Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
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“Bullets, lipstick, sunglasses. Off we go” (p. 29).
From an early age, Alexandra Fuller knew that her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself” (p. 3), wanted to be immortalized in the pages of a book. However, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs TonightAlexandra’s acclaimed account of growing up in war torn Africa with a pair of harddrinking, charismatic parentswasn’t quite what Nicola had in mind.
Readers around the world were captivated by Fuller’s memoir, but Nicola was mortified, and now refers to it only as that “awful book” (p. 4). Ten years later, Alexandra returns to her mother’s story in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. This time, she reaches back to Nicola’s own childhood, reflecting upon what engendered “the kind of stubborn tribal values that you needed if you were bound and determined to be White, and stay White, first during Kenya’s Mau Mau [rebellion] and later during the Rhodesian War” (p. 12).
Born in 1944 to an English father and a Scottish mother, Nicola Huntingford nonetheless “considers herself one million percent Highland Scottish” (p. 15). And as a Scot, Nicola unequivocally embraces her heritage: a fierce sense of loyalty, a love of animalsand a tendency toward madness.
Although she spends her adulthood hopscotching Central Africa, Nicola was raised primarily in Kenya. Before the Mau Mau Uprising drove out most colonials, Nicola’s family enjoyed a genteelif tipsyrespectability in a “land of such sepia loveliness . . . that it was worth dying for if you were white” (p. 63).
There, Nicolalargely ignored by her parentsgrew to be a willful beauty and a passionate horsewoman. Despite being battered and bloodied by difficult horses, Nicola remembers, “I’d dust myself off and get back on again as soon as I could see straight” (p. 59). Her stubborn perseverance would prove to be both her salvation and her downfall, driving her again and again to stake out a home in a continent being steadily reclaimed by its oppressed native populations.
After a failed stint at a London secretarial college, Nicola returns to a Kenya governed by selfrule. She immediately meets and marries Tim Fuller, a recently arrived English émigré. “Beautiful, optimistic, and aware of being the most exciting couple anyone had ever met” (p. 75), the newlyweds embark upon their shared lifeblissfully ignorant of the hardships, violence, and unspeakable tragedies that await them.
In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller brilliantly positions her remarkable family’s personal history within the broader tides of culture and politics. A funny yet harrowing masterpiece, it perfectly complements Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, but also stands alone as a ferociously talented writer’s paean to her mother’s quixotic yet indomitable spirit, her parents’ enduring love, and the beautiful, merciless land that they call home.
Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969 and moved to Africa with her family when she was two. She married an American river guide in Zambia in 1993. They left Africa in 1994 and now live in Wyoming with their three children. She has written four books of nonfiction, including a New York Times Notable Book for 2002, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood; Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier; and The Legend of Colton H Bryant. Fuller has also written extensively for magazines and newspapers including the New Yorker, National Geographic, Vogue, and Granta. Her reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review.
Q. It’s been ten years since Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was first published. What prompted you to revisit your mother’s story now? Do you think that she will like this book better?
Writing and the way that stories come alive are a little bit of a mystery to me, so I can’t honestly say how any one of my books comes into being. It seems that almost at the point I’ve given up on a certain book, suddenly there it is insisting that I write it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work and sometimes baffling to know how to go about the project, but without the mysterious cooperation of the story itself, it would be impossible.
That being said, there is no way to write a book unless, in some way, I have made all the preparations for its potential. So I am always collecting ingredients, and thinking. “Ah, perhaps one day suchandsuch a spice, or flavor, might make it into a book,” but I can’t force a book out of me, even if I think I have all the ingredients in place. The temperature, timing, ambience, urgency, also all have to show up before the book can be written. Then I feel my way toward a recipe that works; trying different voices and structures until the book begins to take shape.
After I wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, I knew I hadn’t said everything I had to say about my family, and especially about my mother. In fact, that was one of her objections to the “awful book.” “You never asked me who I am,” she told me. And she was right. So I asked her who she was, and for nearly a decade I went in search of who she was in Scotland and in Kenya, as well as Zimbabwe and Zambia and I really tried to absorb her stories, but I couldn’t make her stories into a book however hard I tried. There were much earlier versions of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness that were just horrible messes and which refused to resolve in any kind of way, as if I were either missing vital ingredients or missing the cake pan in which to put the ingredients (or, frankly, both). Mostly, I wanted to capture what an incorrigible, fabulous woman my mother is; her irreverence, her humor, her compassion, her incredible courage. Those elements were implicit in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, but I wanted to address them explicitly in this new book and I also wanted to examine how my mother was made. It didn’t seem possible she could have come out of an ordinary childhood (she didn’t, it turns out).
Then, a couple of years ago, I got whooping cough. I was in bed with a mild fever for three months and somehow in that gorgeously fragile state that can come with some illnesses, I could hear my mother’s inimitable voice as if she were with me in the roomI was in Wyoming and she was in Zambia, so clearly this was a function of imagination or feverand I knew I was ready to write her book. The first third of the book was written before I was well enough to get out of bed.
Q. Aside from your “awful book,” is your mother pleased with your career choice? After all, you were “more than a little encouraged to write . . . by Nicola Fuller of Central Africa herself” (p. 5).
I joke that writing was never really a “choice” for me. Mum just assumed I’d write and so I did, from the age of five. Even with the “awful book” Mum is very proud of me, and supportive of my writing, although her latest ruse is to pretend she hasn’t read a word I’ve written. I think the truth is you can’t write about someone you loveespecially not a living someonethe way I have, unless you are certain that your
bond with them is pretty unbreakable. Mum and I are fantastically close in a lot of waysI resemble her physically, I have her sense of humor, I share her love of words and of animals. We’re utterly dissimilar in a lot of ways toobut the older I get, the less apparent those differences are and the less they matter. We know we’re going to disagree politically, so we’ve found a way to laugh at one another, rather than take each other, or ourselves, too seriously.
I talk to Mum a lot about my writing (even though she pretends not to have read a word I’ve written). She is incredibly sympathetic if I get stuck, or an editor rejects something, or if I feel overwhelmed by an assignment. She also sends me books and magazine or newspaper cuttings she thinks I might find useful or interesting, and I do the same for her. She still reads as much as everusually a pile of books by her bed, several in her bag, one for emergencies in the glove box of the car.
Q. How does your father feel about Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight?
I think he felt it was very hard on Mum and he’s terribly loyal to her and very protective of herfrom that point of view, I suppose he’d rather the book had remained unpublished. That being said, he’s been very supportive of my career and incredibly kind when I have pangs of doubt and panic about writing. He’s always telling me to trust myself more and write what I believethat’s a strong endorsement coming from a taciturn Zambian banana farmer!
Q. In what ways have you changed since writing Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight?
Obviously, I am older and my children are older, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on the way the “motherhood” label can change the way women are expected to behave. Mainstream culture seems to judge women first by the kinds of mothers and wives they are, and only then on the sum of the rest of their lives. I realized, to my horror, I had contributed to this skewed and unfair kneejerk judgment; the way in which Mum is portrayed in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she is a nonpampering mother to the point of being neglectful and that really became the prime focus of a lot of readers’ reactions to her. But three things have shifted in me since I wrote that first book. Firstly, I now understand that it was not that my mother did not want to protect us, but there was just so much to protect us fromshe did her best in an absolutely impossible situation. Secondly, I am frankly in awe that Mum managed to carry on at all after the loss of Adrian, let alone the subsequent loss of two more children and that admiration is reflected in the second book whereas it remains unsaid in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Thirdly, Mum has become the perfect mother and role model for where I am in my life and who I am; she is unapologetic, unedited and she has forgiven herself for her life’s mistakes. That has been an incredibly valuable gift.
Q. Once you’ve announced yourself as a writer, how do you trust anything people tell youespecially someone as colorful as your mother?
I would have thought the more pertinent questionand certainly the one my mother would askis how do you trust someone who has announced herself to be a writer? The truth is I think most writers will tell you that the quality of material you can accumulate for a story is inevitably shifted by whether or not you have a tape recorder on the table, or a notepad open. That can change everythingpeople tend to be less open and forthright and more stilted and aware of “being on the record.” But I have found that if you wait long enough, and really make an effort to actively listen, a story will recycle and either be its own corroboration, or raise questions. Also, one of the things I loved about writing Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness was taking Mum’s account of an event and checking it against what Auntie Glug, or Vanessa or I remembered, and then braiding in historic research where it was relevant. Mum has astonishingly vivid recall, but she also has a natural aversion to talking about painful things and a conservative political bias that is very often belied by her astonishingly egalitarian behavior.
Q. How are former colonialists regarded in Zambia today? Chief Sikongo granted your father his farm, but do resentments still linger?
There are more than fifty countries on the continent of Africa, and each of those countries had a very different colonial and postcolonial experience. Zambia has had its independence from Britain since 1963. The transition to independence was largely peaceful. After independence, Zambia was governed for more than twenty years by Kenneth Kaunda who espoused a philosophy of social humanism. Although corruption existed in his government, Kaunda himself was far from one of the continent’s monstrous
“Big Men.” In 1992, he stepped down from office with grace and dignity when he lost the country’s first democratic elections, and has gone on to a heralded career as the father of the nation. All of these factors have contributed to Zambia’s profound healing from the scars and impacts of colonialism. On September 23, 2011, a Zambian of English/Scottish descent became the country’s first white vicepresident.
Q. Your mother disparagingly calls you her “American daughter” (p. 16). Do you consider yourself more American or African now? Do you ever contemplate a permanent return to Zambia?
It’s not as if I can chop off parts of myself and declare one part this and the other part that. It’s an issue I address in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: I am an accident of biology and geography and history, but I am also my own mind and soul. I am deeply suspicious of nationalism and of what I call the disease of nostalgia that seems to affect a lot of people who leave southern Africa (and Kenya) and who then only remember it through rosecolored glasses, completely ignoring either the brutality of history, or the reality of the present. Both Zambia and Zimbabwe, for example, are dramatically different countriespolitically, demographically, economicallythan the countries I grew up in. Certain things remain the same, or similar, but I would say both countries have changed far more in the last twenty years than say Wyoming or Scotland have. That’s why I think this is such a difficult question to answer with any degree of lasting integrity. If I say I am “African” then which part of that vast continent am I attaching myself to, and to what part of history am I referring? Equally, if I call myself “American” what do I mean by that? I know I deeply appreciate the freedom of speech afforded me by my U.S. citizenship and I appreciate the peace and quiet of Wyoming which allows plenty of room for creative contemplation.
All that being said I could see moving back to Zambia one day, although “permanent” sounds fairly final! I miss the place with a kind of physical ache, but perhaps I am simply falling victim to that disease of nostalgia of which I am so suspicious.
- Alexandra Fuller begins Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, explaining that, “Mum . . . wanted a writer in the family as long as either of us can remember” (p. 3). How does this introduction set the tone for the events to come?
- The picture on the book’s jacket features Nicola Fuller as a child with her pet chimpanzeeher questionably named “first best friend, Stephen Foster” (p. 39). Today, leaving a child alone with even the most civilized chimpanzee would be viewed as criminal neglect. In what other ways is Nicola the product of a bygone era?
- “It now seems completely clear to me, looking back, that when a government talks about ’fighting for Freedom’ almost every Freedom you can imagine disappears for ordinary people and expands limitlessly for a handful of people in power” (p. 29). Do you agree with Fuller’s assessment?
- After Nicola’s riding instructor, Betty, broke her neck competing in a horse show, someone else got on Betty’s horse “and bravely finished the round for her. . . . The show must go on; we all understood that” (p. 61). Is this an example of oldfashioned stoicism, colonial stubbornness, or something else altogether?
- How did reading Cocktail Hour affect your understanding of Zambian and African history?
- Some of the book’s humoras well as its pathoscomes from comments that Nicola makes about Alexandra, including: “That’s why we call her Bobo . . . because she looked just like a little baboon” (p. 30), or “black hair, yellow skin, and the most impressively disagreeable expression you can possibly imagine on a brandnew baby” (p. 148). Are her words meant to be hurtful?
- “If we were all going to die, it would be in this order: Dad, Mum, Vanessa, me, and then unthinkably last but only over all of our dead bodies, Olivia” (p. 170). Given Nicola Fuller’s attachment to Olivia, were you surprised that she doesn’t blame Alexandra for her death?
- Is it human nature to have a favorite child? Or to believe that one’s parents favored a sibling? How many memoirs have you read by writers who felt they were loved more than their siblings?
- Many books are written about the miseries of growing up with one or two alcoholic parents. Yet, Fuller continues to enjoy sharing cocktails with Nicola and Tim and never judges them for drinking heavily. Is a life that hard an acceptable reason to drink that hard? Would they have survived without alcohol?
- Despite the many tragedies that befall the Fuller family, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is unsentimental in its grief, and its ending is surprisingly lighthearted. How might the same story be told in the hands of an American or a British writer?
- Have you read Fuller’s earlier memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight? If so, how would you compare them?