Memoir of an African Childhood Draws Critical -- and Bookseller -- Raves

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Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (Random House) -- a vivid and often heartbreaking memoir by a daughter of white farmers who moved from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Malawi to Zambia -- has been drawing the sort of praise from reviewers and booksellers that first-time authors dream of.

The title was a Book Sense 76 Top Ten selection for January/February 2002. In nominating Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Elly Smith of Madison Park Bookstore in Seattle, Washington, said: "This is the witty, sad, and powerful story of a young white girl caught in the web of the Rhodesian Civil War. I am amazed at her survival skills, the family’s constant movement of locality, an alcoholic mother, and much more. It is one of those books where you find yourself saying: ‘I must reread this.’"

The New Yorker wrote of Fuller, "(A)lready she has a distinctive voice, by turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy, and soaring."

It’s all the more surprising, then, to learn that it took only six weeks for Alexandra Fuller to write this remarkable book.

Six weeks and nine years, that is.

The nine years were spent at work on unpublished fictional versions of her African experience, Fuller said recently by telephone from Seattle, during a book tour.

"For nine years, I wrote around and around and around it," the author recalled. But those fiction drafts, done mostly in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (her home for eight years), "just didn’t work," she said, though she submitted them to "every publisher in America."

Yet Fuller persisted: "I had to write the story out of my system. It felt like it was blocking up everything else I could think of to do. Because so much of it was so painful, I think, for all of us."

Alexandra and her older sister had three other siblings, all of whom died. "I felt like I owed it, in an odd way, to my siblings," Fuller said, "to get the story out there -- and to other people who don’t have a voice. Because this is just one story, of millions and millions like it."

At last, after nine years, Fuller said, "I had one of those three-o’clock-in-the-morning epiphanies, where I thought, ‘You know I just need to tell the truth, I need to get the true story out of me. Then, maybe I can write more successfully, because I won’t feel like I’m constantly trying to find a way to tell the story."

Even then, she said, her first nonfiction attempts were unsatisfactory: "I still was trying to, I think, explain and defend, and justify. And when I finally just sat down and decided, ‘You know I’m not even going to do that, I’m just going to tell the story’ -- it took me about six weeks to write the thing, which I did in the winter of ’99."

Fuller, child of a mother who was a "tremendous" reader, has been putting words on paper all her life, she said: "I’ve always written. It didn’t occur to me that I had a choice." Her husband and others have been equally matter-of-fact in giving unstinting support to her efforts, she said, "because I’m miserable if I’m not writing. So with every fresh rejection -- and there were many -- I’d say, ‘Right, that’s it, I really am going to quit writing’; then after a week, I’d creep back down to my office, and before anyone could stop me, there I was at it again."

Among those who encouraged her attempts at fiction, said Fuller, was her mother: "She read quite a lot of what I had written, and loved it." And how did her mother react to her very candid memoir (which takes its title from an A.P. Herbert line: "Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight, For mother will be there")?

"I think initially she probably felt betrayed," Fuller said. "You know, she’s the sort of central character in the book; she felt like I’d sort of told the whole world everything about her. And I suppose I have, but -- it’s not as if it was a secret…. I mean, anyone who knew her, knew all these things have happened. But now she’s come to terms with it."

And Fuller, having come to terms in prose with her own youthful experience, will soon return to the continent where she lived it. "When I went back [to Africa] three times last year," she said, "that was my cue that it was probably about time to move home. I’ll be moving back, for good, in December."

Fuller, her husband, and their nine-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, will settle in Tanzania. She looks forward to her children experiencing the place that shaped her. "I would be so surprised," she said, "if they don’t grow to love Africa the way I do. Almost everyone I know who’s gone there loves it with a passion. Very few people I know go out there and don’t feel that it’s somehow become a part of their soul."

Once back in Africa, Fuller will turn in earnest to a new piece of writing -- a work about which she’ll say nothing but "no comment" (other than to reveal that it’s nonfiction). "Having been rejected so thoroughly," she explained, "I’m loath to say that I’m working on anything else -- in case anybody’s expecting anything from me any time soon. And in case I’ve got to put up with another nine years of rejection."

--Tom Nolan

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