Artists are Troublemakers: Alexandra Fuller and the Art of Memoir

Guest Article by: 
Doni Wilson

Alexandra Fuller is not even fifty, but seems to have lived several lifetimes—born in England, raised in Africa, married to an American, divorced, now she primarily resides in a yurt in Wyoming. When she calls me from the Denver airport to talk about her newly released in paperback LEAVING BEFORE THE RAINS COME, there is a beep and she tells me, “That’s my baby calling me from Cuba!” After she talks to her child who is on a trip there, we resume our conversation. But it is a thrilling feeling to think of having so many places covering the globe on one’s radar—and the common denominator pulsing throughout her life—and her memoirs—is an openness to adventure that is often hard won, but rich in reflective insight.

When we start talking, we gloss on the power of social media, how even memoirists, who by definition reveal themselves, can still feel vulnerable to the slings and arrows of social media. Fuller says that writers can “end up so cagey…it’s so sad…because a lot happens in conversation afterwards” when talking about her books, and her life. Yet, she sees the necessity of revelation, in spite of its pitfalls.

“My whole goal of my work as a memoirist is to go deeper. If you are too careful, you can end up just skimming the surface, and it can end up solipsistic.” Instead of holding back, Fuller says that “ironically, you have to go deeper into the self…if done right, you go all the way through yourself, and that specificity goes to the universal, and then it matters.”

When asked how she started her first book, Fuller explains, “I was always going to write—I wanted to write. It blew me away that people didn’t know what they wanted to do. My father died farming—he knew what he wanted to do.” This was an important lesson that Fuller learned through her parents that informs much of her prose: “They do their lives—they don’t separate what they do from who they are.”

“Books were so heralded in my family—dogs, books and tea! Writing was the holiest thing I could do. I am eccentric, passionate, outspoken, what else would I do? Besides, artists are troublemakers—they are supposed to be! You are going to be unemployable!” she says with a laugh, but she is serious.

“Employment” is a central issue in her memoir—and an element in the dismantling of her marriage to Charlie, the American she married in Africa in her twenties. When I ask her about this part of the story, she explains that Charlie went from an adventurous life (he led safaris) to returning to America and going into real estate—a career move that did not seem “coherent” with his “soul.” She connects this to the palpable pressures in America focusing on “the making of money”—or the obsession with it, that disconnects us from our more authentic trajectories. She finds the “moral, cultural imperative to make money” something that is “culturally baffling.” More importantly, if you are not careful, it can lead to “making a living, but not having a life.”

Now, she is with a partner who is much more in synchronicity with her ideal of “a person doing their life for a living.” They live in a yurt in Wyoming—and she calls him “a challenge to all my hypocrisy. A lot of time is spent on living your life—surviving. When it is cold it is cold! But you are doing your life.” Here, Fuller explains it is a long way from the patriarchal expectations that still dominate marriage—even with the best of intentions.

We talk a lot about marriage, being in your forties and invisible to the culture at large, how marriage can turn into a “celebration of not rocking the boat—especially for women.” She’s had some tough reactions to her memoirs—the critique of marriage, the lapses from love and commitment that can come in a myriad of forms, but reveal something truthful about our longings and our emotional landscapes. We discuss how leaving a marriage, no matter what the circumstances, is often perceived as a “violation of some sacred code” that is often at odds with the fact that the invisibility of being female and in one’s forties has the irony of also being a time “of coming into some kind of power that is super-scary.” Along with that is often the opportunity to make choices that do indeed rock the proverbial boat, but they must be addressed, with Fuller noting, in an almost Emersonian way, that we are often in lives seeped in “denial,” and that we have to see that in order to break out of it. If not, the stakes are high, as she notes, “How you live is how you die.” Her forthrightness in her life, and in her books, “makes me very scary to men.” “Patriarchy has worked for them for the millennial because it has worked for them…but now there is a strong reaction against it. I don’t want my gender to be the train I get on and stay on—I am also a brain and a soul.”

Coming from war-ravaged nations, as well as a conflicted marriage, has made Fuller appreciative of her advantages in life. “We are so privileged in this culture…shouldn’t we be responsible for our own happiness, making things better? I think so.”

When I ask Fuller how she accounts for her success (her DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT was also a New York Times bestseller), she tells me that she had written “wildly unsuccessful novels” and that she was fired by her agent. However, because she didn’t think she would get published when she started writing memoirs, “I wrote what I thought. It was very freeing.”

She is often asked what her ex-husband thinks about her writing about their marriage and divorce, but notes that men are seldom asked the same questions when they write about their lives. She recalls that her father, who died last September, “never understood what I was doing” and would admonish her that “you will say anything!” an objection revealing his English upbringing, but highlighting Fuller’s interest in being authentic in her life and on the page. She believes in having a “fierceness” and being “a great advocate in the community”—all part of “living without compromise”—the same traits and issues that surface in her memoir.

Fuller notes she will probably stay in America—all her kids are here—and observes that “men have a lot more freedom to move than women” and discusses how in Zimbabwe, when there was intense violence, “the men could move—but women had to stay with their children and face the music.” When a woman gives birth, there is the immediate feeling “I am here forever.” Fuller says that that is also connected to how women “endure abuse of all sorts…domestic abuse shelters are not full of men. They are full of women and children.”

When I ask her what Americans do not understand about Africa, she says, “Well, it’s not a country.” She says that it is a myth that Africa “is a poverty-stricken hell-hole—it’s not, and full of brilliant, resourceful human beings.” She tells me how mind-boggling rich some of the leaders of African countries really are—but they “use Western ignorance to fill their pockets.” For example, the President of Angola has “twenty BILLION dollars in personal wealth, yet his people are incredibly impoverished. Charities are used instead of governing responsibly.” She says too many corrupt leaders are “tragically at the top.” What makes her want to “throw up?” When Americans travel to Africa and remark, “the people are so poor but they seem happy.” The income parity in Africa is a long-term problem that seems to be intensifying.

Fuller admires a wide range of writers, but at the top of her list is Michael Ondaatje: “he’s such a soul…a genius. He’s so old school…he doesn’t know how to use Facebook and stuff like that. He uses writing as like this sacred craft.” She loves Naomi Shihad Nye, especially her poem “Kindness,” which should be “required reading.” Ali Smith’s ARTFUL is also is in her pantheon. She likes authors who are “outspoken and brave.”

What does she do when she is not writing? “I ride horses—I have an Arab.” She also cross-country skis and hikes: “I get outside every day.” She has recent articles on Haiti for National Geographic—more on the way about Angola. She is also working on a novel.

Fuller explains, “I don’t have a goal for my ‘readers.’ I would ask that they come to my work with an open heart, soul, and mind. What they judge in a negative way, is the thing that they should look at…so they can search the self all they way.” This is what she wants to do herself in her books: “You live the life, then you write the bastard!” She thinks that there is a “peace that comes from self-knowledge” and the memoir is a way to get there. And she hopes that readers can read her words, and “through the work, know thyself.” Why? Because “I imagine we aren’t that different inside.” Her favorite quotation? Kafka, saying “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Her memoirs are a “spiritual quest. I don’t have all the answers, but I am certainly interested in the questions.”

Leaving Before the Rains Come Cover Image
ISBN: 9780143128427
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Books - January 12th, 2016

Alexandra Fuller reads at the Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, 14 January at 7 pm.

Dr. Doni Wilson is Professor of English at Houston Baptist University and also teaches for Writers in the Schools. She has written for The Millions, The Awl, The Federalist, Houston Press, An Open Book: The Inprint Blog, and Houstonia Magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Houston Chronicle, and recently had three of her essays selected for "The Best Reads of 2015" in Gray Matters, the award-winning online magazine of Houston Chronicle.

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