With what might have been the largest audience Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series has seen since Salman Rushdie, novelist Alexandra Fuller brought the house down with her unparalleled candor and humor. Without notes or books to read she treated her lecture as she would one of her works—a carefully composed soliloquy spanning a life that’s traveled from an English birth to an adolescent home in war-torn Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to her current roots laying residency as an American citizen in Wyoming. We learned of an Uzi-toting mother, an “illiterate” sister, and the man she loved for twenty years who became the father of her children but didn’t deserve the harsh moniker of “ex-husband”. This last one led to some fans coining the term “was-band” for her to adopt.
An admitted liberal, feminist, vegetarian who upon arrival in the United States started running wild with her newfound Freedom of Speech, Fuller is captivating, invigorating, and humble. When asked how she reacts to the occasional religious experience readers have upon meeting her, she simply stated it was theirs to have. She cannot be more than Alexandra Fuller. How fans feel about her work or her person has no bearing on who she is or who she aspires to be. All she can do is accept the consequences of telling the truth and forever being honest because anything less is fake and awkward. So what if someone writes a bad review her three kids lap up on the internet to read her when mad? Bring it on.
As Fuller sifted through memories—a childhood amidst war where a gun could be pointed at your head any moment keeps one’s recollections vivid despite their distance—it’s easy to think we learned more about her family then her writing until realizing they are one and the same. Talking about her mother’s belief that her ovaries existed to create her personal biographer introduced the good-naturedly vicious barbs of wit to come. Loving the ability to call her sister illiterate without her there to defend it brought true joy to the author; telling us about these two women’s first visit to America ending with her sister in a customs holding room alongside “a thousand weeping Mexicans” an uproarious image to conjure opposite its sharp commentary on our border enforcement.
We learned her ex-husband was the one who kicked her in the pants to write the truth upon leaving them for a new job in Mexico working on a volcano. Posing as a housewife in Wyoming provided her ample time to write and be rejected to the point her agent fired her with the words “you have a little talent but you just have nothing to write about”. The truth her “was-band” pushed therefore led to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood and its uncensored retelling of a childhood gone awry. To her the truth came in the form of the tribe of people who raised her—the ones she loved despite their faults. This included her mother who felt the book depicted her as a “racist alcoholic”—for good reason shrugged Fuller.
It was the start of an auspicious career of reportage that took her into political commentary comparing USA’s use of 25% of the world’s energy despite being only 5% of its population to Apartheid in South Africa with Scribbling the Cat as well as befriending a community of cowboys in the oil fields of Wyoming to tell The Legend of Colton H. Bryant and the effects of hydrofracking on a once beautiful sanctuary of land. But it’s the tale of how she came to revisit her debut novel from the perspective of her mother in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness that resonated the most. After disapproving of her depiction, Fuller’s mother asked why she “never asked who I was”. It was only through emptying personal bias to experience her mom as a woman that she understood her strength.
This was her lesson for aspiring writers: “have the courage to be empty”. To Fuller truth and honesty were only possible if our quality of listening changed and we heard what others said unfiltered by our own interpretations. To understand her mother lost three babies before her sister, was driven crazy by the grief, and still “carried on” showed her power. And despite the jokes about “dropping off” for a second when she thought she’d talked too much or how breast-feeding a baby during an interview will get an American male to tell you anything, her talk was at its heart about keeping your hunger to create. Life is uncomfortable and writing should be as well. She’s opened the dialogue—now it’s our turn to continue the conversation.
Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.