When I first read “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” Alexandra Fuller’s riveting 2001 memoir of growing up white and fiercely racist in Africa in the 1970s and ’80s, I could barely stomach some of the scenes. Such as the one in which Fuller’s pregnant mother, enraged that black-majority rule has come to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), charges madly on horseback at a group of African war refugees camping on her raggedy farm, trying to run down women and children, screaming “You fucking kaffirs!” Or the time before, when her mother and father, hopeful that Ian Smith’s white regime will squash the black freedom fighters, teach their two cute blond daughters how to fire an Uzi submachine gun at a target shaped like a cross between an African and a baboon.
It didn’t seem enough that Fuller laid such ugly behavior bare without a word of condemnation or introspection. That she left to the reader’s judgment, disgust and whatever understanding one was willing to extend to her mother, a bred-in-the-bone racist but also an outrageous, Shakespeare-loving, self-dramatizing British eccentric.
In her new memoir, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” (Penguin, 235 pages), Fuller tries to make nice with her mother, losing the frank tone and vivid child’s-eye revelations that made “Dogs” so compelling. Clearly, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa,” as Fuller’s mother likes to call herself with an air of grandiosity, felt scorned by “Dogs.” Apparently the daughter now feels that she ought to publicly make it up to her, pointing beyond her racism, without losing sight of it, to her taste for art and literature and to the devastating personal tragedies she suffered (the loss of three children as infants), resulting in nervous breakdowns and drinking — accounts from “Dogs” now rewritten to make the mother a vessel for our sympathies.
Fuller has described “Cocktail Hour” as a love letter to her mother. With its jittery time line and nervous attitude of admiration, you can sense the author’s straining to make you laugh over her young mother’s wacky antics or pity her for her misfortunes. The book is weaker in every respect than the ferocious “Dogs.” Its chief interest lies in exposing the ends of Nicola Fuller’s life story unseen until now: her colonial childhood in Kenya, where she fell in love with the African landscape and developed her contempt for the people, and her old age in Zambia, running a fish farm with her husband, on land wheedled from a tribal chief, and forced to accept her diminished position in independent black Africa.
Fuller has also written two acclaimed non-fiction portraits, “Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier” and “The Legend of Colton H. Bryant,” set in Wyoming, where she has lived for nearly two decades with her American husband. She was recently in Atlanta to speak at the Margaret Mitchell House. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
ArtsATL: Throughout your new memoir, your mother and others in your family refer to “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” as “that Awful Book,” which becomes a kind of running joke but also comes off as a bit of a mea culpa from you. You’ve said that after your mother read your first book, she told you that you didn’t know anything about her. What was it that most upset her about her portrayal? Did it damage your relationship with her?
Alexandra Fuller: Her major objection was that she came across as a racist and alcoholic. You know — and? Within club rules you can have this sort of behavior; you’re in your comfort zone. When the private behavior is exposed, then the mirror is held up, and it’s damning.
The relationship between mother and daughter is complicated. I’m a lot like my mother. I look like her. I have her fierceness. In our family, she was the champion of literature and art. Then there was this breach, and she disappeared into madness and drinking. And I grew up and, as an adolescent, started to explore the outside world. I saw that the culture I’d been raised in was a violent one. Then there was the day of reckoning, as there is for all writers, to address where they’re from in order to figure out where they’re going. These are the forces and accidents; this is what made me.
ArtsATL: You wrote several unpublished novels before you launched into your first memoir. Were you writing the same story in your fiction? If so, why didn’t it work?
I think you don’t know until you’ve done it [published a book] what it feels like to have public scrutiny and public ownership of the story. I’m grateful I didn’t know. I’m a dangerously honest person. People come up to me and ask me how I can be so honest. So you think most people must be lying their pants off most of the time. People will ask, “What caused you to strip so naked?” The truthful answer is, it was a mistake. But then I came to like the feeling of being naked.
ArtsATL: American reviewers skirt around the issue of race in both your memoirs. They write about your mother as a kind of romantic heroine in Africa, or as a pioneer woman toughing it out under hard circumstances, or about your family’s adventures among snakes and scorpions. Why do you think they avoid the subject of your parents’ racism, which is central to your story?
Fuller: People are very queasy around race in this country. We have coded conversations about race. A lot of the reaction to Obama has been race-driven.
ArtsATL: Do you have an audience in Africa? What has been the reaction of black Africans to your book?
Fuller: In South Africa the books sell well, but the reading community tends to be white. That has to do with apartheid. The black middle class is a growing phenomenon. These are the people that read books, but we tend to read the books that reflect our experiences. I don’t know if the book is being sold in Zimbabwe.
I think the important thing is that these books are the first attempt to talk about what happened in the bush war, including biological and chemical warfare [used by Rhodesian and South African military forces]. Very little has been written about that except for a few dry accounts. Some evidence has come out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. There are rural people for whom the war was a catastrophic event. Farmers in Zimbabwe were plowing up bones for years. Atrocities were committed on both sides. So it’s important that these books become part of the bigger conversation. I’ve written just one splinter of the story. This is a part of our violent, gorgeous shared past. Others must write their stories. All the broken pieces together would make a beautiful mosaic. We need the glue of truth to hold it together.
ArtsATL: In “Cocktail Hour” you write that when your mother recalls her childhood in Kenya, she talks about riding her horse and the beautiful equatorial light, as if she’s starring in a romantic movie, making no mention of the violence that underpins colonialism, as if that’s a different movie. But as adults, she and your father deliberately choose to live in Rhodesia in the early 1970s, when Ian Smith exerts white rule over the black majority. Rhodesia is shunned as a rogue state by the international community. Suddenly the two movies collide — the white romance of Africa and the violent suppression of blacks — and your parents have roles in both. They taught you and your sister, as little girls, how to shoot to kill black intruders. What drove them to become willing actors in this violence? Why didn’t they leave, like some other white farmers?
Fuller: They had no money. If my father had come into an inheritance after my grandfather died, things might have turned out very differently. Also, you have to realize, the violence didn’t just suddenly explode one day. You live in a place of hope, and the propaganda they [Smith’s government] feed you is that everything is going to be fine. We choose to believe that because we’re so fearful of change.
Also, my mother would have seen it as cowardice to leave. To hold motherhood and the protection of her children up above everything else would be completely foreign to her. That’s a very Western idea. Children were raised communally. It’s also hard to translate what land means to her. Land is my mother’s passion. To her it’s sacred. It’s worth fighting for and dying for. Do I think my mother’s fight was right? No, I don’t.