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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff