Good to Know
In our interview with Fuller, she shared some fascinating facts about herself:
"There isn't a moment that I am not thinking about Africa. I am either thinking about it in relation to what I am writing at that time, or I am thinking about it in relations to where I am geographically (I am writing this at my desk in my office overlooking the Tetons, which could not be further, you might argue, from Zambia. Yet, I have been thinking all morning that the cry of an angry great blue heron -- they are nesting in the aspens at the end of our property -- sound like Chacma baboons)."
"The best way for me to evoke the same sense of place and the same smells and the same space of Africa is when I am out riding. I have a rather naughty little Arab mare, whom I accompany (it would be an exaggeration to claim that I "ride" her) into the mountains almost every day when the snow is clear. Something about being away from people, alone with a horse and a dog, fills me with an intense sense of joy and well-being, and I always return from these excursions inspired (if not to write, then to be a better mother, or to cook something fabulous, or to do the laundry)."
"I have come to the conclusion that I can only write about something if I have actually smelled it for myself. I have no idea what this says about me, but I think it's a fact of my work. I also cannot think of something without immediately evoking its smell (for example, if I think of my father, I think of the smell of cigarette smoke and the bitter scent of his sweat -- he has never once worn deodorant, so his smell is very organic and wonderfully his -- and of the faint aroma of tea and engine oil he exudes). Once, in France, a particularly thorough journalist (he had 50 questions for me!) said, somewhat accusingly, 'You have written here in your book' (it was Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) 'about the smell of frog sperm. What exactly does frog sperm smell of?' And without hesitating for a moment, I replied, 'Cut turnips,' which I think surprised both of us."
"I love to write, and I dislike overly long interviews."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Alexandra Fuller had to say:
Hindoo Holiday by J. R. Ackerley -- This book appeared in 1932. It's not a book to be taken too seriously -- and perhaps that is why I find it so appealing as a summer read. It's scrupulously well written, terribly funny and manages to be set in India without being "about" India or Indians, but rather about Ackerley himself and his impression of India. In addition to being very good company, Ackerley is as honest about himself as a writer can be -- and that is a difficult trick to pull off.
Sunrise with Seamonsters by Paul Theroux -- I actually lugged this book of short stories up Kilimanjaro with me. Any book containing a story entitled "Tarzan is an Expatriate" seemed worth the effort. When Paul Theroux is on form, he is so fabulously good at hitting the nail on the head -- and he's well on form in this collection.
Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison I was so dazzled by the way this book was written I had to go back and read it twice. Once because I couldn't put it down and twice because it is technically flawless and I wanted to see how it was done. I gave up trying to work out how it was written and succumbed to the story. Heartbreaking and brilliant, funny and passionate -- the story of a woman's love for her son and her sometimes hilarious attempt not to fall apart under the pressure of work, mothering and loving.
Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham Maugham -- It can never go out of date for me. He's so scrupulous and such a fine storyteller. This is a wonderful short read that couples as armchair travel (in time and place).
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul I try not to let too long go by without re-reading a VS Naipaul novel. He is such an astute, accomplished writer. This is a story set in a post-independent African state.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson I don't think it's going too far to say that this is almost a perfect book -- It's the sort of story that stays with you long after you've put the book down. A perfect summer read -- it will take you away from yourself and you will be absorbed in the lives of two young girls in Idaho.
The Meadow by James Galvin -- Everyone should read this book. It's the most poetic thing I've ever read. I pick this up, turn to a page at random, and find myself in his grip over and over and over. I keep several copies of this book on my shelves because it's the sort of thing that gets pressed into the hands of everyone who walks into my house. Set in "no man's land" between Wyoming and Colorado, it is a love story to the West and to land and to the people who love that land. A perfect read if you are heading out to cowboy country in the summer.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby -- The premise of this short memoir sounds so depressing that I refuse to say what it is lest people don't read this suburb book on that account. Suffice it to say that I picked this up one morning with my early morning cup of tea and stayed where I was until lunch. I laughed, I cried and I looked at my world through different eyes for ages afterwards.
To the Wedding by John Berger -- A love story for our time set in Europe and told through the eyes of the parties who are, as it turns out, on their way to a wedding. This book was so absorbing that it felt more real to me than the life I was forgetting about while reading it. John Berger is a supreme talent.
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje -- For whatever reason, I always find that I have to read Ondaatje incredibly slowly. Maybe because he weaves his stories together with such density and with so many threads. For a slow, summer afternoon, this story set in Canada has an after-sting on it that leaves you feeling stunned.
In the spring of 2003, Alexandra Fuller took some time to answer our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
I remember the visceral thrill and horror and pain and sheer astonishment I felt when I first read Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. I was 14 years old, and I was sitting in the field beyond the art and science laboratories, under the stink trees at my high school in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was winter (I remember the chilled air mixed with the smell of the trees, which is a sort of mild spilled-sewer smell, and the rough feel of my school uniform on my dry legs, and I remember plucking up tufts of winter-dry grass and the shouts of the girls playing hockey on the lower fields). I swallowed the book whole in a single, stunned afternoon. For days after that, I felt as if I carried the diary and Anne's voice around inside me, as if I was seeing the world through her eyes and speaking it with her sharp, witty tongue, and all the time, I was feeling her terrible confinement and feeling a sort of sickness for how her life had ended. I wanted to swim back through time and warn her that her family would be betrayed; urge her not to give up hope; tell her that the war would be over one day.
The diary was my introduction to nonfiction -- if you don't count the cheerful account of Gerald Durrell's young life in Greece in My Family and Other Animals and the short, sanitized accounts of the lives of the English monarchs that I read, or the biographies of supposedly mild-mannered authors of children's books that I inhaled. With the diary, I was struck, not only by how compelling real life can be to read but also by how beautifully written it can be -- especially by one so young.
Until I read Anne Frank's diary, I had found books a literal escape from what could be the harsh reality around me. After I read the diary, I had a fresh way of viewing the both literature and the world. From then on, I found I was impatient with books that were not honest or that were trivial and frivolous. Honesty, I found, translated across all languages and experiences and informed the reader about their own world.
For almost the first time in my life, after I read the diary, I found myself thinking about how capricious and evil politics can be, about how racism can fling young lives (old lives, all lives) into turmoil and death. Even though the Holocaust has its own awful place in history for the sheer ghastliness of thinking that brought it about, and the fact that so many died so pointlessly and in such a terrible fashion, I couldn't help thinking about it in terms of the world that I knew. We had recently gone through a war in Rhodesia, in which whites (my parents included) had fought to keep blacks oppressed, without a vote, and without the rights that we whites were entitled to. Blacks were oppressed for being black -- they had to shop in different stores, attend different schools, they were spat on, beaten, scorned, dismissed as third-class citizens. I remember thinking, This book should have taught us never to do such things again to one another. And I felt profoundly hopeless for the human race. If Anne Frank -- that clear, acerbic, innocent voice could be ignored...then who would we listen to?
What are your favorite books -- and why?
- Echoing Silences by Alexander Kanengoni -- Kanengoni was a liberation fighter in the Rhodesian war, and he writes about his experiences as a soldier in Mozambique and in the southern parts of Rhodesia in this stark, autobiographical novel. It's a short, powerful, incredibly honest work that punched me right in the stomach the first time I read it. The protagonist of Echoing Silences was fighting for liberty -- which should be such a laudable, clear-cut goal -- yet he was left feeling lost, brutalized and bewildered by the experience. War is never as simple as right and wrong, good and evil. War is always savage and underhanded and uncivilized, even if it can be called a just war.
- Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje -- In my opinion, there is only one greater writer practicing the craft in our time: John Berger, whom Ondaatje comes close to echoing. Ondaatje's every word feels deliberate, crafted, controlled, and poetic. This memoir is particularly beloved by me -- I shall keep it by my bed always -- because it is so recklessly honest (not literally honest, mind you, but -- and this is more important to me -- emotionally honest), horrifyingly funny, and so incredibly rich. It's a very short work, but as Ondaatje uses one word to convey what lesser writers take an entire chapter to describe, it is no less satisfying for all that.
- A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul -- Naipaul is a fearful snob, which is a pity, because it is a crack of insecurity that ruins an otherwise wonderful mind. Occasionally, his snobbishness seeps through into his writing and stains it indelibly. And I am often outraged by his ridiculous, sometimes quite savage, attitude toward women (whom I think he regards at a subspecies). Yet, for all that, I think Naipaul writes most eloquently about the dislocation of the postcolonial world, and with such touching humor and with such apparent ease and grace. Of all his books (there are hardly any that I do not find worthy of several close readings), A Bend in the River is the one that I return to most frequently. People who have lived their entire histories in the West cannot imagine the tenuous existence of those who live in a postcolonial state. It is not, as is so readily imagined, an issue of race (and Naipaul dispels this myth with such an accurate blow to the head that I think he kills it dead forever), but of power. The world is in the process of being re-created after a century and a half of unprecedented turmoil. We are fortunate to have Naipaul as an interpreter of that world.
- To the Wedding by John Berger -- It feels almost blasphemous for me to write anything about a man who writes as well as Berger. I am, quite simply, awestruck by the languid, easy way in which Berger tells a story with such poetic force, such courage, such compassion. Reading Berger is like watching a man fling himself off a cliff, and instead of plummeting to earth, he begins to soar. What makes this book so important to us now is that it is a love story crafted for our time -- a great pilgrimage of late-20th-century characters (tugging their histories behind them like millstones) -- yet it is a timeless story of unconditional love.
- The Meadow by James Galvin -- I cannot understand why this simple masterpiece is not more widely read in America. Galvin, like Mary Karr, Ondaatje, and Berger, feels more like a poet to me than anything else. Without an ounce of judgment, he draws vivid portraits (hilarious, at times) of the men and women who live around and on "The Meadow." And the land itself is given the same careful attention, in Galvin's hands, as his human characters. This is one of the few books I have ever read that deals with an irrational love of land (a love that almost all literate people seem to have lost). And Galvin is not sentimental about the land (like Emerson or Thoreau can be) but pragmatic and matter-of-fact. The land, in fact, is written as mother, refugee, whore, lover, wife. I read this book while I was on vacation in Mexico, and I remember turning to my husband when I had finished it and saying, "If I ever write a single word as well as this, shoot me and call me a success."
- The Liars' Club by Mary Karr -- When my daughter is 14, I will read this book to her (she is ten now and has already read Anne Frank's diary, or that would have been my first choice). I think Karr was among the first to break the old habit of memoirs, which tended to be either too scandalous to stomach or which glossed over the knotty issues that make families interesting and focused instead on a sort of breathless look-at-us-in-the-Kenya-highlands safari. Karr wrote about the sort of lives we prefer (in works of great literature) to be sanitized as fiction -- Charles Dickens might have had a field day with Karr's family -- without flinching and without losing the poetry of the common experience. What is key, of course, is that Karr achieved this without sounding self-pitying and without making us feel as if we had accidentally walked into someone's therapy session. Lytton Strachey, with his book Eminent Victorians, broke the old, dry mold of biography; until then, lives tended to be written as a list of accomplishments. Strachey showed how character influenced the decisions that shaped the course a life would take. I think Karr was among the first to break the old, dry mold of memoir with The Liars' Club.
- A Burnt-Out Case and In Search of Character by Graham Greene: These two volumes must -- if possible -- be read together. In Search of Character was the journal Greene kept during his visit to what was then called the Congo and which led, eventually, to A Burnt-Out Case. In Search of Character is all the more brilliant for being a sketch of what was to come and (consequently) the slenderest of volumes. I read it terribly slowly and absorbed it like nourishment -- like Brie or Belgian chocolate, which do no good if gobbled up.
Not only is it a fascinating look into Greene's head (his acute, minute, but selective attention to detail is so tone-perfect it makes every short entry in his diary as brilliant as a poem) but it is a remarkable window into a time and country that no longer exist -- even in nostalgia.
I was struck by how little has changed of the real horror of African (Congo, I suppose I should say) life, and Greene chooses to show this, not with a flourish of violence but with this sleight-of-hand observation that speaks to a greater carnage:
"Melancholy on the horizon. How everything seems to be dying all the time in the tropics, if only a butterfly on the altar steps. What a mountain of debris there must be every day of mosquitoes, cockroaches, cockchafers, moufes, moths."
- Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease (also Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe: I think Achebe should be required reading for everyone because he, more than any other writer, manages to dispel the myths with which people regard Africa. He not only astonished his erstwhile oppressors (the British) with his brilliant writing, he refused to flinch from the truth of what he saw in the newly independent African governments (which naturally made him unpopular with everyone). He first exposed the colonial system for the shallow, brutal farce that it was and then, in later books, exposed the new African governments for the rotten corruption that had set in among their ranks.
I keep falling in love with new films, but my current favorites are Before Night Falls, The Hours, and Frida, and I think all for the same reason: They all portray artists who feel an urgent need to express their art, and who are prepared to undergo terrible privations and pain and even death to do so. Watching these films renewed my courage and inspired me and made me feel self-indulgent and petty and as if I should never whine again about not having the time to write, or the right sort of peace, or the necessary props.
In general, I almost always watch foreign films. Burned by the Sun, which is set in Stalin's Russia, is so sumptuously filmed and so recklessly scripted that the terrible horror of the oppression that is to come is as shocking to the viewer as it is to the child witnessing it. Antonia's Line made me cheer out loud, and laugh and want to go to Europe and drink too much wine from a jug in a chaotic Belgian farmyard.
I listen mostly to classical music. I love going back to the pieces that Mum introduced to me when I was a child. It puts me back in Africa, and back with her and back in the orange chair where I used to sit and read when the generator was on and I could play records. Chopin, Mozart, and Brahms are my favorites when I am writing because they inspire me without demanding anything from me.
Occasionally, I'll dust off my CDs from southern Africa (Lucky Dube, Ladysmith Black Mambadzo, Oliver Mutikudzi, the Bundu Boys) or something from my Bob Marley collection.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I'd go back and read the classics again -- all those wonderful books that I skimmed through when I was at University (or for which I read the crib notes) because I don't have the discipline to do them on my own.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I am becoming increasingly difficult to please as a reader, but I adore being surprised by a really wonderful book, written by someone I've never heard of before. I have a friend who works in the copywriting department of a publishing house who gave me a selection of brilliant books that I never would have chosen myself (Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever, for example) that opened up a whole new world for me.
I compulsively give Berger, Galvin, Achebe, and Ondaatje to everyone that comes within spitting distance of me, and I almost chain them to an armchair until they promise to read them.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
The Africans, for obvious reasons:
The Indians, because they seem to speak of the same chaos that I recognize in Africa (and they speak of it with such carelessness):
- Nega Mezlekia: Notes from a Hyena's Belly
- J. M. Coetzee: The Life and Times of Michael K.
- Doris Lessing: The Grass is Singing
- Bessie Head: A Question of Power, When Rain Clouds Gather
- Ngugi Wa Thiong O: The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood
- Ferdinando Oyono: Houseboy, The Old Man and the Medal
- Mongane Serote: To Every Birth Its Blood
- Bernardo Honwana: We Killed Mangy Dog and Other Stories
- Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
- Tsitsi Dumerenga: Nervous Conditions
- Alexander Kanengoni: Echoing Silences
- Yvonne Burgess: Measure of the Night Wind
- Anita Desai
- Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (although, strictly speaking, she would not classify herself as Indian, I don't think)
- David Davidar
- R. K. Narayan
What are you working on now?
That's an illegal question, isn't it? Right now, I am working on this wretched questionnaire (it's starting to feel like my magnum opus).
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