This week memoirist Alexandra Fuller publishes Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she returns to sub-Saharan Africa and the story of her unforgettable family that she first introduced to readers ten years ago in her stunning memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book The New Yorker called “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring…hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling.” Below is an essay she wrote upon the publication of that book.
I am African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.
My mother—hard-living, glamorous, intemperate, intelligent, racist—introduced my siblings and me to Shakespeare before we could walk (my sister maintains that her existing horror of reading stems from having Troilus and Cressida recited to her when she was still in utero). My father—taciturn and capable—sat outside on hot summer nights with a glass of brandy and sang us Bizet’s Carmen and explained to us the story of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons of the piece (crackling on vinyl records over the throb of a diesel generator) blasted into the heat-thick night and Dad raised his brandy to the sky. “Bloody marvelous,” he shouted, and far away beyond the river the hyenas shrieked their reply. Vanessa, my sister, taught me the survival skill of self- reliance. We occasionally pottered away the long hours of a yellow summer afternoon pasting old magazine pictures of the British royal family into scrapbooks or holding pretend (if very proper) tea parties for the dogs.
We were poor and we had a knack for picking bad-luck patches of land on which to farm, but (and this was supposedly to our advantage) we were of very particular British stock. My maternal grandmother maintained that we held a better pedigree than the English queen (who is German, after all, while we were part highland Scot), and my mother frequently reminded my sister and me that we were “well bred.” “Well bred” ensured buckled noses, high-arched feet, a predisposition to madness, and an innate knowledge that it is more polite to say “napkin” than “serviette.” “Well bred” assumed a working knowledge of the construction of a decent Irish coffee, the appropriate handling of difficult horses, and a pathological love of dogs. “Well bred” meant, most specifically,an innate belief in our own unquestioning superiority. This archaic way of thinking coupled with Africa’s tumultuous history may make for wonderful literature, but it also made for chaotic living.
By the time I came to Rhodesia in 1972, Africa—Kenya, in particular—had been home to three generations of my family. With the exception of a great-uncle who had shocked his relations and scandalized the European community by going to live with the Nandi people of Kenya (and who became the first person to document their language in the written form), my people were the sort of European stock who brandished their culture before them like some devastating scythe.
In spite of this, Africa—as an idea—dawned on me gradually. I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me. As the land and people around me began to make sense, I was like a snake itching off the excess of an extra skin in the dry season and finding myself milky-eyed, and dangerously blind, in the rarefied, free air of the new order in Africa. From Ghana to Mozambique to Angola, independence had rippled down Africa’s spine, and now it had come to us—to Rhodesia. Whatever happened next, I knew that I had to be either a part of this new world—a working, active, feature of it—or forever apart from it. I could either celebrate the new opportunity we as Africans had been given at independence, at the birth of Zimbabwe, or forever lament the loss of Empire. I would either fight for a new world of political equality or become a servant to the regimes that had assumed the strangling mantle of colonialism.
When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with an American (he had come to Zambia as a river guide), and I went with him to live in North America after our marriage and the birth of our first child. I mourned Africa daily (I still do) with something like a physical ache even while I luxuriated in the relative security and peace of a Rocky Mountain life. And it was here, in the high bright air of a Wyoming winter, that the need to write my life became overwhelming for me.
At the start, I tried to write my life as fiction. I wrote eight or nine spectacularly unsuccessful novels. I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth. I wrote and rewrote the characters of my childhood and I wrote the landscape I loved over and over again until the smells of the place burned on my palate. But the novels still felt like lies because in them I had tried to soften the voices of the whites I had known and to write into full life the voices of the black men, women, and children who had been silenced by years of oppression. These works of fiction, I eventually realized, were the writings of a woman who was scared to look the world in the face, and if there was one thing Africa had taught me, it was to shout above the sting of a dry-season wind loud enough to be heard from one end of a farm to another.
I made the decision, then, to write my life exactly as it had been: passionate, wonderful, troubled, oppressive, chaotic, beautiful. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the story that was born of that decision. It is not a political story or the story of Empire. It is the story of how one African came to terms with her family’s troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming