Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wide awake

Writer Alexandra Fuller operates on emotional full throttle

Express Staff Writer

Tickets for Alexandra Fuller’s lecture are $15 for members of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and $25 for non-members. For series tickets and workshop information, call 726-9491 or visit
Photo by Ian Murphy

    Alexandra Fuller is not a woman who makes small talk easy. She doesn’t indulge misuse of language, is impatient with anyone unfamiliar with her work, and probably, just guessing here, ninnies.
    Her latest memoir, “Falling,” about her divorce and sharing three children with her ex-husband, shows she doesn’t apply many of these pointed truths any less to herself than she does to others, their systems, their logic, their motives.
    As you can see from her statements below, no one can accuse her of not taking one for the world. Her adamant life portrayals fill several books, her prose making the uncomfortable palatable. And while it can seem that her mission borders on martyrdom, and she is deadly serious when she is deadly serious, she is not humorless.
    She is the author of award-winning non-fiction books that started with a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2002, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” which chronicled her growing up in Africa and includes, “Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier.” She frequently contributes to The New Yorker, National Geographic, Vogue and the New York Times Book Review. She will kick off the Sun Valley Center for the Arts Lecture Series at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at The Liberty Theatre in Hailey. She will also teach a memoir-writing workshop through The Center, “Tales from the Motherland: How Africa Gave Me a Voice, and America Gave Me the Freedom to Use it,” on Sept. 28 and 29.
    “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” is another unrelenting, beautiful prosaic and funny look at life, her mother in particular. Amazon describes it as “a story of survival and war, love and madness, loyalty and forgiveness, … an intimate exploration of Fuller’s parents and of the price of being possessed by Africa’s uncompromising, fertile, death-dealing land.”
    It seems intensity has a familiar place in Fuller. “Unflinching” and “captivating” are often chosen to describe her narratives. Perhaps her intolerance for the unprepared comes from being so blisteringly determined to engulf herself in her subjects, while also being so willing to look deeper into things that most people flinch from.
     Devotees will notice her evolution to empathy, but not complete surrender. She still fights against the oppression of privilege while still figuring out how to live in a world that so contradicts itself and its values.
IME: You are a celebrated novelist, and also a prominent voice for South Africa, what’s the current message from there to Americans?:
I have written only nonfiction, and am less a prominent voice for South Africa, than maybe a voice out of the southern and central part of the continent. I suppose that’s only important to note if you know I made a deliberate decision to write nonfiction rather than novels because it was important to me that readers know I was writing the truth. Also, I was raised north of the Limpopo and north of the Zambezi, not in South Africa. I only really visited South Africa in any meaningful way when, as a writer, I was assigned to do a story there.
    It’s always been important—not for me, but for the vast experience of Africans—to point out that being Zimbabwean, or Zambian, is not at all the same as being, say, South African, or Tanzanian or Angolan. And maybe that’s the current message from my part of the world to North America. We’re not South Africa, or Darfur, or Rwanda (or name your current disaster) and then everyone else. We’re 52 or 53 distinct countries with literally thousands of different cultures and languages and experiences. And we’re not a failed attempt at being developed and industrialized—we’re all our own unique expression of the human experience. Africa has manifested some of the last centuries’ most hideous atrocities (apartheid, genocide, child soldiers) and some of its most transcendent acts of moral and physical courage (Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).

You moved to a deceptively difficult region and a fairly remote part of it in Wyoming. What made you start mining its sadness for stories rather than just live there and raise children?
    The short answer to that question is: I’m awake. The long answer is: It seems short-sighted and morally corrupt to care only for one’s own children and not for the society in which they are being raised. In any case, I don’t “mine” sadness. Rather, my experience is that I am discovered by stories that keep me awake at night and then I have to tell them. Another way of saying that is that I daily, hourly, momentto-moment do my utmost to be as deeply connected to the world as is possible, and of course that means being washed over constantly with joy and grief and sorrow and gratitude. It’s a gift and a curse. Yes, I don’t just get to doze off and look the other way when politically, socially or environmentally troubling situations arise. On the other hand, I know—truly know—my own mind and soul because I have had to examine them. And I am constantly surprised by the joy implicit in sadness. In any case, there is no life without death, no love without loss, no joy without suffering.
    And I have a question of my own for yours. Would you have asked this question of a man? (J.L. answers: “Absolutely, parenting is a lot of responsibility done right. Working passionately for a cause, more so. Doing both, especially work that is as emotionally taxing as yours is beyond my comprehension. I would and have asked men if writing and adventuring changed when they had children.”)

Your path is mentally exhaustive. Do you ever feel like scotching it all and doing something with more levity?
    No. First of all, it would be beyond exhausting to do something other than fulfill one’s contract with the universe, and I think we all have one. For good reason, most of us of are terrified of it, because it requires us to court eviction from the tribe, eschew cultural and political mores, challenge the status quo, notice injustice and do something about it. But I think if you sleepwalk through your life, not being as awake and aware and present as possible—not doing, in other words, what you were sent to do by whatever entity you believe in—then it is truly painful, truly exhausting. I am a storyteller, not an anesthesiologist. My job is not to put people professionally and safely to sleep, but to wake them up. If it’s a little tiring, then so be it.
    I imagine it’s pretty exhausting being an anesthesiologist, too. Or, for that matter, I imagine it’s exhausting being a teacher, a gardener, a sweatshop worker, a laborer in an abattoir. But for those of us lucky enough to have the luxury of doing what it is that fulfills us, it’s also our soul’s food. I feel incredibly grateful and in wonder that I get to do this as “work.” And there is plenty of levity in my work. In fact, humor is one of the things that makes our lives not only bearable but wondrous. The other thing, of course, is wonder.

You haven’t replaced one form for another in your journalistic scope. Is there a reason for that? Is there a form that you favor over another or that you feel garners more of an audience?
    I don’t write to garner more of anything, least of all an audience. To do that would be to lose the dignity of all our intelligences. Certain stories seem to embody me, and I feel compelled to tell them. Oddly, as you suggest, I seem to be drawn to stories in which the human spirit— through almost unimaginable acts of forgiveness and resilience—overcomes intolerance, tragedy, injustice, and is that most rare and inspiring of things which is something close to the universal soul. I don’t really favor one form over the other. Magazine articles feel like a yoga pose—tight and challenging. Books feel more like a marathon—impossible and spirit-breaking. Both require the surrender of ego and the death of self.

What will you be speaking about when you come to Sun Valley?
    I suppose I always end up speaking about being awake and about the ways in which all our pet “issues,” whether it be the environment or gender equality or wildfires or debt reduction, are inextricably connected. It’s as John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Does your diligence for other people’s children leave you with much time for your own?
    My respect and love for my own children are part of my due diligence to other children. It’s a kind of self-defeating narcissism to believe that one’s own children must be the center of anyone’s universe. In any case, this obsession with scheduling children and making every moment with them “count” not only cripples parents, but it also doesn’t allow children the space and challenges that are required to launch. I parent with profound respect and gratitude for the privilege, and with the deeply held knowledge that I am also required to be more than a parent on this earth. If I forget to pack lunch, or provide cupcakes, my kids know better than to freak out. They know they can forage. They are learning to cook. They have figured out bus schedules and bike paths. They know I adore them but they don’t need to be shown it through my exhaustive attention to them, but rather through my exuberant joy in their own achievements as sovereign beings.

What gets you out of bed every day?
    Well, given I don’t believe in God in the conventional sense, it isn’t God exactly, but it is a sense that we each must fulfill our contract with the universe. I mean, what were the odds of being born now, here, in this manifestation, with this accidental miracle of biology and geography? With this particular set of talents and pathologies? With these challenges and tragedies? I get out of bed because I believe in some ways we must always ask not, “Why me?” or “Why now?” but rather, “Why not me, now?” And then, it’s like that wonderful quote from “Le Petit Prince”: “Quand on a termine sa toilette du matin, il faut fair soigneusement la toilette de la planete.” (When you have finished tending to yourself in the morning, you must then tend to the planet.)

How do you handle your critics and non-believers?
    I don’t. How they handle themselves is their job, not mine.

Fill up on Fuller
Tickets for Alexandra Fuller’s lecture are $15 for members of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and $25 for non-members.
For series tickets and workshop information, contact The Center at 726-9491 or


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