Author Q&A: Alexandra Fuller

  • September 29, 2011

Questions and answers with the author of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

“In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Alexandra Fuller returns to Africa and to her unforgettable family.  At the heart of this family, and central to the lifeblood of her latest story, is Fuller’s iconically courageous mother, Nicola (or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa as she sometimes prefers to be known).”

Q&A with Alexandra Fuller for Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

I think it would be wonderful to have a “Tree of Forgetfulness.” Do you have one in Wyoming?  What have you left for it to forget or for your ancestors to handle?

The closest I have come to a Tree of Forgetfulness was a recent visit to the Wounded Knee massacre site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation not in Wyoming, but in South Dakota.  In many ways, Wounded Knee is not a place that enables forgetting, but rather that enables remembering.  I think just having written about my parents’ lives it was useful for me to take time in this adopted land of mine, to acknowledge and learn who has been displaced, hurt, dismissed to make room for me.  Forgetting and remembering are after all opposite sides of the same coin.

More along the lines of Forgetfulness, in Grand Teton National Park, near where I live, there is a wonderful lake in the shadow of the Teton Mountains.  My youngest daughter and I often hike up to Phelps Lake and picnic in the summer.  At the end of every picnic, we have made a habit of rinsing ourselves off in the glacier-cold, mountain water and saying, “Thank you water for taking the sore out of my heart.”  And then we give names to our soreness (Cecily is five, so her petitions are especially pure and breath-taking).

It strikes me that memoirs are a sort of invitation to voyeurism, “come have a look at us, come see how we lived, etc.”  Was there something particular about this story that you wanted the reader to see?  What made you write up your parents this way?

Memoirs that read voyeuristically are what I call “drunk-moirs.”  They are an insistence at showing the reader every tarnished, broken thing about a person or family for the first 250 pages and then there is resolution and a 12-step program (or enlightenment) in the last 50 pages.  The way I have written it, my parents’ story does not, I hope, read that way.  After all, their lives are not (as Mum would say) “The Jerry Springer Show.”  My parents are entitled to their truly private lives, and there is much about both of them that I have kept – and will keep – private.

That being said, I wanted the reader to see how my parents had come from a couple of very British settlers of a certain era (who believed that any other culture in the world other than theirs was simply a failed attempt at being British) to their latter-day realization that “Africa is for Africans.”  Having spilled so much of their sweat and blood on its soils my parents accept that they are Africans, at last.  My mother is the third generation on her father’s side of the family to be on the continent and my father has lived in East and Southern Africa for five decades.  After all the conflict and turmoil they endured being “British in Africa” there is something very grounding, and very reassuring, about knowing that they are now truly home, in Zambia, and that they are literally walking on the earth in which they expect their bones to be buried one day.

The Le Creuset pots are a metaphor for the entire story, so heavy and impractical yet your mother is unable to give them up and proudly takes them everywhere.  I wondered what they represented.  It would have been so much easier to leave them behind.  Are the pots her British/Scottish self? Or are the pots just pots?

I think that like my mother, the Le Creuset pots are both gorgeous (bright orange!) and yet incredibly durable.  They also represented – literally and metaphorically – my mother’s more-or-less deep commitment to nurturing.  She was never a pampering kind of mother, but to the best of her ability she tried to nourish us.  In other words, she was a very African mother – profoundly aware that there are limitations to a country’s resources, to one’s entitlement to those resources and to one’s ability to hold onto the gift of life.

Your family moved from country to country.  What do they call themselves?  How about you?  Does it matter?  In your story, roots play the “thing we left behind” role yet they keep coming up.  Is this part of the “immigrant” experience?  In a good or bad way?

My mother and father are Zambian, and that decision to become Zambian residents, and to truly plant their passion and what is left of their lives into this central African earth is one of the major resolutions in COCKTAIL HOUR.

I have long ago given up trying to give myself a label.  Yes, I recognize that I have certain characteristics which are British (my sense of humor seems peculiarly English) or African (my soul-attachment to earth) or female (I have a feminist’s loyalty to women) but I am also an American citizen and have lived here for nearly 18 years.  In the end, it seems most important to me that all people pledge allegiance to the Earth.  Imagine that world!  It would require, of course, for most of us to lose the greater parts of our ego and that is exactly what mindless patriotism can’t allow.  To say, “My country is the greatest country on earth, and we are the greatest people” implies that everyone else’s country and everyone else is lesser.  In practice, that belief can be terribly damaging and dangerous.  If one feels oneself superior to everyone else, one will inevitably have to start a war to maintain that myth.  And I am against war. As I write in COCKTAIL HOUR: “No one starts a war warning that everyone involved will lose their innocence; that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after ceasefires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed.  No one starts a war that way, but they should.  It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission; even a good war will kill anyone old enough to die”

Your parents essentially remain tourists, squatting in lovely cottages whenever the cottages are available. You never touch on relationships with the natives or even too many details about individual places.  Like so many “immigrants” what they really seem to want is everything they already had but in another place.  Do you think this is true of your parents?


Sometimes, it seemed like a little too much tea and crumpets over cruelty.  You mention murdered and kidnapped aborigines; murdered and imprisoned Kenyans and South Africans but it all seems to have occurred on the other side of the fence.  The only tragedies that touch your family are the personal ones.  How was it possible to keep all the other awfulness at bay?

You don’t keep all the other awfulness at bay and that is a major theme of this book.  Of course, you can attempt – as the Happy Valley crowd did, or as my mother’s family seemed to have done for much of her childhood – to keep the oppression and injustice out of your personal life, but it will come calling.  By the book’s end, my parents have lost several farms, three children and my mother has lost her mind.  I suppose you could dismiss that as “Personal loss” but for me, there is a direct connection between my parents’ early mindlessness and the terrible price they paid.  Too many of us, of course, are not called to pay for our ignorance, our cruelty, our bigotry.  I believe my parents did: “In retrospect of course, everyone should have anticipated this outcome.  We should have seen that a story begun with such one-sided, unconscious joviality – jewel-colored liquors and Portuguese wine on a rain-washed Rhodesian October morning – would end less than a decade later in defeat and heartbreak.  But in the glow of love, in the heat of battle, in the cushioned denial of the present, how few have the wisdom to look forward with unclouded hindsight.  Not my parents, certainly.  Not most of us.  But most of us also don’t pay so dearly for our prejudices, our passions, our mistakes.  Lots of places, you can harbor the most ridiculous, the most ruining, the most intolerant beliefs and be hurt by nothing more than your own thoughts.”

Maybe moving constantly is a way to experience more, to escape the difficulty and responsibility of citizenship in any one place.  Or maybe it’s harder to belong to two places. Does either situation apply to your parents?

To begin with, as I write, my parents moved to keep up with the tide of whites fleeing black African rule, “What Mum doesn’t say, but what she means is that she wanted to stay in White-ruled Africa.  In some ways, she doesn’t need to say it. Most white Africans either left the continent or receded farther and farther south as African countries in the north gained their independence.  The other thing Mum cannot bring herself to say – at least not in so many words – is that her determination to stay in White-ruled Africa was the costliest decision of her life.  The worst kind of costly; life and death kind of costly.”

I am not sure what kind of difficulty my parents escaped – none that I can think of.  But their ultimate decision to be Zambian has indeed brought them a deep kind of peace, at last, although it is also a very Zambian kind of piece with its snakes-in-the-bedroom, and dramas.

What happened to the farm that your parents bought from the Italian gentleman near the border of Mozambique?

Most of it now belongs to a Zimbabwean politician who lives several hours away and who has let it lie fallow.  I write in the book about my return in 2002 to the farm and its current condition.  “I found the essential shape of our old farm unchanged although it was no longer recognizable as the mostly-unprofitable commercial enterprise my parents ran during the war.  The avenue of flamboyant trees still ran from the Mazonwe road up to the apricot-peachy house, but the road had washed away.  The fences had collapsed and instead of crops or cattle, scrubby bush had begun to encroach.  Where my mother had kept a neat, thatched dairy, there was only a tangle of lantana thicket.  I drove as far as I could on a new, improvised trail that bumped over old contours in what was once a tobacco field.  Finally I left the car by the culvert where the cobra used to live and walked up to the house.

There were no recent tracks on the road and when I reached it, the apricot-peachy house appeared abandoned; its windows broken, sections of asbestos sheeting missing from the roof and grey patches of mold spreading over the walls.  I knocked at the front door (still engrained with scratches from the long-ago claws of all our dogs) and a young man came to the door. He was shirtless in the October heat and looked as if he had just woken up.  I apologized for the intrusion, introduced myself and asked the young man if I might sit on the veranda for a moment to look at the view.”

The young man seemed to consider my request for a while then he shrugged and said the view did not belong to him.  “Look at it if you want,” he said.  But before I could thank him, he shut the door and I was left alone.  So I sat on the veranda and looked at that deadly, beautiful view over Robandi – the red-dusted boulders, the blue-grey kopjes, the bush-smoked Himalayas – across the valley to John Parodi’s Italian-inspired farm with its avenues of Mediterranean cypresses, its Ionic columns and its brick-paved courtyard.

What made your mother decide to go on living under native rule?  What changed her mind?

Over-riding everything is my mother’s love of their African soil (first Kenya, then Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and finally Zambia): “People often ask why my parents haven’t left Africa.  Simply put they have been possessed by this land.  Land is my mother’s love affair and it is my father’s religion.  When he walks from the camp under the Tree of Forgetfulness to the river and back again, he is pacing a lifelong, sacred commitment to all soil learned at childhood.  “Bring me my Bow of burning gold,” my father is singing again.  Now he pauses and turns to my mother. “How does it go, Tub?”

“Bring me my Arrows of desire,” Mum sings. “Bring me my Spear. O clouds unfold!”

“That’s right,” Dad says.

“Bring me my Chariot of fire!” they sing together.

Both my parents want to be buried on their farm in Zambia when the time comes.  Accordingly, Dad has picked a baobab tree above the fish ponds for the sight of his grave. “Just wrap me in a bit of sorry cloth and put me deep enough that Mum’s bloody dogs don’t dig me up,” he says.

Mum has picked a tree within shouting distance of my father’s.  “On the other hand,” she says.  “I expect a big, elaborate funeral.  Sing the Halleluiah Chorus, wear large, expensive hats and fling yourself into the grave after me.”

Your mother speaks of her love for the African sun, for the light but it is not particular to any country.  Does she actually have a favorite country?  Why?

“When I was a child, my mother presented Kenya to me as a place of such forbidding perfection that its flawlessness shattered in the telling and what I was left holding onto were shards of equatorial light. Even the hinted-at, sub-surface revolutionary tactics of the Mau Mau fighters who were agitating for independence from British rule were part of the romance.  Kenya, in my mother’s telling, was a land of such sepia-photographic loveliness, such fecundity, such fulfillment that it was worth dying for if you were white (if you were black and you wanted to die for Kenya, that was another matter altogether.  Then you were an unpleasant, uppity, Kikuyu anarchist).  My mother made it clear that leaving Kenya was the first great shock of her life.  “I never thought I would leave,” she says.  “I had such a magical childhood, filled with such magical people.”

Why do you think she sacrificed so much for the African sun?  Do you understand it?

It was not the sun that my mother sacrificed so much for, it was the land.  Perhaps it is a baffling concept to Westerners, but most southern Africans understand it.  Among my mother’s favorite lines of prose are those from Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, “Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator.  Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men.  Destroy it and man is destroyed.

Do you believe your family was freer in Africa?

I think they were free to be their full eccentric, spirited selves in a way that they would not have been able to in England, but that “freedom” came at an enormous cost.  To begin with, in Rhodesia they had to fight a war for “freedom” but like all wars fought for freedom, it was hardly what they were truly taking up arms for. “We accepted the war, as one of the prices that had to be paid for Our Freedom, although it was a funny sort of Freedom which didn’t include being able to say what you wanted about the Rhodesian government, or being able to write books that were critical of the government.  And for the majority of the country, Freedom did not include access to public restrooms, the sidewalks, the best schools and hospitals, decent farming land, or the right to vote.  Looking back it now seems completely clear to me that when a government talks about “fighting for Freedom” almost every Freedom you can imagine disappears for ordinary people and expands limitlessly for a handful of people in power.”

No other place in the world seems to hold the same lure.  Africa – come empty my pockets into yours.  Did they feel a little like pioneers?  Are they happy pioneers?  Is the fish farm finally their last place?  If so, is it because it is successful or because of their age or because of the tree?

Because they have paid the price of what it is to be Zambian – going on bended knee to the headman of the village in which they wish to farm – they have at last been allowed the use of land.  They are not allowed to own it, mind (which is a Western concept, no such concept exists in Zambia), but they are free to farm it and bury their bones in it:  “So like some character in a fairy story on an ever-more impossible quest, my father returned to the chief again and again with offerings, with explanations and with calculations.  Eighteen times he went back to the boma and waited under the mango tree, usually all through the burning middle of the day for the chief to see him.  Eighteen times the chief accepted my father’s gifts and heard my father’s story and at the end of eighteen times, my father finally said, “Chief Sikongo, it’s not just for me alone.  I wouldn’t ask to do all this work without my wife.  She is a very talented farmer.”  Dad scratched his calf with the toe of his shoe, “A very strong lady.”

The chief looked up at my father and his lips twitched.  He nodded.  “Alright, I have seen,” he said.  There was a pause and then the chief opened his hands and pointed downstream, “There is one piece of land you can have below the bridge, no-one is using that land – there is no road, there are no buildings.  I think it will work for your scheme.”  Dad blinked at the chief, almost not daring to believe it.  Then he remembered himself and gave a little bow. “Zikomo kwambili, Chief Sikongo,” he said.”

Neither you nor your sister seemed to have inherited the same love of place.  Why do you think this is true or untrue?

I can’t speak for my sister, but I have a deep, almost umbilical love for the place of my childhood.  I would go so far as to say that I write about southern and central Africa so much, as an aching kind of way to return to it:  “We’re having this conversation on a late-afternoon walk back from the Zambezi River to the Tree of Forgetfulness. The dogs surge ahead of us, rooting out snake smells and scaring up locusts the size of small pigeons.  “So yes,” Mum agrees, “I am mad.  We all know that, but it’s not a problem.  It’s nothing Cairo Chemist can’t put right.”  Suddenly, she puts her binoculars to her eyes with a little gasp of excitement and says, “Look, a paradise flycatcher.  How wonderful!  What a glorious tail!  Did you see it?”  But she doesn’t offer me her binoculars.  “Off he goes. There look at him – swoop, swoop.”  Mum inhales deeply, a soft smile on her lips. “Ah, I love the evenings,” she says.  “Such a reward after the daily toil, isn’t it?”

And she’s right.  The evenings here on the north bank of the Zambezi River are tremulously beautiful.  A shaky ribbon of blue smoke from a nearby village’s cooking fire hangs over the farm.  Emerald-spotted doves are calling, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, my relatives are dead and my heart goes dum-dum-dum.”  Frogs are bellowing from the causeway.  The air boils with beetles and cicadas, mosquitoes and tsetse flies.  Egrets, white against the grey-pink sky are floating upriver to roost in the winterthorn trees in the middle of Dad’s bananas. (“I won’t let him chop down those trees,” Mum says, “The birds love them.”)

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