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Upcoming Pittsburgh lecture series speaker says home is sense of self, not place

| Friday, April 10, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Alexandra Fuller
Greg Marinovich
Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller, who will appear April 13 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Literary Evenings, is often asked if she is African.

It's a poignant question, because Fuller lived on a farm in southern Africa from the age of 3 until she was in her mid-20s. But she was born in Great Britain, and, after she married an American, moved to Wyoming, where she has lived since 1994. In her memoir, “Leaving Before the Rains Come” (Penguin Press, $26.95), Fuller writes that saying “I am an African” sounds false.

Instead, she considers identity to be mutable: “It's where we are that really counts,” writes Fuller in the memoir.

Where is she at this point in her life?

“Home is more a sense of self than it is a sense of place,” she responds via email. “The greats all knew this: Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus, Mother Teresa. All of them battled for the rights of the individual and for the greater good. They spoke for the disempowered, homeless, disenfranchised wherever they were, but they never lost sight that the universal always begins with the personal.

“It's taken me longer to realize or maybe truly feel this truth than it should, but home is not a place. Home is indeed universal, infinite, endless.”

Fuller's first two memoirs, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” and “Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight,” were about her unusual childhood and relationship with her parents, white settlers in the former Rhodesia. “Leaving Before the Rains Come” chronicles the end of her marriage and reflections on her family in Africa.

Susan Cheever, the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including two memoirs, has said that memoir is “the novel of the 21st century; it's an amazing form that we haven't even begun to tap ... we're just getting started figuring out what the rules are.”

Fuller thinks memoir has unlimited potential if done correctly.

“I think memoir is best served when the writer fights to keep the ‘me' out of it,” Fuller says. “In other words, as with great novels, the more personal the writing is, the more powerful it is. The more private it is, the more the form can start to feel self-serving and self-indulgent. Michael Ondaatje mastered the art of memoir with ‘Running in the Family' and James Galvin with ‘The Meadow.' Both those supposedly fictional books use memoir to explore larger themes of identity, family, land, inheritance.

“But I think there's a lot of slop out there, too. Most of all, I think it takes huge restraint to write a memoir. I find what is left out just as important as what is put in.”

That balance can be hard to achieve, especially when writing about loved ones. When asked whether she's regretted anything she's written, Fuller replies, “Everything, of course!”

To have no regrets would mean she'd failed as a memoirist.

“I've had months or years of real heartache and soul-searching when people I love have been hurt by what I've written or when critics have become truly nasty, or when I happen to have my attention drawn to something very personal or perhaps justifiably angry online,” Fuller says, “but after the initial blow and anguish (new and surprising with every book), I've come to realize none of this is ultimately important.

“I mean, my intent is not to hurt people but to entertain and enrich and enlighten. Of course, I fall short of those goals, but my first rule is compassion, and my second rule is honesty. And, in the end, I think some of my most powerful work is the stuff that has been most widely condemned or criticized. Then you know you're waking up people. Like Kafka said, ‘It's the job of the writer to take an axe to the frozen sea inside, not to placate people.'”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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