with her parents, it has not broken them. Her father and mother, she said, have a way of making a big fuss and moving on. Just as they have endured a troublesome daughter, she said, they have figured out how to put up with black-ruled Africa. They fought against it in Zimbabwe but have settled comfortably as fish farmers in Zambia.
Ms. Fuller ended the walk by saying she had to get home. She was organizing an afternoon birthday party for her son. Cooking and games and funny hats had to be seen to.
When she turned to walk down the mountain, she was confronted with the spectacular snow-covered valley that lies east of her house. She still finds it difficult, she said, to believe that this place is home.
In fact, she is leaving.
She and her husband are moving at the end of the year to Tanzania.
"I want the isolation and the solitude," she said. "I want to see what happens as a writer. I would love to take a closer look at my mother's family."
She also said she wanted her children to grow up far from fast food and teenage television and the all-consuming American desire to buy stuff. She may also write about Wyoming.
February 01, 2003
Fanny Black finds lyricism and absurdity, violence and beauty, rising from every gripping page
DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT
By Alexandra Fuller
Picador, £6.99, 320pp
ISBN 0 330 41230 2
Read this review here
Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
Before The Knife: Memories of an African Childhood by Carolyn Slaughter
The White Tribes of Africa left their children a legacy of pain, anger and nostalgia. As settler culture wanes in Zimbabwe, Louisa Young hails two memoirs of joy and misery in a lost homeland
02 March 2002
The God of Small Things staked a claim for the small personal dramas that happen within big world dramas. Here are two such small big stories. Both are memoirs, with the phrase "an African childhood" in their subtitle, and an old black-and-white photograph of a cute white girl on the cover. Before the Knife, by Carolyn Slaughter, bears the author in the 1950s: a softened photo, a bow in her silky hair, a sundress and an innocent, bemused expression. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight shows Alexandra Fuller in the 1970s: a grainy picture of a tough little creature with a scruffy pudding-bowl haircut, yelling with either delight or fury (you can't tell), in a roll-neck sweater and zip-up-the-front dress.
Both writers are of British blood, brought up in southern Africa, in love with Africa still; both left as it reclaimed itself from Europe; both live in the US. Both books should bear a warning: abandon schadenfreude all ye – even ye who picketed South Africa House – who enter here.
That said, they are quite different books. Fuller, born in 1969, lived in what was then Rhodesia. Her parents were tobacco-farmers: hard-working, poor, tough, proud, funny, often drunk, constantly moving in search of something better (well, less bad) and intensely racist, of course. Her memoir is perceptive, generous, political, tragic, funny, stamped through with a passionate love for Africa – the earth, the sky, the termites, the smells and, yes, the people – and at times quite mad. She has a faultless hotline to her six-year-old self, and a concise, almost throwaway poetic turn of phrase.
The book opens thus:
"Mum says, 'Don't come creeping into our room at night.' They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, 'Don't startle us when we're sleeping.'
'We might shoot you.'
'By mistake.' As it is there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose."
It is impossible not to read on.
Mum keeps a radio in the bougainvillea, so the tree seems to announce that it is the World Service of the BBC. They hurtle around their vast, dirt-dry farms in a mine-proofed land rover. Fuller gets called Burning Piggy: she knows she's the wrong colour as clearly as she knows that there is where she belongs. She has worms. There's a photo of her setting off for big school in 1977, holding the Uzi.
The countries they live in are having their own breakdowns. Guerrillas in the forest, fear in the dark, corruption on the borders, starving poverty just round the corner or, even worse – independence.
One by one, three baby siblings die, each death, step by step, destroying Fuller's mother and the health of the family. Thirty years later, each tiny child is given due weight and honour by its sister. By giving that, she honours all the forgotten and the unburied, all the victims of the bad things that happen in hard places. The babies, the places and her mother's mind are lit up by that ferocious clarity that illuminates only the long-ago, deeply loved, far away and lost for ever.
"In Rhodesia we are born and then the umbilical cord of each child is sown straight from the mother on to the ground, where it takes root and grows. Pulling away from the ground causes death by suffocation, starvation." Fuller, dispossessed of what she acknowledges was never hers, no matter how she loves it, pulled away to Wyoming (craving big spaces?), escaped suffocation, I suspect, by writing.
Carolyn Slaughter, also in the US, became a psychotherapist. Her style bears marks of the "writing to save her life" school, but there is little heavy-handed in the way she offsets family and political breakdown.
Her father was a civil servant who liked bossing people around – perfect for the Empire; her mother, like Fuller's, went mad. Has anyone ever done a study of the mental health of colonial wives, those verandah-fuls of women whose minds melted in long years of heat, frustration and pink gin?
But sooner a manic depressive mother such as Fuller's – who dances on bars, sings along to Roger Whittaker all night and says, "We're all mad, but only I have a certificate to prove it" – than a purely depressive one such as Slaughter's. She is lost in the isolation of snobbery and racism, a desert vaster and nastier than the Kalahari, where they live.
For a while it's sundowners and parties and make-up, then her daughter – aged six – comes to her one night, bleeding and weeping, and says, "Daddy did it." The mother, unable to face it, says, "Don't be so wicked," and retreats to her bed under the mosquito net, face to the wall, silent, for years. Cut off, forbidding her daughter to love either her or what else there was (the intense and ferocious landscape; the crocodile-filled river; black people), she leaves her with nothing to love.
An immutable mask of denial sank over the family for the next 20 years, suffocating it and destroying it from within like the nastiest tropical parasite. Slaughter didn't know her father had raped her.
She writes with fury still of her nightmares, the hatred she had for her father, of how she chose the particular kitchen knife with which she was going to kill him and of how, over and over, it was deemed she who was bad, difficult, wicked, and she had no idea why things were like this. On one occasion, she runs away into the desert, strips naked and dances until she collapses, burnt, sun-stroked, dehydrated: attempted suicide by self-immolation in the sun.
The family constantly moved on, and on, fleeing demons that were hooked into their own hearts, looking for a place where a white family could be white in Africa, chased on by bigger dramas of revolution, liberation, the new way of Africa.
Her language is powerful, visceral; and as she didn't really go to school until she was 14, perhaps not knowing the proper use of "collective memory" or the word for smocking is not so important (though an editor might like to think about it).
She tells us that the air quivers like a cobra's head in the heat; and she forcefully conveys that jittery, powerful, intoxicating thing – that thing of Africa, that thing that, once you love it, you don't escape. It's good, in the week of Zimbabwe's elections, to have stories that give some of the human truth in the historical experience that led to the current mess. It's bad that women as intelligent and generous as these can find no place in the countries they loved – and still love.
Dispossession is a hard fate, for the land that loses people and for the people who lose land, whoever it happens to and wherever and why ever. Meanwhile, can anyone give me a reading-list of the equivalent novels and memoirs published in Britain by black southern Africans?
Louisa Young's 'The Book of the Heart' is published in the autumn
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller (Random House; $24.95).
When the author was growing up, in nineteen-seventies Rhodesia, her parents kept loaded guns by the bed. "Don't startle us when we're sleeping," her mother warned her. "We might shoot you." This memoir of a stubborn, down-on-their-luck, often drunk white family making a last stand against African independence reads like a hard ride over unsafe roads: hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling. One moment Fuller's mother is shooting a cobra in the pantry, the next her sister is calmly baking a cake while armed black soldiers surround the house. The author's honesty about her family's racism is exacting—she recounts how they cheered when they heard mines detonate along the border, because that meant Africans might have been killed—and she delivers an intimate portrait of fierce, flawed lives. Her prose bristles with an unappeased love for Africa and its intense physicality (its smell of "black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass"). This is Fuller's first book, and already she has a distinctive voice, by turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring.
Read this review here
By Daneet Seffens
Don't Let's Go To the Dogs
Tonight: An African Childhood
By Alexandra Fuller
301 pages, $37.95
Read this review here
The Atlanta Journal – Constitution
Child's-eye view of Africa a mixture of love, hate
Alexandra Fuller begins her memoir of an African childhood with a bang, figuratively and almost literally.
"Don't come creeping into our room at night."
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping."
"We might shoot you."
"Okay." As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. "Okay, I won't."
When 6-year-old Alexandra, called Bobo by her family, needs to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she heeds her mother's warning and wakes her older sister, Vanessa, "because she isn't armed."
In the perpetually overcrowded genre of memoir, this one is remarkable for a couple of reasons. Purely lyrical writing is always worth noting, for one. The most dysfunctional, frightening childhood imaginable is a thing of beauty in the right writer's hands.
But what truly sets this memoir apart is the living and breathing sense of place. Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1970s -- in all its complexities of nature, culture and politics -- is as much a character in this life story as Fuller and her family. Forsaking their tenuous ties to Britain, mum Nicola, dad Tim, Bobo and Vanessa quickly come to consider themselves white Africans. Each develops an intense love-hate relationship with this place of stupefying heat, civil wars, breathtaking beauty and ferocious wildlife. (Even the plant life can be frightening here.)
The family first sets up a tobacco farm in northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and finally in southern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
"The land itself, of course, was careless of its name," Fuller writes. "It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man's blood and the blood of African men . . . with equal thirst. It doesn't care."
Mum and Dad are unrepentant racists, desperate for at least one country to remain white-ruled. Dad takes up arms with the police reservists in Rhodesia, futilely fighting the black nationalists known simply as "terrs" -- terrorists. All the white farmers travel in convoys when they go into town (and wear their best clothes in case they are called to meet "Godthefather") and they observe strict curfews. Mum is a crack shot with an Uzi, and both Bobo and Vanessa know how to clean and load rifles, to shoot to kill and to administer blood transfusions by the age of 5.
To her credit, Fuller neither excuses nor rationalizes her parents' political views. She lets incidents speak for themselves, and that is enough. In one especially stunning passage, she recalls family members' cheering when they "hear the faint stomach-echoing thump of a mine detonating," which means that "either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed."
Fuller's own enlightenment unfolds slowly in her utterly unguarded, unsentimental style. After Rhodesia officially becomes Zimbabwe and the Afrikaners come to collect their children from boarding school, Bobo finds herself one of five white students among hundreds of native Africans. Unflinching, she remembers being frightened at the prospect of using the same table linens used by black students and sometimes even sharing bath water, God forbid. ("Nothing happens," Fuller reports after taking the plunge. "I do not turn black.")
With staggering powers of memory and description, Fuller writes with unabashed affection for her childhood world of land mines, malaria, white-fat ticks that attach themselves to personal places, "land-sucking drought," cobras that hide in kitchen pantries and rats the size of small cats that scurry across little girls' feet at night.
"What I can't know about Africa as a child (because I have no memory of any other place) is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft," Fuller writes. "It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass."
The hardships that threaten to undo the Fuller family are not exotic, but far more universal. Three of Dad and Mum's five children die -- one of meningitis, one by accidental drowning and one at birth. The third loss pushes Mum over the brink, from a giddy social drunk to an alcohol-soaked depression. Ultimately, she is labeled manic-depressive ("All of us are mad," she says. "But I'm the only one with a certificate to prove it."), but there is a lot of family trauma on the way to diagnosis and treatment.
Amid all the trials and tragedies of everyday life, though, are hilarious vignettes (as when Mum's English Christmas pudding, which she has been spiking with a hypodermic needle since October, explodes all over the guests) and breathtaking word images: "the deep-black-sky quiet time of night," for instance. Or this description of a typical morning: "At dawn there is an explosion of day birds, a fierce fight for territory, for females and food. This crashing of wings and the secret language of birds is such a perpetual background sound that I begin to understand its language."
During one particularly bad period of drought, a small frog is spat into the Fuller girls' bath. "It is boiled, petrified, eyes wide open, dead and astonished," Bobo recalls.
And the most astonishing image of all may be the perfect embodiment not only of the author's undying affection for this beautiful and unforgiving part of the world, but also of the warfare and corruption that ravage it to this day.
"Once, I discovered the skulls of two impala rams, their horns locked into an irreversible figure-of-eight," Fuller writes. "The two animals had been trapped in combat, latched to each other during the battle of the rut. The harder they had pulled to escape from each other, the more intractably stuck they were, until they had fallen exhausted, to their knees, in an embrace of hatred that had killed them both."
Teresa Weaver is book editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
March 14, 2002, 11:06PM
By BRIAN HOWARD
DON'T LET'S GO
TO THE DOGS TONIGHT:
An African Childhood.
By Alexandra Fuller.
Random House, $24.95.
Read this review here
The grass is singing
Out of a beautiful and troubled Africa, Alexandra Fuller has crafted an understated yet gripping memoir of childhood
By Gail Caldwell, 12/23/2001
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs
Tonight: An African Childhood
By Alexandra Fuller
Random House, 301 pp., $24.95
Read this review here
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
By Alexandra Fuller
(Random House, 368 pages, $24.95)
Reviewed by Cynthia R. Greenlee
Read this review here
Sunday 15 September, 2002
Read this review here
Reviewed by Nicola Walker
April 27 2002
Read this review here
Friday 19 December 2014
Anne Enright marvels at Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller’s intense memoir of growing up in Rhodesia
What happens when it’s all your fault, and not your fault at all? At the centre of Alexandra Fuller’s first memoir is a terrible, avoidable death for which she, as a child, feels responsible. Nothing about it makes sense, except in a magical way, and her eyes are opened by that incomprehension to see the world with the stalled, wise gaze of an eight-year-old girl.
It is not a troubled gaze, though she lives through troubled times; it is just endlessly accurate. Fuller sees the adults around her with the fierce penetration of someone who has moved beyond blame. She grows up during the bush war that helped turn Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, and she survives that too, in the gung-ho colonial style. Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight (2002) is full of the sheer bloody enjoyment of being alive. It is also a triumph of proper judgment, a political comedy, an act of clarity.
Fuller is completely clear about her parents’ racism: the way these white farmers call the black people around them “gondies” or “wogs”; the ones who fight them are “bolshy muntus”, “restless natives”; the ones who work for them are “nannies” or “boys”. The family lives in a world of taboo and projected shame. Growing up, Fuller does not like drinking from the same cup as a black person. When she is obliged to wash in water a black child has used she is surprised to discover that “Nothing happens … I do not break out in spots or a rash. I do not turn black.” The black body is contaminating and shamefully exposed, the white body forbidden. As a very young child, when she is bitten by a tick, the nanny and cook put down their tea and frown at her, but they will not look downthere. “Not there,” says the cook. “I can’t look there.” And yet, if she falls or hurts herself, her nanny “lets me put my hand down her shirt on to her breast and I can suck my thumb and feel how soft she is”. Her nanny’s breasts smell of the way rain smells when it hits hot earth. “I know, without knowing why, that Mum would smack me if she saw me doing this.”
These are difficult things to say – get the tone wrong and you will offend almost everyone – but Fuller’s gaze is equally astonishing when she directs it at the bodies of the white people around her. Her mother dances after a bath and the towel slips to expose “blood smeared” thighs; her own belly is distended by worms. A visiting missionary starts to squirm with embarrassment on the sofa, “like a dog rubbing worms out of their bum on a rug, or on the furniture, which we call sailing”.
These “protected” white bodies are filled with parasites, impala meat and booze. They live in houses that are eaten by termites, with taps that spurt out dead frogs. Their swimming pools are choked with algae, alive with scorpions, dotted with the small faces of monitor lizards that obscure hanging bodies, four- to six-feet long. Fuller’s mother pretends to be Scottish, but her heart is African – whether Africa wants that heart, or not. Being white is a kind of construct, the continent is experienced by Fuller in a way that is overwhelmingly physical, you might even say – given the worms – visceral. First of all is the smell, which in Zambia “is strong enough to taste; bitter, burning, back-throat-coating, like the reminder of vomit”. In Devuli, Zimbabwe, they drink “thin, animal-smelling milk” and go to sleep in “the kind of shattering silence that comes after a generator has been shut off”. The family moves from farm to farm, so it would be easy to describe the land, in its exoticism, as endlessly various and endlessly the same, but Fuller has a talent for difference. Each servant has their own personality, each place its own character. She describes the different songs of the birds, the many kinds of African smoke (cigarette smoke, wood smoke, the smoke of mosquito coils), even the various kinds of heat. You might think it a matter of temperature, but heat, for Fuller, has its own sound, of grasshoppers and crickets that sing and whine, its own pace “a dragging, shallow, pale crawl”, it even has a shape. In the Burma Valley, the cool night air sinks and the rising air contains, in a layer, the tapped scents of midday. Here it is so hot that “the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire”.
Everything, the beautiful and the terrible, is described with the intensity felt for something that could be lost at any moment. And indeed, the world she lives in, that of white Rhodesia, is about to be superseded and the war “lost”: “Like something that falls between the crack in the sofa. Like something that drops out of your pocket.” Meanwhile, her parents sleep with loaded guns by their beds, and her mother sews a camouflage band to cover her father’s watch, to keep him safe.
Perhaps children are the only people who can see war properly, stripped of ideological excuse. The Fullers move to a farm in the Burma Valley, “the very epicentre and birthplace of the civil war in Rhodesia”, where Alexandra and her sister Vanessa, learn – or fail to learn – how to strip and reassemble a gun then shoot it. This to defend themselves from the “terrs” or terrorists, who will come “they said, to chop off the ears and lips and eyelids of little white children”. These children cheer when they hear the “stomach-echoing thump” of a mine exploding in the hills, because it tells them “either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed”. The Fullers have a bomb-proofed Land Rover, called “Lucy”, complete with siren – that her parents only use to announce their arrival at parties. When they drive into town they go past Africans “whose hatred reflects like sun in a mirror into our faces, impossible to ignore”.
Everyone, not just the Land Rover, has a nickname or a pet name, often bestowed by Fuller’s father. Her mother is “Tub”, she is “Chookies”, her sister is “Van”. To the rest of the world she is “Bobo”. “Don’t be touchy about being called a baboon,” she wants to tell some black soldiers on the road. “I am their kid and they call me Bobo. Same thing.” This playful refusal to name things properly is of a piece with their bantering racist abuse: the parents both infantilise the threat and refuse to grow up themselves. They continue, through war, drought, bad harvests, the birth of their children and the loss of their children, to have fun, to drink and party and play cards, to dance and have another drink, and then drink a whole lot more.
After the central tragedy of the book, Fuller’s mother goes from being a “fun drunk to a crazy sad drunk”, and Fuller feels responsible for that too. Her parents’ wildness is now terrifying to their children and the war seems, at times, just an extension of that fear: “then the outside world starts to join in and has a nervous breakdown all its own, so that it starts to get hard for me to know where Mum’s madness ends and the world’s madness begins”.
The constant attention Fuller pays to her mother, to her agonies and her pleasures, results in an unforgettable portrait of a dashing, horse-riding, reckless woman, a constant reader and an expert in having a terrible, good time. “I am like one of the dogs,” Fuller says, “trying to read her mood, her happiness, her next move.” They are separated, not just by tragedy, but also by booze; the way her drunken mother can spend, “an agreeable hour, looking in the rear-view mirror and trying out various expressions to see which most suits her lips”. Fuller is also estranged, perhaps, by her mother’s “icy” look, the way her eyes, in her madness, shine “like marbles, cold and hard and glittering”. But when she is drunk, this fearsome, fun woman is a slow-motion thing; stymied, open to pity. She is “softly, deeply drunk”, and her sobs are also “soft”. It is Fuller’s favourite word. She uses it again to describe the farm in Zambia where her battered family goes to mend. Here the land is “softly voluptuously fertile and sweet smelling of khaki weed, and old cow manure and thin dust and msasa leaves”.
The land is female, Fuller is quite clear about this. “In Rhodesia we are born and then the umbilical cord of each child is sewn straight from the mother into the ground, where it takes root and grows. Pulling away from the ground causes death by suffocation, starvation. That’s what the people of this land believe.” The war is fought for this – whatever it is: “mother” might be a good enough word for it. “Farmers,” by which she means the Mashona people, “fight a more deadly, secret kind of war. They are fighting for land into which they have put their seed, their sweat, their hopes.”
Fuller is proud of her own talent as a farmer, her ability to read the land for potential yield. Her father drives her to her wedding in full rig, dress, veil, bouquet, and they talk about the fields along the road. “Wonder what he’s feeding?” says her father, of another man’s cattle, and Fuller says: “Cottonseed cake, I bet.”
It is a gallant way to live, perhaps, but Fuller is also thwarted by her parents’ cheery refusal to give the events around her a proper name. “Don’t exaggerate,” her mother says when she sees dead men on the road, “you saw body bags, not bodies.” The children are sexually assaulted by a neighbour, and the response is the same: “Don’t exaggerate.” In the back seat of the car, Fuller looks over to her sister and finds “she has stopped listening. Like an African.”
Fuller is not a participant. When Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe, her boarding school empties of white children and fills with black. She is introduced to a boy called Oliver Chiweshe, whose nanny and driver are dressed in better clothes than her own parents, and she wonders at his second name: “I have not known the full name of a single African until now.”
The white colonists, she says, named places after themselves, their heroes, their women. They used hopeful names and unlikely, stolen names, such as Venice or Bannockburn. They gave their servants English names that were liable to change from one day to the next. But Bobo Fuller knows the original and the restored African names for places, and she knows how little they matter too. “The land itself of course was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky.”
• Don't Let's Go the Dogs Tonight appears as a Picador Classic in January.
Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“We might shoot you.”
“Okay.” As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”
So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa, because she isn’t armed. “Van! Van, hey!” I hiss across the room until she wakes up. And then Van has to light a candle and escort me to the loo, where I pee sleepily into the flickering yellow light and Van keeps the candle high, looking for snakes and scorpions and baboon spiders.
Mum won’t kill snakes because she says they help to keep the rats down (but she rescued a nest of baby mice from the barns and left them to grow in my cupboard, where they ate holes in the family’s winter jerseys). Mum won’t kill scorpions either; she catches them and lets them go free in the pool and Vanessa and I have to rake the pool before we can swim. We fling the scorps as far as we can across the brown and withering lawn, chase the ducks and geese out, and then lower ourselves gingerly into the pool, whose sides wave green and long and soft and grasping with algae. And Mum won’t kill spiders because she says it will bring bad luck.
I tell her, “I’d say we have pretty rotten luck as it is.”
“Then think how much worse it would be if we killedspiders.”
I have my feet off the floor when I pee.
“Hurry up, man.”
“It’s like Victoria Falls.”
“I really had to go.”
I have been holding my pee for a long, long time and staring out the window to try and guess how close it is to morning. Maybe I could hold it until morning. But then I notice that it is the deep-black-sky quiet time of night, which is the halfway time between the sun setting and the sun rising when even the night animals are quiet—as if they, like day animals, take a break in the middle of their work to rest. I can’t hear Vanessa breathing; she has gone into her deep middle-of-the-night silence. Dad is not snoring nor is he shouting in his sleep. The baby is still in her crib but the smell of her is warm and animal with wet nappy. It will be a long time until morning.
Then Vanessa hands me the candle—“You keep boogies for me now”—and she pees.
“See, you had to go, too.”
“Only ’cos you had to.”
There is a hot breeze blowing through the window, the cold sinking night air shifting the heat of the day up. The breeze has trapped midday scents; the prevalent cloying of the leach field, the green soap which has spilled out from the laundry and landed on the patted-down red earth, the wood smoke from the fires that heat our water, the boiled-meat smell of dog food.
We debate the merits of flushing the loo.
“We shouldn’t waste the water.” Even when there isn’t a drought we can’t waste water, just in case one day there is a drought. Anyway, Dad has said, “Steady on with the loo paper, you kids. And don’t flush the bloody loo all the time. The leach field can’t handle it.”
“But that’s two pees in there.”
“So? It’s only pee.”
“Agh sis, man, but it’ll be smelly by tomorrow. And you peed as much as a horse.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“You can flush.”
“I’ll hold the candle.”
Van holds the candle high. I lower the toilet lid, stand on it and lift up the block of hardwood that covers the cistern, and reach down for the chain. Mum has glued a girlie-magazine picture to this block of hardwood: a blond woman in few clothes, with breasts like naked cow udders, and she’s all arched in a strange pouty contortion, like she’s got backache. Which maybe she has, from the weight of the udders. The picture is from Scope magazine.
We aren’t allowed to look at Scope magazine.
“Because we aren’t those sorts of people,” says Mum.
“But we have a picture from Scope magazine on the loo lid.”
“That’s a joke.”
“Oh.” And then, “What sort of joke?”
“Stop twittering on.”
A pause. “What sort of people are we, then?”
“We have breeding,” says Mum firmly.
“Oh.” Like the dairy cows and our special expensive bulls (who are named Humani, Jack, and Bulawayo).
“Which is better than having money,” she adds.
I look at her sideways, considering for a moment. “I’d rather have money than breeding,” I say.
Mum says, “Anyone can have money.” As if it’s something you might pick up from the public toilets in OK Bazaar Grocery Store in Umtali.
“Ja, but we don’t.”
Mum sighs. “I’m trying to read, Bobo.”
“Can you read to me?”
Mum sighs again. “All right,” she says, “just one chapter.” But it is teatime before we look up from The Prince and the Pauper.
The loo gurgles and splutters, and then a torrent of water shakes down, spilling slightly over the bowl.
“Sis, man,” says Vanessa.
You never know what you’re going to get with this loo. Sometimes it refuses to flush at all and other times it’s like this, water on your feet.
I follow Vanessa back to the bedroom. The way candlelight falls, we’re walking into blackness, blinded by the flame of the candle, unable to see our feet. So at the same moment we get the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps, and we abandon ourselves to fear. The candle blows out. We skid into our room and leap for the beds, our feet quickly tucked under us. We’re both panting, feeling foolish, trying to calm our breathing as if we weren’t scared at all.
Vanessa says, “There’s a terrorist under your bed, I can see him.”
“No you can’t, how can you see him? The candle’s out.”
And I start to cry.
“Jeez, I’m only joking.”
I cry harder.
“Shhh, man. You’ll wake up Olivia. You’ll wake up Mum and Dad.”
Which is what I’m trying to do, without being shot. I want everyone awake and noisy to chase away the terrorist-under-my-bed.
“Here,” she says, “you can sleep with Fred if you stop crying.”
So I stop crying and Vanessa pads over the bare cement floor and brings me the cat, fast asleep in a snail-circle on her arms. She puts him on the pillow and I put an arm over the vibrating, purring body. Fred finds my earlobe and starts to suck. He’s always sucked our earlobes. Our hair is sucked into thin, slimy, knotted ropes near the ears.
Mum says, “No wonder you have worms all the time.”
Mum and I stand at the entrance to the pantry and stare in at the snake. Its neck is caped, as wide as a fan, and it's swaying and tall.
Mum shouts, "Stand behind the
table!" She calls the dogs. Shea and Jacko, Best Beloved Among Dogs, are still
barking at the snake. "Come!" shouts Mum. She's loading the magazine. I hear the
bullets go in, clicka-click. "Come here!" Suddenly the snake rears back
and snaps forward and sets out into the air a thin mist of poisonous spray and
the dogs come reeling back out of the pantry, yelping and blind, staggering from
the pain. Mum lifts the gun to her shoulder, She squeezes her eyes shut and
eases back on the trigger. There's an explosion of glasses and bottles and tin
and a wild clattering of bullets. Mum has the oozie on automatic. . . . The
snake is splattered in a red mosaic on the back wall of the pantry along with
sprayed beer, and the lumpy contents of tinned beef, tomato sauce, peas. Flour
has exploded and has settled peacefully onto the chaos in a fine lacy shroud.