Interview: Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Photo of author Alexandra Fuller's mother Nicola as a young woman in Kenya'Alexandra Fuller - Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Photo of author Alexandra Fuller's mother Nicola as a young woman in Kenya'Alexandra Fuller - Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
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Telling the story of her family’s African trials mortified her mother. Now Alexandra Fuller is making amends, finds David Robinson

THERE’S a photograph of Alexandra Fuller’s mother Nicola at the start of her latest book. She is barefoot, wearing what looks like an artfully torn slavegirl costume, and is pictured backstage at an am-dram night in the Kenyan highlands in the 1960s. She is beautiful, smiling, has a chilled bottle of lager in one hand and a nearly full half pint glass in the other. If the last enchanted evenings of British Kenya – that’s Keen-ya to you, m’dear – ever needed a poster girl, she could have done the job to perfection.

“Nicola Fuller of Central Africa”, she called herself, though that didn’t stop her feeling “a million per cent Scottish” on account of being born on the Waternish Estate in Skye that her Macdonald ancestors used to own before they sold it to Donovan. Either way, she is one of nature’s indomitable extroverts – and this in a part of the world where being an independent-minded fun, white and mischievous woman seems to go with the territory.

Ten years ago, in Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, her evocative memoir about a childhood in 1970s Rhodesia, the world saw a different side to her mother. By then the Fullers had moved to a farm near the Mozambique border and white colonial rule was lurching to its spectacularly messy end. That war, and its aftermath, took a heavy toll on Nicola Fuller. She lost three children – not to fighting but to malaria, medical negligence and an accidental drowning. She had also, of course, lost her country – and temporarily, although there were long, agonising months when it mightn’t have seemed like that - her mind.

In what her mother still calls That Awful Book, Fuller gave us both a rebellious teen’s view of a reactionary war and a loving daughter’s portrait of her bluntly racist, heavy-drinking parents, not least when they were unhinged by grief. If you were, like Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, from an altogether different generation, one which buttoned down emotions, it seemed like a betrayal. “You don’t know who I am,” her mother told Alexandra, after it had been published and become a worldwide bestseller. “You don’t know what my life has been like at all.”

This book – passionate, funny, and compellingly dramatic – is her reply. The Tree of Forgetfulness is a wonderfully odd tree. “You can hack off a branch, stick it in dry, unforgiving, hot, baked earth and it will flourish. In a fundamental way, that’s exactly what my mother is,” Fuller explains. Metaphors don’t come any neater: in Zambia, where her parents cleared land to start a banana plantation and fish farm, they built their house in the shadow of such a tree. If you are troubled, the locals believe, the ancestors’ spirits who live inside the Tree of Forgetfulness will help you with whatever is wrong.

“By the time my parents finally found their farm there, they had lost everything,” says Fuller. “Three children, several farms, two wars. They didn’t even have a roof over their heads. In the Nineties, my mother had deeply lost her mind. It wasn’t just being mentally unstable – she had really lost her sense of self. All those other identities – a “million per cent Scottish”, Britishness, all of that had just fallen away. She was just the core of herself, reduced to what the tragedy, the racism, the war had never been able to take away – which was her really impressive courage.”

Her husband Tim had to learn to accept the realities of majority rule too. Maybe he and Nicola would never turn their politics completely inside out – some of the old prejudices would remain – but their minds would change all the same. From growing up in a time and place “where there were no limits on how well or badly, sane or madly a white person had to behave”, Alexandra’s father now found himself begging for land from a Zambian chief. Eighteen times he turned up outside the chief’s boma, begging for land and sent away each time with a request to return with a present of ever increasing size. Finally, the chief relented, and gave him a 99-year-lease on some land by the Zambesi that he could clear, plant with bananas and dig the pools for a fish farm.

So this book is really a coda: after her second memoir, Scribbling The Cat – about the long-term effects of war on a Rhodesian special forces soldier who fell in love with her – Alexandra Fuller has gone right back to the start of her family’s African odyssey, and brought the story up to date, writing most of it from her mother’s perspective rather than her own. It is about how Africa gets under a person’s skin, even a white colonist’s, gets under it so completely that you forget caution and compromise, that you give the land blood, sweat and tears even when it’s not really your land in the first place.

Tim Fuller was 59 when the chief finally leased him the land for his farm by the Zambesi. He’s 71 now. Health care in Zambia being what it is, I suggest to his daughter, she must be worried about him.

“He’s sick now: he has chronic malaria. But I wouldn’t like him to come over here now, rotting in some home for old age pensioners in Britain or the US [where she now lives in Wyoming]. Dad always says that over here we can certainly stay alive longer – but is it living?

“For him, dying spectacularly of malaria tomorrow … well, he’d say, you’d just have a headache for four days, then keel over. It’s no … You know, my brother-in-law bought them insurance, that if something catastrophic happened, they could fly him down to South Africa – because they’ve got good medical care there. And my dad made him cancel it. I want to die on the farm, he’ll say – and he’d be happy enough to die now. He’s done his three score years and ten, he says he doesn’t want to bat some other chap’s innings.”

Nor, it seems, is he just fatalistic about his own life. Earlier this summer, back home in Wyoming, Alexandra’s husband Charlie had a terrible horse riding accident (crushed spleen, broken ribs, strokes, apparent onset of death) and she flew him to a succession of hospitals, using a normal ambulance, two helicopter ambulances and an air ambulance plane. “When I told my father there was this long silence on the line. I thought I’d lost the connection. Then he said ‘God, that’s an awful lot of aviation fuel, isn’t it?’ ”

Is he OK now? I ask. “Fortunately they managed to keep enough blood flowing to his brain so he has only got some deficits. Speech, mostly. But then, he was a river guide – it’s not like he used language much anyway. You’d notice if it were me, but he has a middle American vocabulary of about 100 words.”

You can see her mother in her at moments like that. Not just the looks but the directness. It’s a colonial thing, she says. So for example, when she mentions that her grandmother, mother and her beloved Auntie Glug in Perthshire “all spent time in institutions for the mentally unhinged” she insists that she is not embarrassing any of them. “I think it’s a very western idea, to say here’s this shameful secret that we should only talk about behind closed doors. We Africans don’t have that luxury. If we’re going to go bonkers we will do it in broad daylight and be OK about it. It wouldn’t occur to us not to be.”

We Africans. Fuller’s accent is marginally more English than anything else, her passport is American and she’s lived there for almost as long as her years in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, yet that’s still how she sees herself. As an African, her story isn’t as singular as it would be here. Recently she had a dinner with three friends – an Indian, a Zambian and a South African who had married an Angolan fighter pilot. All of them had lost more than one sibling.

There wasn’t anything special about her own family’s experience. Other families in rural civil war-torn Rhodesia had been even been more heroic.

In Dundee, where she was a “spectacularly bad” student for two years before finishing her English degree in Nova Scotia, everyone assumed she was a racist and their eyes would glaze over when she told them how much she’d argue with her mother about majority rule. What kind of country was it, she’d say, when the forces of law and order would put out a notice of a curfew in tribal areas that would – “at number seven on the bloody list” – point out that any child seen after curfew would be shot? What kind of country would poison the rivers that flowed through guerrilla lands with cholera and the land itself with the biggest military use of anthrax in history?

Nobody listened. Nobody cared. By the Nineties, all of these things had happened more than a decade ago in a country a whole continent or two away. So Alexander, by now in America and married to her Wyoming river-guide, tried writing novels instead. She wrote ten. None got published. Finally, her agent dropped her. “You have got some talent,” he said, “but I don’t think you’ve got much to say.”

I hope he reads her new book. I hope he follows the stories of Bobo, Hodge, Boofy and Auntie Glug, all on the losing side of history, all making their own way through its lines.

And I hope he follows Nicola Fuller’s journey across Africa, through all of its tragedies, back to all of its hope, back to the mid-Sixties and that am-dram night in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.

He’ll see a woman that her daughter has to use her imagination to recognise. For back then, Nicola Fuller hadn’t known tragedy. Not really. In all the photos, her eyes smiled happily back at the camera. “She is someone else’s mother,” her daughter writes. “She is not the broken, splendid, fierce mother I have.”

l Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £14.99.