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Lost and Found

Alexandra Fuller

     ... writer. Born in 1969, Ms. Fuller grew up White in apartheid Rhodesia as members of her family fought on the losing side of the war from which Zimbabwe emerged. She retraces her experiences in the midst of that war in her best-selling memoirs:  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight in which she recreates her childhood in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zambia; she describes her adult confrontation with racism and war in Scribbling the Cat:  Travels with an African Soldier. Ms. Fuller is also published widely in newspapers and magazines including “National Geographic.”  She lives with her husband and children in Wyoming.


When you create soldiers, they are your responsibility forever, Alexandra Fuller says. She brings two perspectives to this realization.  One was the shattered lives of soldiers who, along with her father, fought on the losing side of the bloody war waged against the apartheid white Rhodesian government (now Zimbabwe.) The other was examining the cracks she found in herself, the residue of being a child when war is as much a given as the weather.

Ms. Fuller's memoir of her childhood, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, was internationally successful. While she thought of that book as a love story to her mother, Ms. Fuller also told the hard truth of Mum's racism and her commitment to white rule that both put the entire family at grave risk and shaped Alexandra's childhood.

But when readers forgave the writer and not Mum, Ms. Fuller remembers feeling suddenly that somehow she had pulled off an enormous, astonishing lie. That's hard, since she's troubled by present-day writers and artists she believes have become flashy at the cost of honesty, comfortable in the presence of lies.

So Alexandra Fuller set out to find her own truths, address her own questions: How much of the Rhodesian war, with its propaganda and racism and hatred, had intoxicated her? How much of all that poison had become part of the fabric of her own being?

She understood very early that landscape has character, Ms. Fuller says. So, in the company of "K," a formidable former White Rhodesian soldier and her traveling companion, she headed for places where the war had been fought.

Along the way, they encountered other soldiers, men whose devastated lives convinced Ms. Fuller that no one ever recovers from war. Why? Because when a society breaks the fundamental covenant of civilization -- creates a soldier by telling a person to kill -- those soldiers give up their lives, their sanity and their futures in the belief that they are protecting you. The result, she says, is that they belong to you forever and more frighteningly, you belong to them.

You cannot undo war any more than you can recover from it, she says of the soldiers as of herself. To say that you can is a lie. War spools on and on and on, she says, like a broken videotape, the only bits remaining are the nuggets of hatred strung together, becoming a kind of video game in which you live out the rest of your life.

War infantilizes people, Alexandra Fuller learned. Even the wrathful God on whom K now relies to control his self-destructive behavior cannot melt the terrified 17 year old still trapped inside the aging soldier. And Ms. Fuller? She is relieved to have broken free of the frozen survival mechanisms that served her well as a frightened 9 year old. And she's concluded that there is no good and evil, only good and bad choices.

In the end, Ms. Fuller says, the most sane thing she learned from confronting a lifetime of racism and war was ... compassion.


[This Program was recorded May 2, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Alexandra Fuller tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that as a child, she decided to be a story-maker, understanding even then that landscape has character. She remembers the Rhodesian war (from which Zimbabwe emerged) being as pervasive in her childhood as weather.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:16

Conversation 2

Ms. Fuller describes her shift from fiction to memoir. She recounts how struggling in her first book to be honest about her mother forced Ms. Fuller to examine how the Rhodesian War, propaganda and racism had poisoned her. She describes her reasons for connecting with "K," the former white Rhodesian soldier with whom she traveled. When we creates soldiers, they are our responsibility forever, she says, and expands. She calls people to take her own and Africa's experiences as bad examples and horrible warnings.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:10

Conversation 3

Applauding the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, Ms. Fuller describes the profound impact of the Cold War on Africa, then focuses on the Rhodesian war.  She laments today's general acceptance of lies. She's not proud of how she behaved on the journey described in her second memoir, Ms. Fuller, says, concerned that too many writers substitute flash for honesty. There can be right and wrong ideologies, she says, but when you advocate killing as a way to resolve differences, there is no "right" and "wrong" because war violates the very concept of civilization.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:35

Conversation 4

The Rhodesian War dehumanized forever the soldiers who fought it, Ms. Fuller found, telling stories about her time with 3 such White African soldiers. She describes the splintering effect of colonialism for African people of all colors, people who have shed blood and seen it shed for their love of Africa. She describes the continuing effects of the war on members of her family of origin and on her. She refuses to reduce her story to heroism.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:53

Conversation 5

Ms. Fuller describes own psyche, rejecting a number of lies. There is no good or evil, she says, only good and bad choices, finding the ultimate sanity to be the compassion she learned on her journey with an African soldier. She describes her family's response to that journey. War infantilizes people, she acknowledges, with examples of how you cannot undo war.  Only one person in her story -- a Black African -- held onto his sanity, she reports, and for him freedom was a mixed blessing. She tells devastating stories from the Black African side of the Rhodesian war, related by Alexander Kanengoni in Echoing Silences.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:40

Conversation 6

We have become disconnected from our landscape through war, consumerism and greed, Ms. Fuller believes, convinced that this disconnection is violating our ability to evolve.  Taking stock of the enormous quantity of hate that had been poured into her, Ms. Fuller connects her experiences in Africa to her life in Wyoming.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:25


While Alexandra disavows heroics in her journey with an African soldier, she demonstrated a true “"trouper" spirit in joining us for this Convesation. We add our admiration to our thanks.

Esther Levine is said by many to be the best media-escort in the United States.
She regularly lives up to her reputation, as she did in assuring both Ms. Fuller's well-being and that this Conversation could come to pass.

Related Links:

Scribbling the Cat:  Travels with an African Soldier is a Penguin book.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is published by Random House.

There more information about Ms. Fuller and her work on her website.

Scribbling the Cat earned her the 2005 Ulysses Award for literary reportage.

Ms. Fuller's latest excursion into literary reportage (May, 2008)is The Legend of Colton H. BryantThe Economist calls it "a modern western" that "hangs so faultlessly on its high-altitude, big-sky, oil-drilling bones that it seems not so much to have been written as uncovered by the wind and weather of the American north-west." 

In Three Cups of Tea Greg Mortenson shows how education can mitigate circumstances leading to war or terrorism.

Barney Pityana was on the other side of the struggle to de-colonialize southern Africa.  Reza Aslan argues that much of the turmoil and armed strife in the world today is the result of colonialism.  In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond makes a case that, if rhinoceroses, like horses, could have been domesticated as cavalry mounts, Europe might have ended up colonized, rather than Africa.

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