Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight http://arlindo-correia.com/120402.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, by Alexandra Fuller
NOTA DE LEITURA
A história de Alexandra Fuller, pessoa ainda relativamente nova (n. 1969) é interessante a muitos títulos. Quis ser escritora, até pela necessidade material de obter rendimentos, mas foram-lhe rejeitadas pelos editores cerca de meia dúzia de novelas. Virou-se então para a autobiografia e obteve um sucesso espectacular com “Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight” em 2001. Este agora é o seu terceiro livro de memórias. Não tem histórias originais e divertidas como os anteriores, já que o tema principal é o desabar do seu casamento com Charlie Ross de quem teve três filhos: Sarah (n. 1994), Fuller (n. 1997) e Cecily (n. 2006). O tom do livro não é de alegrias esfusiantes, mas a escrita é brilhante como é costume da autora.
O episódio mais vivo e cheio de dramatismo é o acidente de seu marido com um cavalo em 2011, pouco depois de ela lhe ter garantido que o casamento estava acabado. Foi a teimosia dela que conseguiu que ele sobrevivesse, o que os próprios médicos consideraram um milagre. Possivelmente, o marido terá esperado que o dramatismo do acidente salvasse o casamento deles, mas não teve essa sorte. É sugerido que o divórcio não foi completamente amigável. Aliás, no final de 2012, ela publicou um e-book, com o título “Falling: Story of a Marriage”, que agora está retirado da venda.
A autora tem agora um caso sentimental com o pintor Wendell Field (http://www.wendellfield.com/), que habita um yurt (tenda de nómadas) não longe do apartamento para onde ela foi viver em Wilson, Wyhoming. Os três filhos vivem com a mãe e o pai em quinzenas alternadas.
The New York Times
Jackson, Wyo. — It is Alexandra Fuller’s belief that women in their 40s have two choices about how to present themselves: “They can take Xanax, freeze their faces and not rock the boat. Or they can behave badly.”
At 45, Ms. Fuller, the author of “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” the gothic African memoir and best seller, is proud to say that going forward, she will be behaving badly.
As an opening salvo, consider her new book. “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” out next month from Penguin Press, tells the story of her 20-year marriage and its unraveling. It is not as overtly harrowing as her first two memoirs: the second, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” paid homage to her fierce and haunted mother, who was marked by mental illness and tragedy, the sins of colonialism — and a terrific sense of humor. But the tale of how Ms. Fuller, a child of rural Africa, tries to find her place in boom-time America has its white-knuckle moments that include the housing crisis, a couple of affairs (hers) and the catastrophic riding accident her husband suffers just before she leaves him.
Beyond these particular gruesome details, it’s a familiar story about the terrible loneliness that two mismatched people create together. This one has a happy ending, at least for Ms. Fuller, and it involves a yurt, an appropriate corrective to a life lived too large.
“I feel like I’ve been in a white-water river for 45 years,” she said recently. “Now I’m just lying around the yurt. I couldn’t have been more in need of a place to rest.”
The yurt in question belongs to Wendell Field, a 49-year-old artist. Ms. Fuller went to see him about a painting last spring, and never left. As cunningly put together as the inside of a sailboat, this Hobbit house is one of a dozen in the yurtian community that Mr. Field calls home, where each yurt-dweller pays a little less than $400 a month for a spot. (Other neighbors include bison, antelope and the odd rampaging moose.)
Mr. Field inherited his yurt eight years ago from a friend who died in a climbing accident. The other day, Dilly, an elderly corgi, and Edgar, a dog of indeterminate provenance, dozed breathily on what little floor space there was, as Mr. Field served tea made on his diminutive wood-burning stove. Ms. Fuller, clearly exhausted, drifted in and out of a nap.
Twenty-three years ago, Ms. Fuller married Charlie Ross, a dashing American river guide and safari leader working in Zambia, seeing in him a safe harbor from the storms of her war-ravaged childhood. Once the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary, he was perhaps even more adventuresome and outdoorsy than she, and they fell in love in a great display of physical prowess: white-water rafting, polo playing on raggedy African fields. When he tells her his family is Main Line Philadelphian on both sides, she is thrilled because she assumes his parents are drug addicts, a chaotic background that surpasses her own.
They settle in Idaho and then Wyoming, where Mr. Ross had spent summers on his grandmother’s dude ranch. Ms. Fuller works as a waitress and a river guide, they have two children, and in the early hours before the family wakes she writes nine novels, all of which are rejected. She teaches herself to ski in those same early hours, “skinning” up the mountain and then bucketing her way down.
When Mr. Ross begins a career as a real estate agent and they build a house in the Tetons, she berates him for selling out, even as she enjoys the bounty of their new life. Like a 1950s housewife, albeit one who picks her children up from school on horseback and protests OSHA violations on the state’s gas rigs, Ms. Fuller cedes the financial reins to her husband, though he tries repeatedly to involve her, to make her understand the costs of the upper-middle-class world they have created.
When she writes her best seller, which was published in 2001, he handles the entity that is Alexandra Fuller, though there is no credit card or Social Security number with that name on it. She has affairs, they separate, they have another child. When the mortgage crisis hits, she is almost exultant to learn that they may be destitute, having accrued two mortgages, a line of credit and a string of investments in other properties bought at the height of the market.
“The truth is the American dream has never been an innocent, harmless way to make a living,” she writes. " ‘It’s incredible,’ Dad kept saying when he came to visit. ‘Who’s paying for all this lot?’ Then I saw him make mental calculations. ‘Well, bloody free petrol helps, doesn’t it?’ ”
The divorce gets ugly, as these things do, and then it’s over. Ms. Fuller, at this point deeply politicized by her adopted state’s boom-time behaviors — the natural gas drilling and its attendant ravages and costs, both human and environmental — promises herself that she will shake her impactful ways and try to live in accordance with her principles. She attends a financial literacy group to learn how to get her affairs in order. It’s a group of women like her, as she writes, who had been raised to ride a horse and shoot, but somehow never learned to count.
“This is certainly easier than cooking breakfast for 12 men at 4 in the morning,” says one woman. “No wonder they kept it a secret.”
Today, the name on her bank account and new credit card is the one she was born with. She bought a condo here that is in no way glamorous, but it is affordable. It’s where she stays when the children, now 9, 17 and 21, are with her (she and her ex-husband have a two-week-on, two-week-off arrangement).
Mr. Ross has not read her new book, she said, though she gave a draft to a friend to proof with an eye toward the children.
“I think this is going to come up a lot, ‘What does your ex-husband think?’ ” she said. “First of all, he’s my ex-husband. I didn’t want to write it with a view to being edited. There’s almost this expectation you need to get approval. I doubt Ernest Hemingway was asked what his ex-wives thought of his writing. I think women have to stop asking for permission. One of the things I’ve done is to break the taboo of telling the personal.”
Neither her father nor her sister read her first memoir, which her mother dubbed, somewhat proudly, that Awful Book, and promptly moved on. Although, Ms. Fuller added, “I think she wishes it had come out more like Elspeth Huxley,” referring to the colonial Kenyan apologist who died in 1997.
“This thing of, ‘Has your husband read it?’ suggests that I’ve done something naughty,” Ms. Fuller continued.
In 2012, she wrote an article about Mr. Ross’s accident and their divorce for Byliner, which she has since taken down.
“Charlie was very upset by it,” she said. “I don’t know if he read it. But he didn’t feel like I had a right to the story of his nearly dying. Fair enough.”
With this book, she has deliberately drawn Mr. Ross as a near-cipher, to try to make the memoir her story, not his.
“Yeah, I’m protecting my kids and my ex-husband,” she said. “And I don’t want them traumatized by my work. But really, it’s not such a big deal. It’s much more traumatic living with me.”
Mr. Field, however, would disagree.
“Bo is really passionate,” he said using Ms. Fuller’s nickname. “But I don’t think she’s too intense.”
Mr. Field is kindly, quiet and capable, but he, too, proudly wears his politics on his sleeve. He shared a story of being roughed up by the Secret Service agents guarding Dick Cheney in a local restaurant when the war in Iraq began. (Mr. Cheney has a house in Jackson.) This was after Mr. Field suggested to the former vice president that peace was a worthy objective.
Raised on dairy farm in Michigan, Mr. Field grew up with some of the same freedoms as Ms. Fuller. As she put it, “The absolute freedom to kill yourself with large animals and machines.”
In her old house, Ms. Fuller said, she wrote in a loft area above the sitting room more afterthought than office. There, squeezing the work into her day in the same way she made space at that desk, she wrote her books and countless magazine articles.
“I never felt like my writing was taken seriously,” she said. “It was like it was something I did in a dream, while stirring the porridge and holding the children.”
One day last summer Ms. Fuller was showering in the bathhouse, the yurtian’s communal wash area, which has running water and toilets. When she returned to the yurt, Mr. Field had set up a small wooden desk under the cottonwood trees. It was laid with an embroidered cloth and sprinkled with marigold petals. And Ms. Fuller burst into tears.
The New York Times
JAN. 14, 2015
Alexandra Fuller’s ‘Leaving Before the Rains Come’
By RACHEL CUSK
LEAVING BEFORE THE RAINS COME
By Alexandra Fuller
258 pp. The Penguin Press.
A memoir often takes one of two basic forms: In the first, the writer has an extraordinary story to tell; in the second, she has the ability to tell the common story in an extraordinary way. Sometimes — Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” is an example, Paula Fox’s “Borrowed Finery” another — the two are conflated in events on whose extremity the artistic mind succeeds in imposing literary form. I once heard the writer Aharon Appelfeld, asked why he had underplayed the savagery of his Holocaust childhood in one of his books, give the answer that extremity, whether imaginary or real, is harmful to art. What he perhaps meant was that the artist’s aim is to represent truth, and that certain experiences — those that infringe or violate the common sense of reality — can never be made to seem true. Joan Didion dealt interestingly with this problem in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” making the surreality of her husband’s death at the dinner table a space the reader could philosophically inhabit. And likewise Alexandra Fuller, writing about her often tragically idiosyncratic African childhood in “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” brilliantly succeeded in retaining a child’s astonished objectivity at the unfolding of bizarre events.
“Leaving Before the Rains Come” is Fuller’s account of the collapse of her marriage; yet the memoir of divorce is not quite categorizable in any of these terms. Divorce is both ordinary and extreme. For many people it represents their most intense experience of unreality, yet it occurs at the most intimately humdrum level of life. Moreover, divorce is a kind of anti-story: It is the spectacle of narrative breaking down, both personally and publicly. Narrative works by agreement, and the whole point about divorce is that it represents the end of agreement. In divorce the story of life is deemed unfit to continue because the participants cannot agree on a common truth. The truth has to be broken in two; there now have to be two truths, two stories, two versions. The end of marriage is in a sense the end of universality and the beginning of point of view. Onlookers are often forced to take sides, for the reason that it is impossible to believe in two stories at once. And thus a problem arises, which is that before we’ve even begun to read the memoir of divorce we are convinced that what we are reading is only half the truth. We ourselves are primed to “take sides,” to make personal again what the writer is trying to expunge into objectivity. The newly divorced require a sympathetic listener; in that state of vulnerability, they go where the personal bias toward them is strongest, to people who won’t challenge their “version.” For the writer this requirement would be fatal, as would the notion that others are entitled to tell their “side of the story,” despite the fact that those others are not usually writers. By the time the reader has got to the bottom of the first page the defenses of literary form and of authorial privilege have already been hopelessly breached.
Alexandra Fuller is sensitive to these pitfalls, while being unable to avoid at least some of them. She quotes Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” She describes with admirable accuracy how this coming to consciousness entails the breaking of pre-existing structures: “In the end, at least in this end, the world beyond me and the world that was inside me could no longer exist in the same place and I broke. . . . And yet at the same time, I felt I was in the process of becoming two people — the person I had been, and the person I was becoming.” In fact Fuller’s “story” of divorce — unlike her story of childhood — is ordinary enough: She and her American husband, after three children, two decades of marriage, and a long, grinding process of decline, cease to live together. “I chose to believe in the possibility of a predictable, chartable future,” she writes, “and I had picked a life that I imagined would have certainties, safety nets and assurances.
“What I did not know then is that the assurances I needed couldn’t be had. I did not know that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you, for the things that toy with your internal tide — against those things, there is no conventional guard.”
Jung’s understanding of the often-destructive crisis of midlife as something that arises from an inability to believe any longer in the “reality” bequeathed by formative experience, and especially by one’s parents, underpins Fuller’s narrative of divorce in much the same way it does many people’s. The difference lies in the extraordinariness of her childhood reality, which Fuller can anatomize superbly while at the same time failing to get out entirely from under it. Instead of reconciling herself to the ordinariness of her divorce narrative, she returns, still magnetized, to the source of extremity: her parents, and the Africa for which, from her first-world middle-class adult existence, she continues to feel a racked and passionate ambivalence. “My parents pitied me the fact that — at least as far as they could tell — all my dramas had to be self-inflicted,” she recalls. “ ‘The problem with most people,’ Dad said once, not necessarily implying that I counted as most people, but not discounting the possibility either, ‘is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.’ ”
Much of “Leaving Before the Rains Come” concerns itself with the familial histories of both Fuller and her husband (whose background, amazingly, almost equals Fuller’s in its extraordinariness). Consequently, the book is longer and more diverting than in a sense it ought to be, while at the same time the incompatibility of these two narratives — the as it were pre-Jungian “belief” narrative and the broken, searching narrative of personal crisis — creates a sense of uneasiness at its core:
“Once, elbow deep in bubbles at the children’s bath time, I suddenly found myself praying in a kind of panic that nothing would ever change. ‘It never has to get better than this,’ I remember thinking. ‘We can do this forever. Just like this.’ But the mere fact of my thinking it was a kind of acknowledgment that this couldn’t last, neither the equitable moment of our marriage nor the shaky American dream in which it had been conceived. Because seen in a certain light, . . . that promising dream has a depressing, thrill-ride quality about it, hurdy-gurdy with brightness, loud and distracting.”
Such moments of honesty are the more heart-rending for the feeling that one is watching the author still imprisoned in the sources of her pain: “I believed in what I was doing. . . . I just no longer believed in the person who was doing it.”
“For the first time,” Fuller writes, “I was beginning to see that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable, unapologetic way, she must first possess it.” This is the unattained goal of many a woman who has fought her way clear of a conventional female destiny, only to find that she is too depleted to become that which she glimpsed from within the now-broken prison of the old life. Fuller is far from depleted: This book perhaps marks the beginning of her journey toward an unassailable possession of mind, and toward a new kind of freedom.
Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, “Outline,” has just been published.
The New York Times
Alexandra Fuller writes about Africa with a fierce, uncompromising passion — like Isak Dinesen’s love for that same continent, like Joan Didion’s for California, like Faulkner’s for Mississippi.
In two earlier memoirs, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” and“Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” Ms. Fuller described growing up during the brutal civil war in Rhodesia in the 1970s. She managed to convey both her love for her parents, and the terrible human costs of the colonialism they supported. She wrote about the uncommon hazards of her childhood — the snakes in the kitchen, the scorpions in the swimming pool, the land mines on the local roads. She wrote about learning, “like all the kids over the age of 5 in our valley,” how “to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and, ultimately, shoot-to-kill.” And she conjured the violent beauty of Africa with vibrant pictorial magic: Emerald-spotted doves calling to one another, frogs “bellowing from the causeway,” the air boiling “with beetles and cicadas, mosquitoes and tsetse flies,” and egrets, “white against the gray-pink sky,” floating “upriver to roost in the winterthorn trees.”
In her latest memoir, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” Ms. Fuller writes about leaving Africa for the United States, and her marriage to Charlie Ross, an American who was running rafting and canoe operations on the Zambezi and Luangwa Rivers in Zambia. It’s a melancholy book about the breakdown of their marriage — a tale about love but even more about loss: the losses incurred in their relationship, and the losses incurred, over the years, by Ms. Fuller’s family. Of her parents, she writes: “Together they had lost three children, a war, a few farms, and for a while my mother had seriously lost her mind. And yet they incorporated these losses into their marriage along with what they had gained, assigning very little in the way of either blame or praise almost anywhere.”
“Before the Rains” is more of an interior narrative than its predecessors, and the sections set in Wyoming, where Ms. Fuller and Mr. Ross would make their home, lack the intense sense of place that animates the author’s descriptions of Africa. But Ms. Fuller writes with ferocity and precision, and she turns the story of her marriage and its disintegration into a resonant parable about a couple’s mismatched views of the world. Her fatalistic outlook, shaped by the chaos of Africa and her parents’s reckless approach to life, and his American belief in preparedness and reason. Her penchant for living at the extremes (“without the exuberant crazy-in-a-good-way and the disturbing crazy-in-a-bad-way pendulum that had been all I had ever known, I wasn’t sure how to be”) and his levelheaded embrace of “the middle.” Her theatricality and fears that she has been imprinted by her family’s history of madness and alcoholism, and his family’s emotional reticence and reluctance to examine painful memories.
When she first met Charlie, Ms. Fuller recalls here, she thought he would be her rescuer. At 22, having survived sexual abuse, the war in Rhodesia and guilt over her little sister Olivia’s drowning in a neighbor’s pond (“The sin of omission was mine; my eyes had turned from babysitting”), she says she was “already exhausted” and she projected “onto Charlie’s broad-shouldered frame” an “embellished biography that made him both my sanctuary and my savior. I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquility interspersed with organized adventure.” She could remain in Africa because “he loved the romance of it,” and they could remain there safely: “Our lives would be the ‘three rifles, supplies for a month, and Mozart’ of ‘Out of Africa’ without the plane crashes, syphilis, and Danish accent.”
They spent their honeymoon on the edge of a national park, dodging a charging hippo and a small herd of elephants and wading across a crocodile-infested river, accompanied by a scout with an AK-47. “When I said, ‘Until death do us part,’ ” Ms. Fuller said, “I didn’t mean Day 5.”
As things turned out, they would leave Africa after the birth of the first of their three children — partly because Ms. Fuller had contracted a case of “serious, recurring malaria,” and partly, she says, because the reality of life there hadn’t matched Charlie’s expectations. Their new life in America, she thought, would be about “sticking it out, sensible decisions, college funds, mortgages, and car payments.” She added: “Maybe it wouldn’t be the seductive edges of terror and madness. But we would have medical insurance and a retirement plan.”
Ms. Fuller’s description of a horrifying horseback riding accident that would leave Mr. Ross fighting for his life and her decision to leave their troubled marriage are harrowing and raw, but the most vivid scenes in this book deal not with her marriage or life in the United States but with her depictions of her parents and the life they shared in Africa. While her unstable, self-dramatizing mother was the focus of “Cocktail Hour,” her father — at once stoic and reckless, ascetic and self-indulgent — is the colossus who bestrides this volume, and it’s his matter-of-fact approach to life (“Someone’s born, does the bit in the middle, and then they die”) that provides his daughter with a philosophical anchor.
Ms. Fuller, who now lives in Wyoming, insists that she no longer regards herself as an African — “It’s where we are that really counts,” not where we come from — but she’s not very convincing on this count. Sounding a little like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” she writes that she knew as a teenager that if she ever left Africa, “an essential part of my connection with this earth would become forever detached, like a soulless body or a heartless lover”: “Africa had been my primary relationship for most of my life, defining, sustaining, and unequivocal in a way that no human relationship had ever been, with the exception of my parents, whom, in any case, I could never separate from this soil.”
The New York Times
Published: May 1, 2008
At Home With Alexandra Fuller
In Wyoming, the Dark Side of America’s Thirst for Energy
By JIM ROBBINS
ALEXANDRA FULLER has two homes that are 60 miles — and a world — apart.
One is in Wilson, Wyo., a village just outside the mountain resort town of Jackson. It is tucked into a steep hillside, a stone’s throw from the steep two-lane highway that climbs over the rugged Teton Mountains to Idaho.
It is here that Ms. Fuller has what she calls the good life, Rocky Mountain style. After she serves a dinner of tender Montana lamb and roasted potato, she settles into a sofa in front of a roaring fire in her 2,500-square-foot home, where she strokes her dogs; Tanq, a Labrador, and Bertie and Dilly, two corgis. Two of her three children, Sarah, 14, and Cecily, 2, are at home; Fuller, 11, is at a sleepover. In their free time the family can go out cross-country skiing or river rafting.
Ms. Fuller, 39, whom everyone calls Bo, is a writer best known for her first book, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood” (Random House, 2003), a painful memoir of growing up in Rhodesia during the civil war. Whenever she finds it tough to write, Ms. Fuller gets on her Arabian horse, Sunday, and heads into the pine-draped mountains with her dogs.
“There’s something soothing about hearing a horse whinny and swish her tail,” she said. “You leave on a ride with all the noise in your head and at the end things have quieted down and I have the best way and the most poetic way to write the passage.”
But there is a nearby world that obsesses her, a world she finds unsettling. She and her husband, Charlie Ross, a real-estate broker, recently built a one-room log cabin in Sublette County, more rural and far less rarefied. It offers an expansive, soul-stirring view of the extraordinary Wind River Range and the high plains — but at the same time a window into what she considers Wyoming’s destruction by the development of gas and oil fields.
“I fell in love with Wyoming because it reminded me of Africa,” she said. “It’s beautiful, but a harsh environment and it’s tough to make a living.”
The vast differences between her two homes and the land they occupy inspired her newest book, “The Legend of Colton H. Bryant,” due to be released next week by Penguin Press. The book is based on the true story of one young man’s life and death working as a roughneck in the oil fields in Sublette County, one of the most active areas for oil and gas exploration and drilling in the country. The book grew out of an article she wrote for the New Yorker in 2007 called “Boomtown Blues.”
The book is part of her effort to bridge the gulf between her homes in two very different parts of the state. She feels that like many Americans, the people in Teton County — which includes Jackson — do not understand what it takes to feed the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for energy.
“Most people don’t know what goes on in an oil field,” she said. “It’s a war landscape. Those boys are out there 24 hours, even when it’s 50 below and the wind is blowing sideways.”
After a day in and around Jackson, with its mega-mansions built by the super wealthy, including some from the energy industry such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Ms. Fuller offered a tour of the other Wyoming, the grit and beauty and working-class economy of Sublette County. “We’ll take a look at the sausage factory,” she said as she packed her skis for the trip.
On a brilliantly sunny day, on a sweeping landscape of glittering, snow-covered plains and mountains, we parked the car along the road and headed out on a three-mile cross-country schuss on snow so deep it buried the fence posts. The route was fairly flat until the end, when it ascended through pristine, trackless snow in a grove of lodgepole pine and aspen that camouflaged her cabin.
Ms. Fuller opened the cabin for the first time in weeks. When the road is open she spends weeks at a time at the cabin, but in winter, she uses it less because access is difficult. Ms. Fuller said she wrote much of the book there on a laptop in her bed, covers pulled up, a box of tissues on the table next to her. “I cried a lot as I wrote,” she explained.
After a lunch of fruit and bread at small table in the main room that is living room, dining room and kitchen, Ms. Fuller put on her skis and headed out. She paused in front of her home at the crest of the hill and looked out over the prairie that rises up to the mountains known as the Winds. She said that the view was bound to change.
“It’s all been leased,” she said. “It’s all slated for oil and gas development.”
Later we drove past the tiny town of Pinedale, and across public land, where towering steel oil derricks flying American flags slice into the blue sky and a natural landscape once full of antelope, jackrabbits and sagebrush is now a vast industrial landscape. White pickup trucks raise clouds of dust and fierce winds blow tumbleweeds across prairie scraped to bare dirt by bulldozers.
Biologists say that this development could destroy the antelope migration from outside Pinedale to Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of miles north, now the longest overland mammal migration in the Lower 48.
On some days this formerly pristine part of Wyoming has air pollution levels that exceed federal standards for human health, and the clear Western sky is sometimes marred by a brown cloud.
Wyoming is under assault here, Ms. Fuller said, standing on a road buffeted by the infamous high plains wind. She believes people are being used by the energy industry. In the past several years, dozens of workers have died on the rigs around the West.
“Throwing warm beating hearts at a failed energy policy is a tragedy, whether it’s the war or the oil fields,” Ms. Fuller said. “The jobs are a good thing. But going after it so frantically and doing so much damage is wrong.”
The cruel and beautiful landscape here reminds her of her childhood. She was born into white Rhodesia and came of age during the war for independence by the black majority, who renamed it Zimbabwe. By the age of 6, she said, she had learned how to use an Uzi submachine gun and knew the basics of first aid. She suffered the ordeal of her baby sister drowning, an older brother who died of meningitis and another who died in infancy; she says the cause of death was being born in Africa.
Now she considers herself a messenger who must bear witness to what she sees as the war on the land, with its natural and human casualties.
“I travel between these worlds. I couldn’t leave the oil field behind when I came home to Teton County,” she said. It has been hard, Ms. Fuller allows, to tell her friends about the other Wyoming. “I can’t talk about my childhood, I can’t talk about the war, and its hard to talk about what’s going on in the oil field. That’s why I wrote the book.”
Kaylee Bryant, the mother of Colton, the book’s subject, is pleased with Ms. Fuller’s take on Wyoming and her family. “She hit it pretty doggone close,” said Ms. Bryant, who works in a school cafeteria in Evanston. Her husband and surviving son are still roughnecks. “She even hit Colton’s personality close, for never having met him.”
“Rather than write in the rhetoric of conflict, she’s chosen to tell a story of one young man,” said Terry Tempest Williams, a neighbor of Ms. Fuller in Wilson, who has long written about the West. “That’s much more powerful because it touches our humanity.”
It is critical, Ms. Fuller said, that people know who to blame. “Teton County has a huge carbon footprint with heated driveways, roofs and huge houses heated all winter long with no one in them,” she said. “I don’t see this as something the roughnecks or the oil companies or the administration alone is doing. It’s something we’re all doing.”
52-year-old makes remarkable recovery from medical nightmare after horseback accident.
After enduring six strokes, three life flights and 28 days in hospitals, Charlie Ross knows there’s only one reason he’s alive today: the advocacy of his wife, Alexandra “Bo” Fuller.
Without the determination and outspokenness of Fuller, who pressed to ensure Ross got the health care he needed, the Wilsonite wouldn’t be walking, talking and watching his three children grow up, he said.
Medical mistakes and complications after a horseback riding accident took him to the brink of being brain-dead, and some doctors said there was nothing they could do to help him. Fuller disagreed.
“She fought for me from beginning to end,” Ross said. “Without her, I would not be here. Absolutely.”
The nightmare began at about 5 p.m. June 11. Ross, 52, and Fuller were heading up Horseshoe Canyon, west of Driggs, Idaho, for an evening horseback ride. As Fuller went to close the second gate at the trailhead, Ross’ horse, a 16-hand former polo horse named Big Boy, reared, for no apparent reason. Although Ross gave the horse his head, Big Boy just continued straight back, somersaulting his entire weight — at least 1,300 pounds — onto Ross. The impact knocked the horse unconscious, but Ross stayed awake.
“I was lying there thinking ‘When he wakes up, he’s going to be kicking and thrashing,’” Ross said.
Seconds later, Big Boy awoke and kicked and thrashed his way to his feet, kicking Ross and breaking four of the man’s ribs.
Fuller saw what happened and ran, screaming for help, toward the parking lot. Friends happened to be there, preparing for mountain biking, and Gary Beebe stayed with Ross until an ambulance arrived. Although he was in considerable pain, Ross, an adventure traveler who had been involved in backcountry emergencies before, “breathed through it, determined not to panic and go into shock.”
Friends gathered in Teton Valley Hospital and chatted with Ross as they waited for CT scan results. His initial diagnosis was four broken ribs. When one of the scans revealed a ruptured spleen that would require emergency surgery, Ross was put on a helicopter and life-flighted by 11 p.m. to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls. He got out of surgery by 1 a.m. June 12.
That morning, he woke up on pain medication, feeling OK. His children came to visit. The next day, June 13, he was “more or less fine,” catching up with email on his smartphone. On June 14, he awoke feeling confused. His Blackberry made no sense.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” Ross said. “I was unable to operate it.”
At 9:30 a.m., Ross called his wife and told her he was having a hard time organizing his thoughts. A young nurse named Ashley (last name unknown) was “clearly concerned,” Ross said. The nurse had seen Ross post-surgery and was alarmed by his deteriorating condition two days later.
“Doctors said I was having reactions to the medication,” Ross said.
Condition deteriorating fast
By 3 p.m., Ross could no longer speak. Fuller fought to get the attention of doctors. Finally, a neurologist came to see Ross and determined that he was having a series of strokes. Staffers rushed Ross out for more CT scans. Then Ross and Fuller waited for hours.
“The neurology doctor was supposed to come back and see me,” Ross said. “He never did. My condition was clearly worsening.”
Around 8:30 p.m., Fuller quizzed a different doctor about where the neurologist was and demanded that Ross be transferred to the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City. It took until 11 p.m. to put the couple on another life flight airplane bound for Salt Lake City. In the cramped space with Ross at a different end of the airplane, Fuller was only able to hold her husband’s big toe to comfort him.
At about midnight, the plane arrived in Salt Lake City and an ambulance drove them to Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake.
“We were expecting to go to the University of Utah,” Ross said.
About 1 a.m. June 15, trauma doctors sent Ross for more CT scans. The diagnosis this time was correct: Ross’ carotid arteries had both been severed. Circulation to his brain had been compromised, causing the strokes. By 3 a.m., the situation was dire.
“They tell me there’s nothing they can do to me,” Ross said.
The only way to fix Ross’ artery would be for a neurologist surgeon to insert a stent into the artery from groin to neck, they said. Fuller said to get the specialist there, stat.
“They said doctors don’t like to be woken up at 3 in the morning,” Ross said. “My wife said, ‘You get him on the phone right now.”
Finally, Fuller again demanded a transfer, to the University of Utah, where Ross was originally supposed to be sent from Idaho Falls.
After 7 a.m., Ross recalls being loaded up in a final helicopter and being told that there was nothing that could be done for him.
“I can’t ask why,” Ross said, tears welling in his eyes as he recounted the moment, “and they don’t seem willing or able to explain it to me.”
He watched the sun rise over the Wasatch Range, mute, and expected it would be the last sunrise he’d ever see.
He was flown to the University of Utah. Not allowed to ride in the helicopter, Fuller caught a ride with friends to the University hospital.
There, a dozen trauma doctors and a dozen neurologists swarmed to Ross’ side. They determined that he had suffered six strokes.
After a CT scan of his head revealed there was “no circulation at all” in his gray matter, Ross was rushed into surgery. An hour after the stent was inserted into his right carotid artery, Ross had full circulation in his brain. His left carotid artery was too perforated to repair, he said.
“Within a day, I had my speech back and my thinking back,” Ross said. A monster headache remained, which doctors decided not to treat until June 20 because of other complications. “They were still worried about bleeding in my stomach, deep vein thrombosis in my leg, all these things that had to be treated,” Ross said. “It felt like my forehead would separate from my skull.”
Throughout his time in intensive care at the University of Utah, Ross said the doctors were masters of communication and the care was “top-notch.” For every medical decision that had to be made, the team of doctors would discuss all the parameters and their treatment recommendations in detail.
On June 20, doctors gave him an angiogram and a prognosis: Unless something bizarre happened, Ross would lead a full life.
“They said, ‘You’re a miracle. Your case will be a part of every neurological conference for next decade,’” Ross said.
Although he “looked like a junkie” with puncture holes all over his forearms, and remained at the hospital for recuperation and observation for 10 more days, Ross was well enough to walk downstairs to Starbucks and order Indian takeout for his visiting friends and family.
In retrospect, Ross credits his healthy lifestyle — no processed food — and lack of arterial plaque as being a “huge” part of his body’s ability to survive until he got into the operating room at the University hospital.
Blessed, with a big, fat, juicy capital B
Ross is grateful to have more time to be with his children: Sarah, 17, Fuller, 14, and Cecily, 5.
He doesn’t care if he rides horses again. Fuller gave Big Boy away, and although the family still has a kids’ horse and Fuller’s Arabian, Ross is used to hiking while others ride.
“There are plenty of other things I like to do,” Ross said. “It’s not a big loss.”
For his own sense of closure, and to help others, Ross is being a squeaky wheel.
He wants to “find out why, and who” sent him to the wrong hospital, he said. “I want to be sure they realize they made some mistakes. Someone has to account for that. We still don’t know who sent me to Intermountain Medical Center. It’s not a stroke center; that’s why we are so confused we were sent there. To be a registered stroke center, you have to have the neurology on call 24-7. Why would you be sent to a place that doesn’t have the people to treat you?”
The Jackson Hole community has supported the Ross family through its ordeal, Ross said. When Fuller had to leave home June 30 for a two-week work assignment in South Dakota, friends came over each night, preparing a meal for Ross and the children and then cleaning up the kitchen.
Fuller, an author whose work has made The New York Times best-selling books list, said she was “blown away” by how much support she received.
“If you’re going to have a tragedy, do it right here,” Fuller said. Even at 3 a.m. in strange emergency rooms, “I never for a single moment felt alone.”
From taking care of the family’s dog to cleaning their house, cooking and being available for all-hours telephone consultations, friends were fantastic.
“I might never recover from the kindness,” Fuller said. “We are Blessed, with a big, fat, juicy capital B. It was deep, it was genuine, and I’m forever transformed by it.”
Since his return home on June 28, Ross gained back 10 pounds of the 25 that he lost. He has been working half-days as a real estate agent, taking time to tell his story, get some sun and heal, physically and emotionally.
“There’s a lot of thinking to do,” Ross said. “Why me? Why did I live and someone else die? How much did it cost to save me?”
Every morning, Ross awakes with a headache, a pounding reminder of what he’s been through. He’s grateful for it.
“It’s hard to avoid falling back into the trap of taking life for granted, but maybe not,” Ross said. “I hope I don’t forget, and sort of act without that knowledge. I think it’ll be part of my journey forever.”
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 to the Dogs Tonight appears as a Picador Classic in January.
Leaving A Continent — And A Marriage — 'Before The Rains Come'
Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed memoir was a vivid account of growing up in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, with white parents, in revolutionary times in an Africa that was wild, seething, and dangerous — but also electrifying, romantic and intoxicating. She eventually married an American man named Charlie who led safaris in Zambia. But that's a hard life for a couple; they ended up moving to the United States, having three children, and ultimately divorcing.
Fuller's new memoir, , is about the life she's made for herself now, with two children who are nearly grown and a third who is 10, in a country that is at once more comfortable and sometimes a more complicated way to live. She tells NPR's Scott Simon that it can be hard to explain her family and her experiences in America. "You know, I think that what I learned when I came here was that mine is a sort of family that if we met on a plane, it's best just to pass the peanuts."
I think he
represented for me all the adventure that I had been raised with, which I
certainly didn't want to give up. I mean, after all, one of the cornerstones of
adventure is that it's very addicting. But he seemed so in control of his
adventure. He was a safari guy, so you know, you'd go on a river for seven days
and then you'd call in the Land Rover and you'd get rescued. Your adventure is
sort of packaged, and that seemed to me the absolute best of both worlds. To
have both the adventure and then a place to rest. Because ours was a life of
unstructured and nonstop adventure.
Our very first date, Charlie and I went canoeing and we got charged by an elephant, and he stood his ground. And I thought, "Ahh, there you go, he can stand up to a charging elephant, we're going to be fine."
I had vowed, I mean, from early on, to never leave the continent. And southern Africa seemed — with him there, I would have both the country that I loved, but then I could be kept safe from the worst things that that country could throw at you. As it happened to my parents, you know, they had lost 3 children. And Charlie, with his sort of U.S. citizenship which feels very unassailable when you're from somewhere like Zambia — it seemed like a perfect solution. But after we had been married for a couple of years, I contracted more or less permanent malaria. And I think that, along with the corruption of the government just wore Charlie down.
You know I think that being raised the way I was, where you were prepared to fight to the death for the soil that you believed belonged to you. That kind of extreme engagement is very difficult to flush out of your system — or your belief system, anyway. And so to separate out what you do for a living from who you are, I didn't have the capacity to do that. To me it was all one thing. And I found it hard to believe that Charlie could believe that developing land was something that was in line with who his soul was.
Do you know, I don't know the answer to that. I think honestly what happened was the marriage really allowed me — I think — and this country, this gift of sort of freedom of speech, allowed me to come into my own, to use a sort of trite term, and I think a lot of women in their 40s find themselves in this situation where they no longer have this wonderful but perpetual need of their children. They've become slightly or maybe very invisible to their spouse. But you know I think that there's this real way that I wanted to be self-realized. And the challenge of staying in love or growing in love may have been too much for him.
I think it feels like such a violation. But I don't think there's a point really to writing memoir unless you're going to aim for as much honesty as you can. I think for a writer it's really important to court eviction from your tribe to expose things and to wake people up. And so I think that that can feel like a violation to the people you love the most.
Wednesday 4 February 2015
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller review – ‘urgent, eloquent, fearless’
In the third instalment of her memoirs, Fuller turns her unsparing, biting wit on her 20-year marriage, as she abandons Africa for Wyoming
Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002), a ferociously unsentimental account of her childhood as the offspring of white settlers in 1970s Rhodesia, was followed in 2011 by Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, her equally candid memoir about her hard-drinking, dysfunctional parents (Fuller’s mother memorably features in the first book as the “Leaning Tower of Pissed”). Dogs ends with a glimpse of Fuller, aged 22 – the bruised survivor of a quixotic family and a terrifying civil war – on the day of her wedding to an American called Charlie Ross. The bride is feverish with malaria. The bride’s mother leads the wedding party around the farm on extended drunken picnics. The bride’s father ends the day by setting himself on fire, and is extinguished with a bottle of champagne by an alarmed guest. “I couldn’t,” Fuller concludes, “be more thoroughly married.”
Sadly, it turns out that this was wishful thinking. Leaving Before the Rains Comepicks up where Dogs left off, following Fuller and her unsuspecting new husband into a rocky 20-year union and out the other side. The savage wit that gave her earlier memoirs their bite slices through the conventional pieties of family relationships here, too. Declaring that she isn’t impressed by her parents’ “suicide mission of a deliberately disordered life”, Fuller chooses Charlie – a seemingly unflappable safari tour operator and white-water rafter – because he is “someone who wasn’t a stranger to adventure, but yet who was not unpredictably, superfluously dangerous”. Her hope is that she and Charlie will find safety in each other, but in spite of their sincerity and idealism, the problems of culture and belonging that they face prove insurmountable.
The two rent a charmless house outside Lusaka in Zambia, where Charlie tries to build up his safari business, and Fuller, feeling under pressure to play the capable white homesteader, discovers that she is unable to manage her household at all. These scenes are bleakly comic. There is a hostile cook “with the creeping aspect of a spy” who scrubs the floors outside their bedroom at midnight; a stoned gardener who appropriates the vegetable patch to grow his marijuana crop; a bored groom to whom Fuller gives “death-defying” driving lessons. “I could not prevent the staff from fighting with each other and brazenly stealing from us, and then spreading blame all around,” she confesses. “I had no control over when anyone came to work, or when, if ever, they left.”
Fuller’s recollection of this domestic shambles is saved from condescension by her own chastening sense of inadequacy, and her awareness that, much as she loves Africa, her claim to belong to it can only ever be provisional. But if she is not African, then what is she? During an outbreak of cholera she pays compulsive visits to a makeshift downtown clinic, appalled by the “invisible membrane” between its “dank, dying world” and the sterile bunker she inhabits with Charlie. Even more disturbing is her awareness that the suffering on display in the slum hospital resonates with her in a way that living with her orderly, temperate husband does not. The truth, as Fuller acknowledges, is that her tumultuous childhood has left her with an affinity for mayhem and trauma. Yet the differences between husband and wife, despite their both being of European descent, are also partly anthropological:
[Charlie] viewed me as a wild version of himself, a westerner in the raw. But now that he had married me, and I was out of my natural habitat, my plumage was less shiny, my skills less useful, my constant noise less charming. Instead of looking like a survivor of a tough and wondrous life, I looked like a damaged survivor of sordid, violent and undisciplined excess.
Fuller’s caustic probing of the meaning of culture – and the micro-culture of the family – is one of the book’s great strengths. “In the west,” she comments wryly, “it was believed that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa, we had learned that no one was immune to capricious tragedy” – and soon her fatalism and pervasive sense of dread are brought into a head-on collision with American values. After Fuller nearly dies from malaria following the birth of their first child, she and Charlie relocate to his native Wyoming:
It had been decided then: our marriage wasn’t going to be about nearly dying, and violent beauty, and unpredictability. Our union was going to be about sticking it out, sensible decisions, college funds, mortgages, and car payments. Maybe it wouldn’t have the seductive edges of terror and madness. But we would have medical insurance and a retirement plan.
Yet the United States proves to be as much a puzzle as a relief to Fuller. From its magnifying distance, her family begins to seem “even more careless, unbalanced and mad than they had when we’d all been in Africa. Meanwhile, close up, Charlie’s family looked saner than I had believed it possible any family could be.” On first meeting Charlie and hearing that his relatives were “Main Line” Philadelphians, she liked to think that this suggested something racy and illicit; she is disappointed that they prove “not to be heroin addicts at all”, but of unimpeachably stodgy settler stock. Compared to the Africans Fuller grew up with, the Americans she encounters are emotional conservatives, spending their feelings frugally. And they spend time frugally. “In Africa,” she notes, “we filled up all available time busily doing not much, and then we wasted the rest.” But here “there seemed to be so little of it, and its unaccustomed short supply panicked me in grocery checkout lines, during meals, and at traffic lights … Of course, I changed and sped up.” The result of living in America is an uneasy erosion of Fuller’s sense of self. To her dismay, she realises that identity is easily corruptible: “Retaining culture takes effort and persistence and discipline. It’s a commitment, not a flag. You can’t just pull it out and wave it about when it’s convenient.”
These reflections on time and change segue into a heart-wrenching dissection of the end of love and the death of a marriage. In the light of Fuller’s remarks about cultural differences, it becomes clear that the failure of her union with Charlie is really a failure to establish a distinct culture of their own. As they fight over the purpose of their existence together, about how best to arrange the 24 hours of their day, their supposedly “safe, sane American lives” rapidly become as fraught as their earlier “crazy, diseased African ones”. Theirs is, as Fuller admits, not a unique story – their mistake is to think that they alone can tackle marriage as a fresh pact, “distinct and separate from all the ways my grandmothers and great-grandmothers had done marriage … across seas, between cultures, and against all the odds” – but it is given depth by her consciousness of the bigger picture.
Perhaps the most painful irony of all is that Fuller’s drive to write, and her unnervingly honest voice, both come from this very sense of displacement. As the marriage falters, the books, with their acid humour, start to arrive. “Why don’t you laugh at my jokes?” she asks her husband. “Because your jokes aren’t funny,” he replies. “They’re unkind.” But in spite of her tough truth-telling, Fuller’s perceptions are anything but unkind. Her position on the margins makes her unusually sensitive to vulnerability of any sort. She is especially good at rendering the terrible physical and emotional fragility of children. Of her baby daughter, she remembers, with agonised tenderness, that “her white terrycloth diapers hung on a washing line above our heads in the sitting room and kitchen, like strings of white flags requesting ceasefire or signalling surrender”. In the same way, her description of the infant corpses in the Lusaka cholera clinic breathes compassion without sacrificing a writer’s grasp of our human need to bear witness: “Some of the bodies were so tiny they looked like punctuation marks, damp little commas, a brief pause between life and death.” She is as unsparing of herself, skewering her own bewilderment and longing for love with a gallant belief in the primacy of truth, in the importance, in memoir, of telling things “the way they are”. On the evidence of this urgent, eloquently fearless book, she is right.
Author: Alexandra Fuller
Number of pages: 258 PP.
The title of Alexandra Fuller’s latest book, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” sounds like that of a sentimental Lifetime television movie, but this clear-eyed chronicle is perhaps one of the best memoirs ever written about divorce. In part this is because it is as much about identity, place, and the struggle to find and lead a meaningful life as it is about the disintegration of a relationship. Deeply introspective, fiercely intelligent, and free of bitterness or self-pity, Fuller’s insights about independence, authenticity, and the delicate line between madness and fevered inspiration will resonate with many.
Fuller, British-born, Africa-raised, and a Wyoming resident for the past two decades, is best known for her debut in autobiography, the best-selling “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.” In it she introduces her readers to her hard-drinking, tough, opinionated, and wildly eccentric but loving family, a clan that farmed and fought brutal wars in Rhodesia in the late 1960s and 70s. Here she revisits that group in exquisitely crafted scenes that bring each character to vivid life.
In prose brimming with energy and feeling, the narrative moves gracefully between the tragic, identity-shaping events in Fuller’s early life in a dangerous, chaotic Africa (she blames herself for the drowning death of her infant sister) and the demise of her 20-year marriage to an American man whom she meets at a polo match in Zambia. The 23-year-old Fuller views the older, “capable and unflappable” Charlie as “both my sanctuary and my savior.” Although he is the least captivating of her characters, Fuller’s passionate descriptions will make readers understand how she fell for him.
After the birth of the first of their three children in the early 1990s, the couple moves to Wyoming, and Fuller leaves Zambia behind for a life that promises to be “good and ordinary and sane,” a situation she longs for. Belief that another person offers a magic ticket to a different kind of life is not a unique motivation for marriage, but it turns out to be misguided for her.
Early on Fuller admits that, “Africa had been my primary relationship for most of my life, defining, sustaining, and unequivocal in a way that no human relationship had ever been.” A routine, middle-class American family life proves uncomfortable for a woman raised in “definite chaos.” Apart from her embrace of motherhood, she feels adrift and purposeless. The American notion that “time is money” puzzles her, as do the family’s mounting financial concerns.
United only by their roles as parents and the habitual grind of family life, the marriage dramatically falters. Fuller, seized with panic and sadness, abandons a stack of failed novels and embarks on her first book about the country from which she has become untethered, an effort that is scooped up by a publisher and greeted by great critical acclaim. “Suddenly,” she writes, in a tone of genuine surprise, “I had a public voice.” Her success further hastens the unraveling of the marriage as does the economic crisis of 2008. Fuller then suffers a brush with madness that she traces to her mother; a brief affair; and a disastrous accident that makes the last few chapters of the book a harrowing read.
While the account of a doomed marriage is nothing new, Fuller’s take on it is unique. She grew up with the very real knowledge that people died of any number of causes: disease, war, accidents. “In the West, it was believed that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa, we had learned no one was immune to capricious tragedy.” There was little time for feeling sorry for oneself, no patience for developing useless strategies to avoid future calamity.
Her divorce is sad, but it isn’t tragic. Fuller mourns, but she’s hopeful, which shows a more nuanced toughness than a bitter appraisal of a failed relationship. “For the first time, I was beginning to see that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable, unapologetic way, she must first possess it.” At its core, “Leaving Before the Rains Come” shows the lengths one woman is willing to go to gain that kind of possession.
January 17, 2015 - 4:59 PM
Article by: SCOTT F. PARKER , Special to the Star Tribune
NONFICTION: Alexandra Fuller’s new memoir traces her divorce against the cultures of Africa and America
“Leaving Before the Rains Come” aces the first test of memoir: putting the reader in good company. Alexandra Fuller writes lively prose — economical, humorous and dense with truth. Her clearheaded voice earns the reader’s trust even as she recounts the irrationalities of her life — especially then. She’s only partly joking when she tells friends that she chose her husband, Charlie, because he “looked good on a horse” when she first saw him playing polo in Zambia. That ironic gap between the woman she describes and the tone of the description is the place much of “Leaving Before the Rains Come” is told from, and it’s a place Fuller inhabits winningly.
It isn’t necessary to have read “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” Fuller’s best-known book, or her other memoirs before coming to this book, but if this is your first encounter with Fuller you’ll likely want to turn to her earlier books, where you can learn more about the delightful characters and African setting you encounter here. She was raised in Zimbabwe, before and after it gained independence, and in Zambia, where her parents live, and much of the book is devoted to recollecting her life in Africa.
From the jump, “Leaving Before the Rains Come” presents Charlie in contrast to her family. He is measured, future-oriented and sensible; the Fullers are pretty much the opposite of those things: a raucous and impractical bunch. Fuller’s father, in particular, is a recurring source of exuberance and memorable advice. Looking through Charlie’s eyes, Fuller finds herself somewhere in between: “He viewed me as a wild version of himself, a Westerner in the raw. But now that he had married me, and I was out of my natural habitat, my plumage was less shiny.”
That contrast, which in Zambia represented escape and safety, comes over the years of marriage and parenthood to feel like a trap. The couple have respectable and outwardly successful American lives in Wyoming — at least before the financial collapse of 2008, when Charlie’s real estate career falters. But regardless of finances, divorce always feels inevitable. The tension of the book has more to do with African and American cultures than with the individuals who personify them. “In the West, it was believed that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa, we had learned no one was immune to capricious tragedy.” On a long enough timeline, the African view is always vindicated, as Fuller and Charlie discover during their preparations for divorce when such a tragedy befalls them. In heartfelt and gripping final chapters, Fuller is pulled in by desperate circumstances. The book’s ironic gap closes, but the steady and fierce narrator remains.
Scott F. Parker’s most recent book is “Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race: Essays.”
The Seattle Times
Monday, February 2, 2015 at 6:04 AM
Memoirist Alexandra Fuller’s latest book is the work of a writer finding real wisdom, as she discovers that her calamitous upbringing gives her little in the way of coping skills when her marriage falls apart.
By Brian Thomas Gallagher
It’s rare that a life can bear more than one, let alone three, memoirs, but such is the power of Alexandra Fuller’s story — and her way of telling it.
In her first book, 2001’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” Fuller wrote of her bruisingly eccentric upbringing in Africa, in the care of (or sometimes at the hands of) boozy British expat parents. It is a charming, electric and touching book. As is her latest, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” which tells the story of her 19-year marriage.
In her early 20s she meets and falls for Charlie Ross, a dashing American rafting guide living in Zambia. Early on, their courtship is an amorous adventure, but after the first flushes of romance (about which Fuller is rather unsentimental), the more thoroughgoing nature of the union settles in.
“He viewed me as a wild version of himself, a Westerner in the raw,” she writes. “But now that he had married me, and I was out of my natural habitat, my plumage was less shiny, my skills less useful, my constant noise less charming. Instead of looking like a survivor of a tough, wondrous life, I looked like a damaged and broken survivor of sordid, violent, and undisciplined excess.”
Across two decades, a move to Wyoming, three children, several books by Fuller and eventual financial calamities, the warp and weft of their life together frays and eventually unravels. Fuller frets, flails and strays as the relationship founders.
“Charlie and I had let the sun set on our anger too many nights, too many months, too many years in a row,” she realizes. “We had brought each other our defenses, not our vulnerabilities; we had attacked one another with our strengths instead of shoring one another up with them; we had allowed old, unrelated wounds to become the battle scars of our marriage. We had been so careless, so arrogant, so heartless, always assuming there would be another day, another chance, another way to fix ourselves, to forgive one another, to see and be seen.”
To understand her situation, Fuller invokes her family history, contending with her fraught genealogical inheritance, including a paternal grandmother who drank herself mad amid the swells of the British aristocracy. “Throat cancer is what finally got her,” recounts Fuller, “the flagons of gin she drank every day accompanied by a perpetual ribbon of cigarettes.”
She finds insight, if not comfort.
“It is the perpetual tragedy of all families: each of us believe our congenital pathologies and singular pains end with us,” she notes. They don’t, of course, Moreover, her mistakes — her parents’ mistakes, her parents’ parents’ mistakes — are not momentary and finite, but a lineage, skeins of dysfunction running down through generations.
Fuller’s intimacy with language ripples off the page. And unlike many memoirs, which often strain for poignancy, the book’s insights are woven in naturally, with the vividness of genuine realizations.
For those who weather difficult childhoods — and Fuller’s was difficult, if also intermittently magical — it’s tempting to view life as a long project of exorcising the effects of those formative days. Her upbringing — so dramatic, so aberrant — can seem both an affliction and a windfall. And what she seems to arrive at fully is that the uneasy suspension of those two understandings is not what one needs to reconcile in order to get on with life, but rather it is life.
Moreover, the yearning for security that brought her to Charlie is a fruitless calling — acutely demonstrated by a harrowing accident late in the book.
“Leaving Before the Rain Comes” is the work of a writer finding real wisdom. Fuller gives herself over, in a more placid and thorough way than she did in her fevered youth, to the idea that “there is no way to order chaos. It’s the fundamental theory at the beginning and end of everything; it’s the ultimate law of nature. There’s no way to win against unpredictability, to suit up completely against accidents.”
San Francisco Chronicle
By Ashley Nelson
When felt her marriage beginning to collapse, she reached for a cocktail of secrecy, frugality and communion. As she writes in “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” her recipe was simple: buy secondhand divorce memoirs online, chug them down quickly and leave them in slightly seedy public places like a “guilty trail of contagion.” Unfortunately, they were no quick fix.
“I had begun to give up on these books at the first mention of a woman collapsing with grief on the kitchen or the bathroom floor. Why always these two rooms? Couldn’t anyone fall over anywhere more comfortable?”
In time, however, the cliches were the things that stuck. “I discovered that women dissolve in these two places for good reason: the kitchen because it is the place from which we have nurtured our soon-to-be devastated families, and the bathroom because it is private.”
Perhaps because the first is fairly self-explanatory, Fuller focuses her attention on the second, more nebulous space, on questions of solitude and selfhood and the sexes. Contemplating divorce, she wonders what it means to be truly alone, self-sustaining. She wonders, too, if women are prepared for this sort of state as much as men are. Married in her early 20s, with three children following, a private, self-contained world of her own now seems equally desirable and unsettling to Fuller. A child of Africa, she finds herself musing on signal flags, especially the one known as Lima. “It meant, 'This ship is quarantined,’” she explains, adding, “I liked the word, , and all the protective cover it implied.”
If anyone were prepared to go it alone, Fuller seems a likely candidate. As she writes in “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood,” her best-selling 2001 memoir about growing up in central Africa during Rhodesia’s merciless civil war, she is not accustomed to being coddled. Raised by free-spirited and frequently drunken British expats, this is a person who has served militiamen tea, shot an FN rifle and seems a little too comfortable around rats. You think she could handle her own checkbook.
And yet, looking back at her family, her country, she sees that nothing really equipped her for such practicalities. Where she came from, women may be loud and they may be opinionated, but the safety was in men — burly, sturdy men like Charlie, her American husband. “For these reasons,” she writes, “it hadn’t seemed rash and fool-hardy to have married him at twenty-three. On the contrary, it seemed as if marrying Charlie would have been a rash and foolhardy decision. My marrying him would mean I’d be all right forever.”
The marriage collapsed along somewhat predictable lines. After years in America, Fuller finds herself longing for Africa’s color, its spontaneity and sense of abandon, however reckless and forbidding it sometimes is. Her new home and her husband seem stifling in comparison, fueled by a never-ending — and ultimately fruitless — need for more. In the end, despite years of hard work, nothing in their adopted state of Wyoming seems more secure for it: not their house, their jobs, their marriage. A decision must be made.
It comes, as these things often do, slowly. We feel Fuller as she is understandably sidelined by trial separations and the occasional good time. At other moments, however, another type of restless undercurrent surfaces — a throat clearing of sorts, as if she is loath to get to the point. Extended sections about how family members and acquaintances dealt with loss generations ago can feel tangential at times, making one wonder if Fuller is afraid of confronting the topic at hand — which is not, in the end, her old landlady back in Africa or even her wayward grandmother, but the person who fathered her children and slept beside her for years and years.
That is not to say that Fuller is oblivious to this predicament — in a more profound way, for her, fear itself the heart of the matter. If she married Charlie in part for a sense of security, divorce effectively eliminates that. Toward the ending, after a particularly jarring incident (to put it mildly), Fuller unravels her feelings in an exquisite meditation on what it means to be alone — on the courage it can inspire, as well as the sometimes undeniable sense of sorrow. Here the fear arises again, but this time she takes it in her hand and smartly wraps it in nothing — no pretty paper, no apologies.
In the final pages, she finds herself visiting her father in Africa. He is giving her his hard-nosed version of a pep talk, reminding her that life isn’t supposed to be easy.
“Easy is just another way of knowing you aren’t doing much in the way of your life,” he tells her. “But you’re doing it.” To which her only reply is, “Sometimes.”
The Washington Post
Alexandra Fuller has written a divorce memoir for people who may not like divorce memoirs — a group that, she confesses, once included herself. It’s a distaste she earned honestly in the years when her own marriage was faltering and she sought solace and advice in secondhand paperback breakup books “that came in the telltale, rippled condition of women on the brink; read in the bath, wept on, or both.” She read these volumes furtively and with “increasing dismay,” abandoning them in the backs of airplane seats and in hotels, “a guilty trail of contagion.” One book disturbed her so much that she “tore it into parts and discarded the fragments in separate gas station garbage bins across South Dakota and Nebraska.”
Fuller’s own divorce memoir, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” should meet no such fate. The book is a deeply felt, beautifully written account of the emotional challenges of forging any kind of relationship — between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, parent and child. It also is a rich portrayal of life in Africa and a raw chronicle about the double-edged sword of independence.
“Leaving Before the Rains Come” is not Fuller’s first memoir, but you need not have read her previous volumes — “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” (2001), “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” (2011) — to be drawn immediately into her story. In 1972, at age 2, the British-born author moved to what was then Rhodesia, and after that country’s civil war moved to Malawi, then Zambia. Throughout Fuller’s childhood, danger — stray bullets, disease and wild animals — lurked everywhere. Three of her siblings died in their youth, one while in Fuller’s care.
Fuller’s cavalier father instilled in his daughter a sense of forthright, if impractical, autonomy: “From the start Dad had been clear that I had to be able to stand on my own two feet. But the specifics of what that meant seemed to elude him — if I could change a flat tire, shoot a gun, and ride a horse, I think he thought it was enough.” Needless to say, it wasn’t.
Early on, Fuller “planned for a life of spinsterhood.” And why not, since any suitable man needed to pass the “endurance test” of her family. “Most of the men would flee a day after arriving, sunburned, alcohol-poisoned, savaged by the dogs, and crippled with stomach cramps.” But one did stay: an American named Charlie Ross, who loved polo and whitewater raftingand whose outdoorsy derring-do was the subject of a magazine story entitled “Charlie Ross: Mr. Adventure. To Fuller, he seemed that perfect mix of edginess and security. “I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquility interspersed with organized adventure,” she writes, imagining their future together as “ ‘Out of Africa’ without the plane crashes, syphilis, and Danish accent.”
It was not to be. After Fuller wilted with malaria while caring for her newborn, the couple decided to move to eastern Idaho. She found herself unable to adjust to an American lifestyle. Then her husband’s real estate business began to falter, and money problems undermined an already crumbling marriage.
So Fuller turned to writing. As a sticky note on her computer reminded her, “You can write your way out of this.” That turned out to be optimistic. She wrote nine novels that were rejected by publishers. She gave birth to two more children. She found her voice in writing memoirs and reporting magazine articles from the edge of violence. (Her 2004 book “Scribbling the Cat” began as a New Yorker article about her travels with an African soldier.)
But none of this could save a marriage that was doomed the moment Fuller left Africa and her eccentric, bullish family. Perhaps she should have seen the signs on her wedding day: She walked down the aisle fevered and drugged in the midst of yet another bout with malaria; drunken choristers vomited in the flowers; the priest warned her, “The first year is hard, and after that it gets worse.”
Despite her hopes to the contrary, Fuller is forced to conclude about two decades later that the priest was right. “What was confusing,” she writes, “is that I had wanted to be saved from the uncertainty and the noise of my childhood, but . . . I hadn’t figured that what had terrified me had also defined me; without the exuberant crazy-in-a-good-way and the disturbing crazy-in-a-bad-way pendulum that had been all I had ever known, I wasn’t sure how to be.”
Fuller is a magnificent, insightful writer. Yet if there’s one flaw here, it’s that her “unfiltered outspokenness,” as she puts it, can at times overshadow the other characters in her story. In these pages, her husband and children remain thin sketches in the multipart drama that is Alexandra Fuller of southern Africa. She is the grand dame of a rich, tumultuous love story sunk by its outsize, fiercely independent heroine. Her final line — “I was enough” — feels both brave and lonely.
The Dallas Morning News
30 January 2015
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, (2001) tells that harrowing story, as does her gentler prequel-sequel,Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. (2011).
She left Africa to live in Wyoming with her American husband, Charlie Ross, and their children.
Her thoughtful new book slips back and forth between Wyoming and Zambia, where her older sister, Vanessa, and their parents still live. Africa is in the background of whatever she does. Cheap talk time means she keeps connected to Zambia to this day, largely through weekly phone calls.
Often wildly funny, Leaving Before the Rains Come tells the bittersweet story of Bobo and Charlie’s marriage — what brought them together and what seemed likely to tear them apart. It also allows fans of the earlier memoirs to revisit the wonderful characters who make up Bobo’s lively, unfettered family. (While it is not necessary to read the earlier memoirs to appreciate this one, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would not want to.)
Bobo’s history is always memorable, not always pleasant. It is one where siblings died, her mother went mad for a while, everyone drank to excess and her resourceful father kept managing to start over in different countries, at different occupations.
“Lacking practice,” she writes, “most people report making poor decisions while under the influence of alcohol, but in our family we made almost no major decisions sober.”
She is a vivid storyteller, trained in the art by her colorful mother and laconic father. Theirs was a noisy world. The one she shared with Charlie in Wyoming was by contrast “habitually hushed.”
Bobo was attracted to Charlie when she first met him at a Zambian polo club. He was someone she could depend on. She had been raised with chaos but at some point opted for a more predictable future. Charlie seemed to promise that, while still having a sense of adventure.
“The problem with most people,” Bobo’s dad told her, “is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.” Charlie, on the other hand, seemed to know how to live — playing polo and guiding whitewater rafting and canoeing around the world. He was almost 33 and she 22 when they first met. Considering the other choices, he looked very good to her. He wanted to protect her from chaos.
“But deep down,” she writes, “I always knew there is no way to order chaos.”
On their first date, they were attacked by a mother elephant, but Charlie handled that. Since Bobo had never canoed before, he helped her maneuver the dangerous Zambezi River. On their wedding day, the bride came down with malaria.
They lived for a time near Victoria Falls before moving to the States, where Charlie went into real estate. The financial crisis caused their lifestyle to be endangered in a way she did not understand. Leaving Before the Rains Come is her attempt to understand who she is now. As she writes, “What life had taught me is that where we come from is a point — not the defining point — just a point. It’s where we are that really counts.”
Bobo excels at re-creating her African background and bringing her family back to life in an endlessly entertaining way. When she researches her husband’s family and discovers that they suffered the pain of having a child disappear, it is less interesting. Colorful wins out every time over orderly and hushed.
She describes her attempts to hold her marriage together by studying self-help books and later, by making a success of her writing, though that success cuts both ways.
Near the end of the book, life intervenes when Charlie is injured in a riding accident, and she must try to save him. Only then do we learn what will happen to them as a couple.
Ought one to hunker down and wait for the healing rains to come? Neither in Wyoming nor in Zambia is it always a good idea.
Anne Morris, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Austin.
JANUARY 22, 2015
When 22-year-old Alexandra (Bo) Fuller met her husband, Charlie Ross, in Zambia, he seemed the perfect partner: good-looking, adventurous but grounded, all-American. Swept off her feet, she followed him to a new life in Wyoming. They had children. And horses. A car each. A weekend cabin.
From the outside, they seemed like the dream couple. Under the surface, though, the deep differences in their backgrounds began to corrode the relationship. As 2008 unfolded, Charlie's real estate business collapsed—and with it a credit-fueled lifestyle. The financial lies they were living also exposed emotional lies. They began to extricate themselves from the partnership.
In Leaving Before the Rains Come, Fuller puts her failed marriage under the microscope. The result is a searing account of what many women feel but few dare express. Talking from her home in Wyoming, Fuller describes how her childhood was shaped by the twin poles of the Rhodesian civil war and the operatic chaos of her parents' lives, why women are so reluctant to write about their private lives, and how the financial crisis of 2008 swept away the illusions she and her husband had built their marriage on.
This must have been a painful book to write. What drove you?
Most writers have a story they can't stop telling. For me, it's this idea of what it is to belong to a place. What happens when you are shaped, as completely as I was, by a land to which you now don't belong. Being a white southern African, who saw the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, the sense of being an outsider was absolutely instilled in my limbic system.
Everything I write, whether it's for a magazine assignment or a book, is also about how institutionalized violence leaks into the home. I'm thinking particularly of apartheid, or the results of genocide on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
And when I looked at my own marriage, which ended up being a life-and-death scenario, both literally and metaphorically, I found there was no good writing about it. Being a writer but also having been raised the way I was, I tend to turn to books for answers. But there were none.
I don't just mean books about divorce but about the ways in which we bring our pathology forward into our relationships and hope that the relationship will fix it. Or we allow ourselves to behave in unfulfilled and broken ways rather than in conscious celebration. Marriage is the trickiest and most basic contract that we have.
There's also a lot of dishonesty and a mild kind of violence, even in calm-seeming relationships. We tend to put each other in a straitjacket so that we don't have to grow. The most basic human impulse is toward entropy and laziness. The less we have to do to grow spiritually, the more likely we are to do it. We'll undergo agonizingly boring, unstimulating relationships in order not to grow. And we'll expect that of our neighbors and friends. Doing the stimulating, hard, courageous work of love requires a lot of a marriage.
This is the story of two young people falling in love then discovering they have drastically different characters. Give us a psychological profile of the combatants.
I was coming out of an exuberant, war-torn childhood, with eccentric, careless, passionate parents whose weather system was drama. We dealt very well and coherently with drama in our family—and also in our culture. But we're a bit at a loss when things are quiet. The man I fell in love with, I fell in love with because of his seeming calm. He came from the United States, the leader of the world. "If anything goes wrong, don't worry—they'll send in the troops." [Laughs] It seemed as if he was coming out of a place of certainty and safety. Yet what he did for his living at that time was adventure.
So from my perspective, I was marrying a safe idea of adventure. I wasn't prepared to give up the beauty and wonder of being southern African for a sort of dreariness. But I was, frankly, exhausted from the traumas of war and the nonstop incidents and accidents where I was raised. I appealed to Charlie's sense of adventure, and he appealed to my need for calm. And we were both wildly mistaken.
You write, "My parents considered pandemonium as an important ingredient of everyday life." Give us a glimpse of the chaos.
The example I give in the book is phoning home and Mum saying that the excitement this week was a party with some friends who are Eastern Europeans, with too many consonants in their name and scary quantities of vodka and fake caviar, and Dad getting, as my parents would euphemistically say, "overexcited," and refusing to get in the car when it was time to leave. So my mother drove off with him on the roof! [Laughs]
These people are my parents and grandparents nine times over, and they're behaving in this hilariously exuberant way. My mother is an infamously bad driver. So there she is roaring around the streets of Lusaka at heaven knows what time of night, with my father on the roof of the car, banging away because she's driving on the wrong side of the road! Mum is shrieking with laughter. She can hardly tell the story. "I just thought your father was singing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' or doing Tchaikovsky's cannons." [Laughs].
You say you "worshipped" your father. Do you think your adoration of your father complicated your marriage?
My father's been described as the John Wayne of Zambia, which gives the real John Wayne a run for his money. He's so stoic, he's so wise, he's so surprising. He's absolutely infamous for his extravagances. Anyone else would seem small by comparison. Of course, I wasn't trying to make a life with my father. That would be cringe-worthy. But when you've been raised by someone like that, you have an expectation that the man you're with can match that.
There's a wonderful description of your family's mealtime rituals in Zimbabwe. Set a place for us at the table.
My father was very insistent that we come to dinner, to the captain's table, properly dressed, which in reality just meant we could not be grimy. We had to be bathed and at least not in ragged clothes. My father was raised in a naval family. I use the metaphor of the navy and ships and the language of signal flags throughout the books. Your job is to entertain each other: That was really the demand of my father.
From my mother, I learned the alchemy of storytelling. Watching her tell my father stories, turning the grist of her day into these bright, golden threads, was really instructive about how to tell the story. And this wonderful idea, which was deep in my father, that as long as you showed up, present and correct for dinner, stiff upper lip and straightened spine, and knew how to behave just badly enough to be entertaining but not so badly you courted disgrace, then he had done his job. It was a wonderful lesson to get when we were young. The only crime in our family was to be boring.
The book also takes the reader back to the Rhodesian civil war. How much did that conflict affect your childhood?
People have rehashed it as a war against communism. But this was a war about race. There were at most a hundred thousand white people who had access to the votes, the schools, the hospitals, and most importantly, the land. Then you had about six million black Zimbabweans, who were in Tribal Trust Lands in these small, not very fertile, communal areas. Their access to the vote was severely limited. They had bad schools and bad hospitals. One of the things that was essential learning from my childhood was that being white made you intrinsically superior, and it was OK to lord it over six million blacks.
But the biggest effect was that war was the weather system of my youth. The war was everywhere. And what came with that was death and the insanity of war, which leaks on even after a cease-fire has been declared. I think the hardest thing it did was to make childhood innocence, those precious years until you're about 11 or 12, not exist for us. War makes you cunning and a survivor. It can make you very damaged or very resilient. But it never leaves you.
You spend the rest of your life trying to redress what happened to you in those first years, even though it's not your fault. But your body doesn't know that, your limbic system doesn't know that. You're always waiting for the next trauma to happen—or drama. You're constantly on watch. My sister, Vanessa, lost the ability to be around instability. She had used up all her resources in that department. And we both looked for men to marry who would protect us against dangers that actually didn't exist anymore.
How do you feel when you read about Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe today?
I went back to Zimbabwe for a National Geographic piece a couple of years ago, and I think it's very obvious that you cannot have a calm, productive, democratic future when the foundation is violence and inequality and war. And I think that the half-life of the Rhodesian war is proving horribly long.
Robert Mugabe is a product of that war. I know this is an unpopular thing to say—people want to separate out Mugabe as a distinct piece of evil that sprung up out of nowhere. But there's no way he would have been able to carry on as long as he has if he couldn't get so many people to act as if the war happened yesterday. When you go to Zimbabwe, the rhetoric and the behavior of Mugabe and his cronies make it seem as if the Rhodesian war was still going on.
What's astonishing to me is that there have always been women primarily, but also men, who put their necks on the line to stand up for a robust kind of truth, and a robust kind of justice, which acknowledges where we came from. For me the definition of grace is to be prepared for where you're going. The future. Your children.
You and your husband were also victims of the financial crash. Talk about that.
I think victims is a strong word. We were really perpetrators in the crash. The kind of greed where for very little work you could make a lot of money. It was called cheap money. But that didn't make sense to me. Those words shouldn't be in a sentence together. My very African instinct was that you don't have credit. My parents can't get credit in Zambia. It doesn't exist in that way. It certainly didn't exist in my family.
So to be in a culture where there's cheap money that allows you to borrow against a kind of financial bubble felt to me, even at the time, so confusing I couldn't understand it. I'd also married right out of college. I'd never even balanced a checkbook. Charlie would show me numbers, and they didn't make sense to me. I was financially completely illiterate. And that really put this huge strain on our marriage because, as a southern African, I didn't trust that. I felt emotionally and instinctively that we were doing the wrong thing. We were living beyond our means. We had a custom-built home and a car each and a getaway cabin, and all this land we'd bought as investments. We traveled a lot, and we weren't paying attention to the fact that it wasn't endless. But deep down, I kept thinking: This feels crazy.
You are now a successful, critically acclaimed author. But it wasn't always like that, was it?
[Laughs] No, I was one of the most rejected women in the country, it's sad to say. Not only was I rejected by every major publishing house in this country, I was even fired by my agent, who said, "You maybe have some teeny-weeny vestige of talent, but you don't have a story."
I wrote really dreadful novels, I think that's fair to say. But I wrote out of desperation. I'd been told relationships are "work." The basic message is this whole lie that what will make you happy is getting married. But once you get married, you're supposed to be miserable. [Laughs] I kept thinking: I can write my way out of this. Surely if I put this all on paper, I can somehow make it better. I can put words on the page, and the words will make sense of everything, and it'll be OK. I think a lot of writers will recognize that impulse. So I wrote and had toddlers and worked part-time and woke up at 4 a.m. to write. [Laughs] It was realOliver Twist stuff.
How much did writing this book enable you to start a new life?
In terms of my health and ability to move on with clarity, this book has been a lifesaver. And I hope it is for others. Not just for women, although I think it's more common for women to end up in the situation I was in: financially illiterate, in a relationship where they think that their white knight showed up, but it turned out not to be true; where they pick their heads up out of the diaper pail and realize they absolutely cannot carry on. I look back at the last years of the marriage and say, Wow, that was the definition of insanity. I just kept doing the same thing over and over, thinking I could make the future different.
How have the characters you describe, particularly your ex-husband and your children, reacted to the book?
I'm not sure that my ex-husband has read it. Or that he ever will. I'm very grateful to him, actually. I have three children. I learned a lot in that relationship. I think this is traumatic for him, and for me there's a line about what I can say about him either in the book or aloud, because he should have his own privacy.
As a woman writer of memoir, your fear tends to be private. I'm not saying this is true of all women or of all men. But men tend to be in the public eye, and women tend to be in the private eye. And one of the most taboo things you can do is write about the private. Because that is mostly the domain of women, there's this awful silence at worst, or euphemism at best, around what happens in marriage.
The place I finally came to—and this is very new for me—is that it's not my job to care what people think of what I've written. I'm a memoirist. That's just a part of who I am. Nobody asked Ernest Hemingway what his wives thought about his books, even though he often used them as fodder. Same with David Sedaris. People don't challenge him on how his family feels about the work he does. People think: Oh, he's a man, he has a voice.
But they get riled up when a woman has the authority to say, I'm not asking permission, I'm just going to say the truth of what happened to me and how it is. It's important to me that ethically and morally I protect my children, so I didn't expose anything I thought was terribly private. But it's imperative that someone writes about these confines honestly. Because I certainly couldn't find that when I went to seek out literature about marriage.
The closest was Tolstoy. Some of his novellas and short stories deal with the suffocation of marriage. If he'd been a woman writing in 2014, he'd have been crucified. [Laughs] Women are supposed to soldier on and look great and do their jobs and raise their children, and be fabulous wives and sexy and funny and interesting and supportive. We're still in the last century in many ways. So I want to be an example for other women and daughters.
The relationship that survives is your love affair with Africa. What do you love about it?
The thing I absolutely loved about Zambia growing up was its trees. They were like an umbilical pull, back to something ancient. Now Zambia is being deforested at the second highest rate per capita in the world, second only to Indonesia. It's like watching your beloved have a hideous, unstoppable disease. That love for the wildness and freedom that I had, growing up, will never change. But the country itself is changing. It's very easy, and a mistake, to romanticize a place as it was in your childhood. It's not like that anymore.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk.
LEAVING BEFORE THE RAINS COME
The Penguin Press, 272 pages
By DEBRA GWARTNEY/Special to The Oregonian
If any writer has material aplenty for three entire book-length memoirs, it's Alexandra Fuller.
In her terrific 2003 memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," Fuller introduced the reader to her scrappy, gritty childhood self, Bobo, and to a simmering volcano of a family, father, mother, and older sister, Van. The setting is Southern Africa, Zimbabwe (when the country was called Rhodesia) and, later, Malawi and Zambia.
The circumstances are violent, dangerous — the Fullers live hand-to-mouth on a rented farm while war rages around them. Three of Bobo's siblings die; the mother of the family, Nicola, is often soused, distant and prone to rage, eventually developing signs of mental illness. The father is jolly, caring, but usually only about half tuned-in.
And yet, despite their jumbled existence, this is a family the reader comes to admire. Such fortitude, such wherewithal. A devotion to each other as ferocious as the landscape that surrounds them. In "Dogs," Fuller's biting imagery and sharp writing make it nearly impossible to look away.
In 2012, Fuller published a sequel to the first memoir, this one called "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness." As this title suggests, the tone of this one is conciliatory, an attempt to better understand and forgive a mother who lived under unimaginable pressures and hardships, and who comes off as less-than-stable in the initial book.
Now Fuller has come out with the third volume in what feels less like a trilogy and more like a layer cake, with each book adroitly deepening and complicating a complex African childhood and the portrait of a family caught up in the tensions of colonization and yet oddly caught between the colonizers and the colonized themselves.
"Leaving Before the Rains Come," with its gentler title, is just that — gentle. It's hard to imagine quite "getting" the book without the context of Fuller's first award-winning and bestselling memoir, but even on its own, the book is transporting. Now middle-aged, Fuller is ready to take on the role of reflective narrator, less interested in being right there in the middle of woe and endurance but instead achieving a convincing arm's-length distance from herself and her own past in order to glean understanding.
"By all logic and by any standards, my parents should have spun away from one another years ago," she writes of her mother and father, realizing that they coped as a couple largely because they "put no more weight on despair than they did on joy. The way they did love was also the way they did tragedy, as if it was all an inevitable part of the gift of being alive."
The book delves into this model of a hard-won domestic life, serving as context of the end of her own marriage to Charlie, the American tour guide she fell for, hard, when she met him in Zambia, the man who convinced her to move to America, to Wyoming to be specific, to live and raise three children.
But the impending divorce turns out to be the least interesting dimension of "Leaving Before the Rains Come." It's the visit home, to Africa, the long talks with her ailing and yet still quippy, delightful father, the stingingly honest recollections of who she was as a child and who she's become as a woman, and a striking lyricism in the writing that bring this third memoir to full, realized brilliance.
Debra Gwartney recently reviewed "The Ogallala Road" by Julene Bair for The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Alexandra Fuller has written a memoir about her tangled family history, falling in love, and the breakdown of her marriage.
The memoir of divorce is something of a cliché: a writer’s post-trauma, woe-is-me catharsis; the gory details from an unhappy marriage dumped on the page. It is written specifically for the divorced or lovelorn, who internalize the author’s emotional collapse and ensuing self-help prescriptions.
Even when written well—with a fair amount of objectivity and respect for the former spouse—the divorce memoir is still too often cringeworthy, discomfiting, and formulaic.
But Alexandra Fuller pulls it off in her latest book ,an account of the collapse of her marriage weaved into vignettes of her complicated upbringing in colonial South Africa and displaced housewife-dom in the snow-capped mountains of Idaho and Wyoming, where she moved with her now ex-husband in her early 20s.
Fuller knew well the trappings of the break-up memoir before writing her own. She’d purchased dozens of them secondhand, seeking advice when her own marriage was floundering, and was, she writes, “distressed to find that many came in the telltale, rippled condition of women on the brink; read in the bath, wept upon, or both.”
She found them all tediously prescriptive—“like alcoholic memoirs and their twelve steps to freedom and recovery”—and quickly tired of the invariable “woman collapsing with grief on the kitchen or bathroom.”
Today, she is less critical of the sob stories and variations on the hackneyed tours that end with a new man and renewed faith in love.
“I love what Adrienne Rich said: ‘When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,’” Fuller tells me, quoting the late, celebrated feminist writer, adding that she’s “grateful for Elizabeth Gilbert and for Cheryl Strayed, even though their books weren’t my map.”
Fuller is garrulous and warm, as passionate and quick-witted in person as she is in her writing. She has traveled to New York City for an appearance at Barnes & Noble, which was cancelled due to a blizzard that would shut down the city’s transportation later that night.
None of it fazes Fuller, who still lives in Wyoming and is content getting stuck in, drinking beer at an Irish pub in Manhattan all afternoon. At 45, Fuller is ageless and disarmingly beautiful, with a ruddy, Wyoming-winter complexion, fierce free spirit, salubrious appetite for alcohol, and dry, self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Don’t try reining me in,” she says, ordering a second beer. “The last man who tried it fell off a horse.” She’s referring to her ex-husband, Charlie Ross, an American, who suffered a near-fatal accident while playing polo a year before their 20-year marriage ended in 2012. (They had three children, now aged 21, 17, and 9.)
“I’m unconventional and eccentric and talk things out, and it seemed that the person I married—maybe in reaction—got quieter and more conventional over time,” she says. “It felt as if we were putting each other in a straitjacket.”
It would be a memoir about death—not divorce—that resonated most with Fuller as she observed her marriage’s dissolution.
“Oddly what came closest for me was Joan Didion’s , because for me the end of a marriage felt like a death. And it was really a death of self for me,” she says. “Both of you are attacking the monster and neither one of you can come to an agreement on how to kill it, because what you’re really saying to each other is, I can’t be authentic around you.”
is Fuller’s third memoir, and to an extent it revisits the subjects of her first two books. (2001) was a love story, she says, toher early childhood as a white girl in what was then war-torn Rhodesia, while(2011) was a love story toher eccentric, politically incorrect family, specifically her mother.
In this latest memoir, Fuller manages todescribe aspects of her background afresh.
Born in England, Fuller moved to Rhodesia in 1972 when she was two, then to Malawi after the Rhodesian civil war ended, finally settling in Zambia. She grew up surrounded by chaos, danger, tragedy, and adventure. AIDS and malaria were rampant (Fuller came down with the latter on her wedding day, and the disease frequently infected her household).
Fuller learned from an early age to spot a landmine and wield her father’s rifle. Her parents lost three young children, one of whom drowned under Fuller’s watch.
Fuller was 23 when she married Ross, who was outdoorsy—skilled at whitewater rafting and polo—and seemingly fearless. She saw in him someone who could match her derring-do while also being a calming, stabilizing force after years of reveling in chaos with her family.
When I ask if she and her ex-husband agreed politically, she shakes her head. “Politically we were just…” She makes an explosion sound, implying they most certainly did not. “But I think so few of us have to put a gun behind our ideology. We can sit here in this country and say whatever we want without consequences. There are real consequences when women speak out. It’s really dangerous and it takes real courage. We are still speaking out against a white male majority. Forget the glass ceiling. We haven’t even broken the glass floor!”
As for her own marriage, “I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquility interspersed with organized adventure,” she writes. She envisioned their life being like “‘Out of Africa’ without the plane crashes, syphilis, and Danish accent.”
It didn’t go as planned. “Everyone says marriage is hard work, but they don’t tell you that actually being yourself and respecting yourself is hard work,” she says.
If they didn’t say it outright, friends and in-laws, she felt, thought that she was lucky to be married and living in the U.S., given where she’d come from. She was enraged when NPR’s Scott Simon suggested the same to her during a recent interview.
“He said that he’d been to a lot of war zones and that a lot of people would be grateful to get out of a war zone and sell real-estate. It was so misogynistic. First of all I was 11 when I got out of a war zone, too young to sell real estate. Second of all my husband was the one who ended up selling real estate and he never lived in a war zone,” she says.
Fuller was even more enraged that NPR edited out this part of their interview. “At one point he implied, ‘Wasn’t your husband just providing for the family?’ I was so flummoxed by the question that what I didn’t say to him was, ‘So was I, actually.’ I had equal say in how the culture of our family went forward.”
Fuller thinks that “one of the things we’re starting to talk about as female writers and mothers is that my first job is to protect my children, no matter how cavalier I sound. They don’t need to be privy to my private life with their father. That’s unfair and that’s out of this book. Save it for the shrink. Yes my book is self-involved. It’s a memoir, and how many more memoirs do we need about a white female divorcee? But I think the job of a memoir, if it’s written well, is to make it universal. If it resonates with you, groovy. If it doesn’t that’s fine too. It isn’t divorce.”
Writing, for her, is far from easy. She likes to be appreciated for her work—and what it takes to produce it. “It’s human to want support, to want people to recognize that I didn’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘Thank God for me, I just got a divorce and want something to write about.’ I’m a working writer, this is my job. So it matters to me that it’s good. I sweat over every word. I don’t just vomit this stuff up. It’s agony. The only thing that comes close is childbirth, except it’s like being in labor for eighteen months.”
Fuller is now in a new relationship: she has been seeing Wendell Field, an artist based in Jackson Hole, for eight months. They met when she bought one of his paintings. “I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Whoever painted that sees the world the way I do.’” Would she ever marry again? “Absolutely.”
Not that Fuller considers her first marriage a failure. Finishing her beer, she smiles. “The only thing is that it didn’t work out the way you were told it was supposed to work out,” she says. “It worked out.”