Leaving A Continent — And A Marriage — 'Before The Rains Come'

Jan 17, 2015
Originally published on January 19, 2015 9:14 pm

Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed memoir Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood was a vivid account of growing up in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, with white parents, in revolutionary times in an Africa that was wild, seething, and dangerous — but also electrifying, romantic and intoxicating. She eventually married an American man named Charlie who led safaris in Zambia. But that's a hard life for a couple; they ended up moving to the United States, having three children, and ultimately divorcing.

Fuller's new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, is about the life she's made for herself now, with two children who are nearly grown and a third who is 10, in a country that is at once more comfortable and sometimes a more complicated way to live. She tells NPR's Scott Simon that it can be hard to explain her family and her experiences in America. "You know, I think that what I learned when I came here was that mine is a sort of family that if we met on a plane, it's best just to pass the peanuts."


Interview Highlights

On falling in love with Charlie the American safari leader

I think he represented for me all the adventure that I had been raised with, which I certainly didn't want to give up. I mean, after all, one of the cornerstones of adventure is that it's very addicting. But he seemed so in control of his adventure. He was a safari guy, so you know, you'd go on a river for seven days and then you'd call in the Land Rover and you'd get rescued. Your adventure is sort of packaged, and that seemed to me the absolute best of both worlds. To have both the adventure and then a place to rest. Because ours was a life of unstructured and nonstop adventure.

Our very first date, Charlie and I went canoeing and we got charged by an elephant, and he stood his ground. And I thought, "Ahh, there you go, he can stand up to a charging elephant, we're going to be fine."

On deciding to leave Africa

I had vowed, I mean, from early on, to never leave the continent. And southern Africa seemed — with him there, I would have both the country that I loved, but then I could be kept safe from the worst things that that country could throw at you. As it happened to my parents, you know, they had lost 3 children. And Charlie, with his sort of U.S. citizenship which feels very unassailable when you're from somewhere like Zambia — it seemed like a perfect solution. But after we had been married for a couple of years, I contracted more or less permanent malaria. And I think that, along with the corruption of the government just wore Charlie down.

On Charlie's American career in real estate

You know I think that being raised the way I was, where you were prepared to fight to the death for the soil that you believed belonged to you. That kind of extreme engagement is very difficult to flush out of your system — or your belief system, anyway. And so to separate out what you do for a living from who you are, I didn't have the capacity to do that. To me it was all one thing. And I found it hard to believe that Charlie could believe that developing land was something that was in line with who his soul was.

On why her marriage failed

Do you know, I don't know the answer to that. I think honestly what happened was the marriage really allowed me — I think — and this country, this gift of sort of freedom of speech, allowed me to come into my own, to use a sort of trite term, and I think a lot of women in their 40s find themselves in this situation where they no longer have this wonderful but perpetual need of their children. They've become slightly or maybe very invisible to their spouse. But you know I think that there's this real way that I wanted to be self-realized. And the challenge of staying in love or growing in love may have been too much for him.

On what her family thinks of her memoirs

I think it feels like such a violation. But I don't think there's a point really to writing memoir unless you're going to aim for as much honesty as you can. I think for a writer it's really important to court eviction from your tribe to expose things and to wake people up. And so I think that that can feel like a violation to the people you love the most.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION for NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Alexandra Fuller's acclaimed memoir, "Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood" was a vivid account of growing up in Rhodesia before it was Zimbabwe, with white parents in revolutionary times in an Africa that was wild, seething and dangerous, but also electrifying, romantic and intoxicating. She wound up marrying an American man named Charlie who led safaris in Zambia, but that's a hard life for a couple, and they moved to the United States, had three children and ultimately, divorced.

Alexandra Fuller's new memoir is about the life she made for herself now with two children nearly grown, a third who is 10, in a country that's at once a more comfortable and sometimes more complicated way for her to live. Her new memoir, "Leaving Before The Rains Come." Alexandra Fuller joins us from Jackson Hole Community Radio in Wyoming.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Let's just say we met on a plane. How in the world do you describe this fascinating family you have to a stranger?

FULLER: You know, I think that what I learned when I came here was that mine is a sort of family that if we met on a plane, it's best just to pass the peanuts.

SIMON: (Laughter). Well, all right. Can I draw you out a little bit more, though?

FULLER: (Laughter). I mean, I think that the wonderful thing about growing up with parents like mine was that there was no rules from the outside. You know, my father always said those who need clear rules, you know, reveal a forbidden degree of self-doubt, fatal lack of confidence. You're supposed to know what to do without being told what to do. But given how sort of chaotic our childhood was - you know, we grew up in the civil war...

SIMON: The Rhodesian civil war.

FULLER: ...Right, and so there was so much chaos, so a few rules might've been a good idea.

SIMON: How did you fall in love with the American safari leader, Charlie?

FULLER: I think he represented for me all the adventure that I had been raised with, which I certainly didn't want to give up, but he seemed so in control of his adventure. He was a safari guide, so you, you know, go on a river for seven days and then you call in the Land Rover and you get rescued. You know, your adventure is sort of packaged. And that seemed to me the absolute best of both worlds, to have both the adventure and then a place to rest because ours was a life of unstructured and non-stop adventure.

SIMON: Did you hope he'd rescue you?

FULLER: Oh, of course. You know, our very first date, Charlie and I went canoeing. And we got charged by an elephant, and he stood his ground. And I thought, there you go, he can stand up to a charging elephant, we're going to be fine.

SIMON: I mean, that's a pretty good recommendation. It's hard to top that one. (Laughter).

And what made you decide to move to the United States? Were you just tired?

FULLER: No. I had vowed, I mean, from early on, to never leave the continent. And southern Africa seemed - with him there, I would have both the country that I loved but then I could be kept safe from the worst things that that country could throw at you, as it happened to my parents, you know, they had lost three children. And, you know, Charlie, with his sort of U.S. citizenship, which feels very unassailable when you're from somewhere like Zambia. It seemed like a perfect solution. But after we had been married for a couple of years, I contracted more or less permanent malaria. And I think that along with the corruption of the government just wore Charlie down and he wasn't prepared to stay.

SIMON: I'm touched by a section that I'd like you to read where you talk about, for lack of a better phrase, the kind of mindset that develops growing up in Africa.

FULLER: (Reading) In southern and central Africa, tragedy roared at us and we roared back. We shared our dramas publicly, bled them on the corridors of hospitals, laid our corpses on the beds of neighbors, held our sorrows up in full light. We were volume 10 about our madness and disorder, even if we were also resilient and enduring and tough. We survived magnificently and pretended to qualities of stoicism, but actually, even the most silent of us shouted the disordered history of our lives and our bodies and habits.

SIMON: So you move to the United States, where you become the wife of a guy who sells real estate.

FULLER: Right.

SIMON: That was tough?

FULLER: You know, I think that being raised the way I was where everything was so uncompromising, where, you know, we're prepared to fight to the death for the soil that you believed belonged to you - that kind of extreme engagement is very difficult to flush out of your system, or your belief system, anyway. And so to separate out what you do for a living from who you are, I didn't have the capacity to do that. To me it was all one thing. And I found it hard to believe that Charlie could believe that developing land was something that was in line with who his soul was.

SIMON: Some of the most moving section in the book describe you're in the process of trying to figure out how to dissolve your relationship, and then Charlie suffers - I think it's safe to call it - a nearly fatal accident.

FULLER: Yes.

SIMON: And you stayed with him through that.

FULLER: Yes.

SIMON: Were you tempted just to stay? I mean, it seems to make you realize you really do love him.

FULLER: I think there's a big difference between loving someone out of duty and dependency, and loving someone because you really are able to sort of grow and be whole in the context of that relationship. But on a day-to-day level our relationship really had become two solitary confinements.

SIMON: Did you marry Charlie because he seemed loving and reliable, and wind up leaving him because he seemed loving and reliable?

FULLER: Wow. You know, I don't know the answer to that. I think honestly what happened was the marriage really allowed me, I think - and this country, you know, this gift of, sort of, freedom of speech - allowed me to come into my own - you know, to use a sort of trite term. And I think a lot of women in their 40s find themselves in the situation where they no longer have this wonderful but perpetual need of their children. You know, they've become slightly or maybe very invisible to their spouse. But, you know, I think there's this real way in which I wanted to be self-realized. And the challenge of staying in love or growing in love may have been too much for him.

SIMON: Do you care what your family thinks about these memoirs?

FULLER: Yeah. Obviously, I think it feels like such a violation. But I don't think there's a point, really, to writing memoir unless you're going to aim for as much honesty as you can. I think for writer, I think it's really important to court eviction from your tribe, to expose things and to wake people up. And so I think that that can feel like a violation to the people you love the most.

SIMON: Alexandra Fuller. Her new book, "Leaving Before The Rains Come."

Thanks so much for being with us.

FULLER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.