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Alexandra Fuller Turns The Lens On Her Father In Her Memoir 'Travel Light, Move Fast'


Writer Alexandra Fuller says there is a black sheep in every proper family. And when it came to her very proper family in England, there was never any doubt that black sheep was her father, Tim Fuller. He was bored by England, choosing instead to pursue a large, loose, scrappy life moving around Africa before settling down as a banana farmer in Zambia. He was curious, meandering, famous for drinking to excess and stubbornly stoic when life threw its worst at him.

His daughter tells his story in her latest book "Travel Light, Move Fast." It's Alexandra Fuller's fourth memoir about her family, set once again against the backdrop of a brutal war and the wild wilderness of southern Africa. I started out by asking her how her father's philosophy to travel light and move fast shaped her childhood.

ALEXANDRA FULLER: It put in perspective when my grandmother said to me, your parents left their honeymoon on two wheels. You know, your mother sort of dragging her heel, and your father just never slowed down for the corners. And he did that for 30 years. He sort of moved with such intensity. He burned through time. He always leapt before he looked. I mean, I'm sure now, if you tried to put him through school, he'd be diagnosed with something. And they would sort of force him to slow down. But I lose count. But by the time I was 18, we had moved at least nine or 10 times.


FULLER: And then, at the age of 59, he found this piece of sort of scrappy kind of goat-chewed land on the edge of the Zambezi River. And he was so smitten by it. He was so smitten by the possibility of it. He stayed for the rest of his life there. And "Travel Light, Move Fast" was about a man who moved with incredible swiftness - my dad - and shed everything he didn't need. I mean, just understood that loss became gain. And so my father considered loss kind of an instruction, not something that stopped you, but something that actually gave you the message for how to go forward. And in this way, you know, he sort of let it absorb him. And her let it strip him down.

CHANG: One of the moments that stayed with me most in your book was when you were riding your pony when you were 10 years old. You fell off. And then this pony came back to stomp on you. So you're in this just agonizing pain. And the whole time to the hospital, you wouldn't let yourself cry. You wouldn't be stuck in the pain. You were taught that crying made you weak. Can you talk about how you were taught to deal with suffering?

FULLER: Right. I think that was really the kind of white settler way. And we were a combination of both things - white settler, which means you've set yourself up in a position of superiority that you now have to stick to, that includes somehow this idea that if you don't express emotion, you're stronger.

CHANG: Right.

FULLER: But I think a lot of that had to do with the basic abuse of the land and the people in which we were being raised, which is, I mean, there's no other word for it - white supremacists. There's probably nothing more dramatic than the neurosis of white supremacy, the constant sense that you've told a massive lie and that it's coming up beneath you anytime or around you or above you, you know, in the dark to get you. And so that leads to, you know, fear and anger.

And, I mean, we see it reflected in the United States in 2019, a sort of milkier (ph) version of my childhood. But, you know, I think it was part of, you know, being a Rhodesian is this way in which pain is taboo. And what it essentially does, of course, you deny pain in yourself, it allows you to deny pain in the people all around you.

CHANG: Well, to be more personal about it, I mean, there was one way you were taught to deal with pain simply as a Rhodesian, it sounded like. But there was also a way to deal with pain that your parents taught you. I mean, they seem to just march through pain, through suffering. They had lived through unimaginable tragedy. They had seen three of their children die. And they ended up developing this incredible ability to endure the utmost pain. Can you tell me - something that your father said stayed with me - can you tell me what your father meant when he told you, if you stay in the middle of the suffering, you will never find the edge of it?

FULLER: My father understood that if you take pain, if you take it personally, you'll stay there forever feeling it, making a story about it. It'll get bigger than you. It'll become your story. If you don't take it personally, it becomes part of your story but it shrugs off.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious how much you agreed with your father's philosophy about pain because when your father died, it was devastating for you. But then you go on to suffer even more loss after his death. And throughout all of that loss, you seem to sit squarely in the middle of your suffering, exactly the opposite of what your father advised you to do. Do you think you suffered in a way that your father would have ever allowed for himself? Do you think he would have disapproved of how you dealt with that pain?

FULLER: That is such a great question. I think we went a different route up the same mountain. I think I sat in the middle of my pain noisily. I wrote a whole book.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yes.

FULLER: He sat there very quietly. But I imagine the rings of hell are pretty similar to everyone. That's why I think, you know, somebody could tabulate the stages of grief. We say in this culture - in American culture - you know, people are always saying to me, oh, grief, it's so personal. But I'm so grateful that I was raised among people who understood that grief is not personal, it's communal - it has to be. You can't do this alone.

The myth of rugged individualism falls apart when you're trying to grieve something profound on your own. You - it's too much to lift. That's why, you know, in the cultures that I come from, the women (unintelligible), you know, that just chilling noise when a death is found. And you can hear it from so far away. And my whole life kind of - you're glued to the spot. You know, oh, a life has left. But what you also know is that the whole community is hitting the dirt.

You know, people are hitting the dirt with their grief and screaming, that there's this real performance of grief. And it's meant to demonstrate, listen, the bonds of physical love are really hard to break. So we're going to do it with you. We're going to help you get there so that that metaphysical bond can - with the ancestor can be more easily breached.

And we don't have even ancestors in white settler culture. We get, you know, in some way cut off. And I think we don't grieve responsibly as a nation, we don't - which is to take account of where you've been, say, yes, this thing hurt. This is the central pain. But I believe that my father got there because his ego dissolved.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

FULLER: And I know that's what - I know that's the only thing that helped me get through the subsequent losses I suffered after my father died was to realize, oh, every time I feel this stark, intense pain, that's just ego. And if I dissolve that, if I don't take it personally, this pain that I have a big long narrative about - because I'm a storyteller, what I do is attach narrative to pain - it will eventually dissipate.

CHANG: Alexandra Fuller - her new book is called "Travel Light, Move Fast."

Thank you so much for joining us today.

FULLER: Thank you for having me, Ailsa. This was great. It was good conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.