Summer of Sisterhood: Q&A with Alexandra Fuller on her memoir, "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness"
You never know where you'll find new sisters. Christy and I were in Salt Lake City for a Planned Parenthood event last year and stumbled home to the guest house where we were staying, looking forward to just crashing for the night. But instead, we found three other guests all chatting in the main dining room. Thinking we'd just be polite and sit for a moment, we ended up chatting the night away. Alexandra "Bo" Fuller (already one of my favorite authors) and Terry Tempest Williams (who now is one of them too) are two of the most incredible writers and we are so lucky to have not only become fans but also friends. As part of our Summer of Sisterhood's Bucket List, we asked Alexandra to share some insight on her memoir, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.” - Erin
1. What inspired you to write this particular chronicle of your family’s journey and focus on your mother?
Mum was really hurt by my first book, DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT. I thought I had written a love letter to the beautiful, maddening, nurturing, death-defying woman who had been my biggest life’s influence, and to the land on which I had been raised. But she felt I had written a betrayal of her, and of our family. What I had inadvertently also done is exposed the ways in which Mum and I had failed and disappointed each other – she as mother, and me as daughter. She had raised me to be stoic and self-sufficient and she had done the best she could to protect my siblings and me. I had written a book that sounded, to her anyway, as if I did not appreciate that.
I realized later that in writing what my Mum now calls (half in jest) “That Awful Book” I had also betrayed my mother’s most secret sorrows, her most unconscious prejudices, her most powerful weaknesses. It took me a few years, and three children of my own to really see into the crack of what I had done to my mother because I think as mothers it is our daughters, more so than our sons, who are privy to our most naked, vulnerable selves (from my experience, I believe women instinctively protect their sons from their rawness). As my eldest daughter grew up, I began to see how betrayed my mother must have felt by DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, as if her shadow had torn loose and exposed her soul. “You never asked me who I am,” my mother had said when that book first came out (she said a lot else besides, but that was the comment that made it into my awareness and stuck).
So I asked my mother if she would meet me in Scotland for a week to tell me who she was and I recorded her answers on tape and later when I was finally ready to hear her, I played the tapes back. And what I heard was a woman who had come into the full power of herself in spite of a personal history of sometimes murderously bad judgment, and terrible politics, and questionable self-awareness. At an age most women are beginning to contemplate retirement, Mum was unapologetically uncensored, having forgiven herself her worst mistakes, having accepted her own true nature, and having granted her soul refuge from guilt. For me, as a woman in middle age who has herself now accumulated enough guilt-inducing mistakes in her own life, I realized that to not own your life, to not fulfill your own purpose on earth and to not forgive yourself for your own history is its own kind of violence. And so I started on the book of my mother’s life – the woman who has best demonstrated to me what self-forgiveness and uncensored self-confidence in the second half of one’s life looks like - as told mostly from her perspective.
As for the rest of us- Dad, my sister and myself - we were really just along for Mum’s journey. Mum was and is just such a force of nature and she is so deeply made of her own implacable, inimitable self that it’s impossible not be a little more than a supporting actor in a life starring Nicola Fuller of Central Africa (as she has sometimes preferred to be called). But at the same time, Mum has also become a woman I now admire and respect as much as I once sometimes feared and misunderstood her and I wanted to write a book that reflected my knee-buckling awe for her as a woman rather than a litany of ways she had failed me as a mother.
I wanted too, to write my parents’ love story. My father has always understood that my mother’s first love is land - African land especially (by which I mean Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia ). It would be fair to say that theirs is a love triangle in some ways: Mum loves land and is prepared to die for it, and Dad loves Mum and is prepared to die for her. I think this incredible understanding of one another, and their deep acceptance of one another’s strengths and weaknesses makes their love something close to mythic. Having been married for nearly two decades myself, I was starting to understand the real work, acceptance, and grit it takes to keep a marriage not only alive for so long, but truly vibrant and nurturing. I wanted to capture that in words.
2. There is a specific emphasis on the Le Creuset pots throughout the novel- your mother refuses to give them up. Do these pots signify a deeper, thematic context in this novel?
I’m so happy you noticed the Le Creuset pots! They were one of the few enduring things in my childhood and adolescence – a time otherwise marked by restlessness and inevitable ephemerality. The significance of those pots really came to me a few years ago driving across the western US in a snowstorm listening to the radio. Somewhere, roughly two hours north of Cheyenne, Wyoming I happened to catch an interview with Tim O’Brien. He was speaking about his collection of short stories set in the Vietnam war most famous for its title story, “The Things They Carried.” That wonderful, prize-winning story chronicles the physical and emotional things carried by men in war and I had of course read it years ago, but there was something about this interview with O’Brien – his personal experiences with war, and his personal interpretation of the story – that so ensnared me, I pulled off the interstate to listen to it. Snow piled up on all sides of the car and there was very little traffic because of the blizzard, and I felt as if I was hearing a voice pouring into the beginning of my understanding of how brave Mum had been when it came to relinquishing her material goods over and over. I understood that the things we carry are both a burden and a comfort to us, and that they are also choice, and what we choose to carry in our lives can weigh us down and kill us, or they can sustain us. They also say a lot about who we truly are at our core.
I was just beginning to think about writing COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGTEFULNESS and about Mum’s whole life from her childhood in Kenya to her current life in Zambia when I heard that interview and after the interview I thought for a long time of the few - the very few - things Mum had managed to carry through her life, amongst them those pots. And I thought of the panic she must have felt, the choices she must have made, the compromises she must have negotiated, every time we moved from one farm to another, across some often very unfriendly southern African borders. She always brought her beloved dogs, and a few bits of art, and those Le Crueset pots. And suddenly I found myself in unexpected tears thinking about what those pots represented: Cooking pots on the top of a tiny bundle of other belongings seems to be the universal image of women fleeing war across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s; women leaving the Dustbowl of Oklahoma during the Depression; women escaping post-election violence in Zimbabwe in 2008; women displaced by the current violence in Congo and Sudan. Pots are like the external expression of a woman’s womb, the way in which she can continue to nurture and protect her family, even when the land beneath her feet has been torn from her and all real hope has been lost. As long as a woman has her cooking pots, she is carrying with her the actual and symbolic expectation that there will be food with which to fill those pots. As long as a woman has her cooking pots, she is still able to boil water, wash her babies, cook up whatever scraps of nutrition can be found. It’s an incredibly deep and durable impulse in us, and it gave me – and I hope the reader – a sense of where Mum’s real priorities were. No, she was not a pampering mother, but my god, she was something else! Fierce and brave and resilient, illogically optimistic and with a deep impulse to nurture – and all those qualities seem to be beautifully summed up by those pots which now sit on her kitchen shelves on the farm in Zambia.
3. As you've chronicled in previous books, there was lots of turmoil occurring during your childhood and you all moved a good deal. What did that do to your sense of 'home?'
Because we moved so often when I was growing up – at least 7 or 8 different houses, in three countries and two continents by the time I was 13 - I think I became a bit suspicious and mistrustful of the idea of a house as “home.” At the same time, paradoxically, I became almost obsessively attached to the land of southern Africa. So while I had a hard time experiencing a house as a place of refuge, I had no problem at all experiencing the land itself as a refuge. I took a great deal of comfort in the weather, the predictability of seasons (no longer something anyone can count on); in the waxing and waning of the moon; and with the ways in which I could count on the ground beneath my feet. I think I really understood from an early age what Alan Paton expressed so eloquently at the start of his stunning novel, CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY. “Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.”
Later on in my life, it made sense to me when the late Wangari Mathaai, Kenyan Noble Peace Prize winner, fought for the rights of local East African communities by inspiring those communities to take responsibility for the literal earth beneath their feet. She understood, and put her action into understanding, that unless we care for the earth beneath our feet we are homeless, we are without food, our voices are enfeebled and our communities imperiled.
I think we take false refuge in comfortable, air-conditioned, spacious homes. The truth is, our communities, our air, our water, our schools, our roads, our parks, our open spaces and our wildernesses are where “home” really is. And all those things are threatened by our habits of consumerism, our aggressive foreign policies, our sense of exceptionalism. This was something I understood early: As white Rhodesians, my family and families like mine assumed control of the most productive agricultural ground; we reserved the best schools and teachers for white children; we had the votes; we had the best shops and hospitals and recreational land. And of course, we then had to engage in a bloody civil war with the black majority to maintain our grip on those shaky, exclusive assumptions. To create a safe sense of refuge – a “home” - for all people, I believe we have to engage in a radical conversation about how what we do on one part of the globe affects people in Africa, Asia, South and Central America. We can no longer retreat behind our own picket fence and pretend that massive global events - war, climate change, poverty – will somehow ignore us because we’ve drawn the blinds and turned on the television. Home is the planet, and we’re all responsible for its welfare.
4. What aspects of your relationship with your mother did you most value? What were the most difficult aspects?
I inherited Mum’s irreverent sense of humor, and her love of books, dogs and horses. I also learned a passion for land from her, and a deep understanding that earth and trees and sky are a kind of cathedral of space around us. Mum has a fundamentally organic, inclusive interpretation of nature. She genuinely behaves as if all creatures – from spiders and snakes to elephants and whales – have an equivalent, or superior intelligence to humans. I have a photo of her with a chameleon she found on the road one evening when we were taking our evening walk. The chameleon is attached to her arm, and she is smiling down on it with such a connected sense of understanding. Mum would interpret the chameleon’s ability to change colors, its ponderous walk, its sticky feet as a sign of its superiority to her in these areas.
I was quite old before I realized that this view of the world is not very common. I assumed it was perfectly to natural to talk to animals – of course they can understand language and have extended vocabularies of their own. I also assumed that most people could interpret an animal’s feelings as a matter of course. It did not occur to me to question whether or not animals had emotions or souls. Mum had shown me that of course they did.
Since my early teens, I have battled more or less heatedly with Mum’s politics although the older she gets, the more I am beginning to see that her actions – usually bravely compassionate – are far more courageous and genuine than the actions of a lot of people who verbalize more tolerant politics. Most people are more unconscious, selfish or simply afraid of being compassionate on the ground than Mum is, and most people do not have to pay so dearly, or so exactly for the political choices they have made.
5. Given your childhood in Africa, what are your perspectives on how things are changing for women there? Do you see any differences when you return to visit? What are your greatest hopes for change?
I’m impatient with the slow rate of change for women across the continent, because I think we share a global urgency about the state of the planet that can really only be addressed as the power balance between men and women is rectified and we move away from aggressive patterns of behavior toward more nurturing, intuitive ways of being. In May last year a study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that more than 400,000 women and girls between the ages of 14 and 49 were raped in the Congo in a 12-month period in 2006 and 2007. That’s more than a thousand women and girls every single day. It’s such a staggering and outrageous statistic and so distressing because so little has been done about it.
That being said, the continent has had its first woman head of state (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia) and women are beginning to get access to more positions of power elsewhere. I see women and girls having more access to education and to health care in Zambia (which is the country with which I have most contact) and there is more awareness about the ways in which violence against women and girls is effectively violence against the whole community.
I see hope for the continent only in as much as I see hope for the globe. I think we need to stop thinking of ourselves as separated by international borders, or by oceans, or language or culture. As women we share the experience of wanting the best outcome for our children. We need to reach out in radical support of one another in this fundamental way; in support of our reproductive rights, our rights to say “no” to sexual violence and coercion and unsafe sex, our rights to healthy safe pregnancies and our rights to educate our daughters as well as our sons.
Photos by Ian Murphy
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