Alexandra Fuller will answer your most pressing questions right away. ¶ Yes, her mother still lives in Africa. ¶ And yes, that unique mother, now a grandmother of nine, is as glamorous and feisty and strong-willed as ever. ¶ Fuller also offers that her mother has just come through a painful stomach operation – with minimal anesthetic – in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia and the nearest place of any size to her parents’ rural African fish and banana farm.
“There’s Granny,” said Fuller, laughing ruefully at the thought. “Awake through abdomen surgery, and joking about it!”
“Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” Fuller’s memoir of life in Africa with her parents, is the February selection of The Buffalo News Book Club. She shared glimpses of her life story – and that of her unforgettable family – on the phone from her home in Wyoming.
Fuller was born in England in 1969 but lived most of her life in Africa. “Cocktail Hour” is her second memoir. Her first memoir, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” was a prize-winning best-seller after its release in 2001.
Now, readers who enjoy Fuller’s writing also will have a chance to hear her speak in person, when she appears in early March as part of Just Buffalo’s Babel literary series. Fuller’s talk will take place at 8 p.m. March 7 in Kleinhans Music Hall.
Fuller, whose voice carries a British accent mellowed by her time in Africa and the American West, admitted that she is not entirely sure whether this will be her first time speaking in Buffalo – although she thinks it is.
“Isn’t this awful?” asked Fuller. “I say that because, over a decade, things get physically blurry; you go places you don’t think you’ve been.
“I’ve been other places in upstate New York, but not Buffalo. I’m very excited.”
On one of her previous trips through the upstate region, Fuller said, she got a chance to see Niagara Falls, from the Canadian side.
Did it remind her of Africa’s famous Victoria Falls, reputedly one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world?
Fuller pauses, trying to remember.
“It was a thousand years ago,” the author said, at last, of her visit to the African waterfall. “Victoria Falls was still really, really wild back then. I gather Victoria Falls is very much more developed now.
“That’s the unfortunate way humans are – we can’t leave natural things alone, without needing to put a T-shirt shop in front of it.”
Fuller’s writing, for those who have not yet experienced it, comes as a bracing, sobering, thought-provoking jolt of energy.
In “Cocktail Hour,” she relates with bluntness and humor the story of her unusual family: her strong and proud Scottish-born mother; her well-born English father, son of a commodore in the British Navy; her siblings, four of them in total, only one of whom lived to reach adulthood – her sister Vanessa, who today lives in Africa with her husband and family of six children.
Fuller’s parents, Nicola and Tim, met in Kenya, and began their marriage and family in central Africa. (“Nicola Fuller of Central Africa!” became the signature introduction that Fuller’s mother would use over the years with one and all.)
The way her parents saw it, Fuller explains in her memoirs, they were “well-bred” Scottish-English people trying to organize and make successful farming operations in an African countryside that was still wild and untamed, unpredictable and full of treacherous, shifting beauty. Fuller makes no bones about what she calls her mother’s sometimes “racist” tendencies, in “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.”
After dispiriting setbacks, including the loss of a child, the couple tried moving to England – which is where Fuller was born, in 1969.
But Nicola and her husband soon decided that the only place they could truly live the way they wanted was Africa – despite its starkness, its harshness, its brutality.
The beauty of the continent, and its sense of adventure and possibility, made up for those things, Fuller writes in “Cocktail Hour.”
“The worst thing you can be called in the part of Africa I come from,” said Fuller, “is boring.”
The family moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then Malawi and other places, before settling in Zambia.
Along the way, the Fullers lost three children to early death (one to drowning in a shallow pool, rendered simply and terrifyingly in both of Fuller’s memoirs); they lost possessions, money, animals they loved – particularly dogs and horses, the peculiar passion of Nicola Fuller and her clan.
“People want happy stories. Happy ever after,” said Fuller, of her description of these events in her books. “But there’s hardly ever resolution in life. There’s enormous amounts of loose ends.”
With each move and each new vista in the African wilderness, the Fullers were seeking land – and less tangible things, their daughter said. Things like liberty, and solitude, and a farm they could call their own.
“I think it’s always been a bit of a love triangle,” said Fuller. “My mother’s always been in love with land, and my father’s always been in love with her.”
In “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” Fuller told what she called the story of her “African childhood.”
The story in “Cocktail Hour” reaches back further than that – in part because her mother was upset about the focus of the first memoir, Fuller said.
“It’s funny, you write the book and then it’s only a few years later that you realize what it’s about,” mused Fuller, of her first memoir. “I wrote this memoir a decade ago, and ... one of my mother’s objections to that book was, ‘You never asked me about who I am!’ ”
“ ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight’ was a memoir, [but] it wasn’t about my mother,” Fuller said. “In it, she’s just sort of a terrible mother. But, as a woman in your 40s, [now it seems like] she’s a wonderful mother. By your 40s, you’ve lost that arrogance of youth. You’ve made mistakes, you’ve hurt people.
“This is really a story about that.”
Fuller, who was married for 20 years to Charlie, an American river guide she met in Africa, has three children of her own. She said she gets back to Africa to visit her parents in Zambia several times a year. She and Charlie are now divorced, Fuller said.
Fuller said she loves Africa deeply – and sometimes even considers moving back there, to live in the place that still feels like home in many ways.
“A piece of me is still African,” she said.
But the United States feels like home, too, Fuller said. And in this country, which she also loves, she realizes the value of certain rights and privileges that she said people who live all their lives here might not fully appreciate.
“That place gave me my voice,” Fuller said of Africa. “But this country gave me my ability to use my voice. People don’t really understand that, I don’t think.”
Later, she adds this:
“I feel at home here because it’s the place where I live. I’ve made friends here, I love the mountains here. There’s a lot about this country that I value.
“I think about it every day.”
Fuller has no regrets about writing about her mother in such unvarnished ways: about what Fuller calls Nicola’s drunken episodes, her mental and emotional breakdowns, her tragic loss of children, her tough mothering style.
“She’s not a monster,” said Fuller of her mother. “We just have this very sanitized version of what a mother should be like.”
Nicola was “angry” after the memoirs came out, her daughter said.
But, she said, her kind of family – and her kind of homeland – is one where stories get told, and reacted to, and then life goes on.
“You have to really love someone to write about them honestly,” Fuller said, “and to know that they will forgive you.”
And, Fuller said, more often than not, readers end up telling her that they see reflections of their own families – their own mothers – in Nicola Fuller.
“People often say, ‘I had a mother like this, or an aunt, or a grandmother,’ ” said Fuller. “So we aren’t as far apart as we think. We really transcend our differences.
“Everyone’s got a mother. She may not be like my mother. But we do share that.”
Alexandra Fuller’s publishers have supplied The Buffalo News Book Club with multiple copies of her latest memoir, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” to give away to interested Book Club readers.
To be considered for a copy of the book, drop a line to the Book Club staff. Tell us why you’d like to receive a copy. We’ll pick a few names to get copies by mail.
To reach us, write via regular mail to The Buffalo News, Book Club/Features Dept., P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Babel Series
Alexandra Fuller will discuss her work as part of the Just Buffalo Babel series at 8 p.m. March 7 in Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony Circle.
A question-and-answer session and book-signing will follow the program.
Tickets are $35; $25 with a Buffalo & Erie County library card; $10 for students; call 832-5400 or visit www.justbuffalo.org.