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A Fuller story of Africa

Stewart Oksenhorn
Alexandra Fuller
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ASPEN Alexandra Fuller has a stack of novels she has written about Africa. All are unpublished, which is just the status their author says the books merit. “They were awful,” the 37-year-old Fuller said. “The kind of stuff that’s already been written about Africa, the ‘Out of Africa’ rubbish. I kept reading these things thinking, this is what people want. They were the myth of Africa, the loveliness of it, without the reality.”Fuller had the means to express a truer version of Africa. Born in England, Fuller moved to Africa with her family when she was 3. She spent her childhood on farms and ranches in southwestern Africa – in Malawi, Zambia, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She grew up amid the segregation, the corruption and dysfunction, and the shortages of nearly all resources that marked African reality. She was raised with the war for independence that transformed Rhodesia into Zimbabwe in front of her eyes.Hearing her memoirsFuller appears Wednesday in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s final Winter Words event (5:30 p.m., Given Institute) not on the strength of her failed novels, but for the memoirs that followed. For her 2001 debut, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” Fuller revisited her childhood in Africa, from the guns to the animals to her three siblings who died of disease. The book, in more than a dozen translations, was a New York Times notable book, and earned the BookSense Non-fiction Book of the Year award. Fuller returned to the setting for 2004’s “Scribbling the Cat,” a reflection on her visit, some years later, to Africa, and her travels there with a former Rhodesian army soldier.The two books document a decidedly unromantic picture of those regions, free of mythologizing. Hunger and thirst hang constantly over existence – even for the white, relatively privileged Fuller family. Even apart from economic issues, the divide between blacks and whites is stark, as if they were occupants of different planets. And the distance between the shambolic Africa and the superefficient Western world is equally huge: Fuller writes of the spontaneous villages that emerge around multicar accidents in Africa; with days and days before the road is cleared, prostitutes, traders and thieves gather to take advantage of the trapped motorists.

Fuller says her take on Africa is a sharp departure from the norm. Over years, a strain of literature cast the continent in a certain light.”They got used to this particular style – writing that always had a witch doctor, a drunk person and a nasty district officer,” she said. “These things got very entrenched in African literature.”So predominant were such portraits that when Rhodesia’s Dambudzo Marechera wrote the 1978 short story collection “The House of Hunger,” an honest account of African life, the effect, says Fuller, was “shocking.” “He quoted Shakespeare on the one hand, and he also wrote about white men beating prostitutes,” said Fuller. “It’s such anger and violence, and without the happy, smiling African in it. He talks about how their rights were violated.”A well of affectionIn Fuller’s observations and memories, there is also a well of affection for Africa. In “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” she tells of a multiday hunt for wild cattle. Fuller – or Bobo, as everyone has called her since childhood – becomes urgently ill. After days of vomiting and diarrhea, she finally holds some food down. Still, she writes, “My bones are so sharp and thin against the sleeping bag that they hurt me and I must cover my hip bones with my hands. I make a vow never to leave Africa.”Fuller did leave Africa; for 13 years she has resided in Jackson, Wyo. Living so far from Africa, and so removed from the realities of her early years, have only nailed down just how much Africa has shaped her perspective. In particular, she says, it was the land itself – the way it is used and perceived – that remains the central influence.

“My first love, really, was land, and people who love land,” she said by phone. “I was absolutely homesick for years.”She now uses that passion to defend her surroundings in Wyoming and to critique American land-use policies, especially in the Rocky Mountains. A recent issue of The New Yorker included Fuller’s essay on how natural-gas exploration in Sublette County, in western Wyoming, had upended the region with methamphetamine use and physical scarring of the terrain.”I think I realized really recently – and it’s a peculiar thing to say, because few people in this country have this experience anymore – we’re eating through our wild lands,” she said. “We have incredible lack of foresight, and carelessness.”Fuller counts herself among those “in mourning” over the decimation of the West. She says that when natural-gas exploration began, Wyoming residents were assured of a relatively low impact, with vast spaces between wells. The reality she sees now is “one well next to the other next to the other.” She read an account of 22 antelope being killed in a single incident with a truck: “How do you kill 22 antelope with one semi?” she wondered, outraged.But, as with Africa, Fuller feels blessed to have such a place to write about.”How could I have gotten so lucky to have pieces of Africa, and pieces of Wyoming, to write about?” she said. “You just don’t get more inspiring than that.”

‘I don’t belong’Fuller says that she no longer feels African. “I feel I don’t belong anywhere,” she said, noting that the book she is working on is not about Africa. But in addition to her appearance today, Fuller will return to Aspen this summer to participate in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s African-themed Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. The festival, under the theme “Africa: The Origin of Stories,” is set for June 24-28, and features writers from Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya.Fuller says the range of African writings is too broad for narrow categorization; “There are as many different kinds of writing about Africa as there are people,” she said. But she has an inkling of why the festival refers to Africa as “the origin of stories.””I think it’s about how, not very long ago, a few thousand years ago, we were all in Africa, and we walked out of the forest and into the savanna, and that’s where we all came from,” she said. “And we’re still writing that story.”Writers scheduled to appear in the Summer Words Literary Festival are Leila Aboulela, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thion’o and Binyavanga Wainaina.Readers looking for writings on Africa might start with two recent books Fuller mentioned favorably: “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,” a novel by American Peter Orner, a former Peace Corps worker in Namibia; and “The Old Way,” by American Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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