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Conversations with America

Conversations with America: Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller

Julia Barton

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Alexandra Fuller in Wyoming
(Courtesy Alexandra Fuller)
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Elections are bearing down on us. Sometimes we can get a sort of mental whiplash from all the back-and-forthing during the week. The weekend, if you're lucky, is a time when you can stand back from some of that and reflect on what's really important. Between now and election time, we're asking some folks to bring us their personal takes on what's important in this election. What we should keep in mind as we decide the future of the country. Our first essay comes from Alexandra Fuller. She's a writer in Jackson, Wyoming. But she grew up in a very different place. Sort of.

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Watching the recent political conventions, I started to worry that the politics of my adopted country were beginning to feel more and more like the politics of the country that raised me: fear-based, unimaginative and sloganeering. I was raised in an insular southern African country by a small colonial community for whom the mere idea of thinking bordered on an unnatural act. There was state censorship, media blackouts and a complicit muting of ideas. History lessons were confined to rather dreary accounts of white explorers' victories in battles against nature and native people. Literature classes were limited to the study of works that were unlikely to raise uncomfortable questions about apartheid and inequality. We listened, primarily, to the Swedish pop group ABBA who, while providing a predictable beat for our awkward attempts at dancing, hardly caused a person to want to burn a bra or set fire to the flag.

The Rhodesian war ended in 1980, and schools were finally integrated. Books and music, regular fare in every other country in the world -- Ann Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," Doris Lessing's "The Grass is Singing" -- found their way into our hands. The result was incendiary. I felt as if I were a one-person revolution, a walking explosion of thoughts which, at any moment, might seep out and forever tarnish me in the eyes of my own, still doggedly racist and unchanging, white community. Then a couple of girls at school who had been in exile overseas during the war introduced us to an audio recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. Someone else played us a Bob Marley album. After that, there was no end to the discoveries, the rich world of revolution that had been churning in the rest of the world while we were bogged down in a civil war. Everything seemed equally radical to us: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Erica Jong, George Orwell, Chinua Achebe. Even Boy George with his gender-defying looks and high, plaintive voice blew us away. Later, when we discovered black Zimbabwean writers whose work had been absent from national library shelves - Dambadzo Marechera, Chenjerai Hove - the excitement of so much freedom of information falling on us in such a short time meant that we didn't have the opportunity to be cynical, apathetic teenagers. We were far too busy waking up.

Twenty years have passed. Now I live in Wyoming with my husband and three children. Writing about the West, and in particular the recent oil boom experienced by Wyoming, I found myself penning angry screeds about our failed energy policy, the effect of drilling on wildlife and rivers, on air quality and communities. I was exercising my full and loud right to speech, but I wasn't listening. Without noticing it, a kind of middle-age plaque had settled onto my thinking. Instead of an open mind, I had built up a self-protective shield of ironical, liberal come-backs. My beliefs had calcified into unexamined prejudices.

And then a year ago, unexpectedly, I found myself writing a true story about a Wyoming cowboy who had been killed on the oil rigs on Valentine's Day 2006. Colton H. Bryant was 25 years old when he fell to his death, leaving behind a wife and two small children. In the strain to understand Colton, to understand who he was through interviews with his family and his best friend, I found myself for the first time in decades listening to a new voice, a fundamentally different voice from the one to which I usually exposed myself. He was a hunter, a snowmobiler, a self-proclaimed redneck: In short, he resembled people I grew up with and whom I had spent most of my adult life attempting to grow away from. But telling his story, my self-protective layer of cynicism started to wear down, until I had to admit that my own soul had been exposed by this blue-eyed roughneck. I even went back to church, to the astonishment of myself and everyone who knows me well, and found myself literally on my knees, acknowledging the truth of communion: That we all, liberals and conservatives, roughnecks and writers, must share from the same loaf, drink from the same cup, breathe the same air. We all have souls in common. This shift in my thinking has been a gentler revolution than the one I experienced in freshly-liberated Zimbabwe, but still a reminder that being exposed to fresh ideas is always life-changing. And that voting in line with the labels we have attached to ourselves - feminist, soccer mom, maverick - is less honest than voting with our souls.

  • Music Bridge:
    Tony One
    Artist: Sack and Blumm
    CD: Shy Noon (Auto Pilot)
More stories from our Conversations with America series

Comments

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  • By Dewitt Watson

    From Batavia, OH, 03/24/2012

    I am on the 3rd book of yours,you rival
    Hemmingway & Faulkner. As a conservative
    & a Christian I am also concerned about
    the election. We need to return to the
    values of our founding fathers ie: hard
    work, freedom from an oppresive gov"t
    the ability to keep the fruits of our
    labor while generously helping thosein
    need self reliance & respect for those
    differing from us. We need a modern day
    Geo Washington.

    By John Mulholland

    From Chicago, IL, 09/20/2008

    I caught just the very last sentences of this report on our car radio, as I took our children to church youth group. Intriguing idea - that the Christian communion service of sharing "... from the same loaf, ... the same cup, ... the same air" can be a revolutionary act, lead to a revolution in thinking, a paradigm shift for those of us caught up in the battle cries and battles of our day.

    Interestingly, the battle cries of Martin Luther King, which, among others, had inspired me to go to Swaziland, Africa, as a teacher with the Peace Corps many years ago, were not much help once I arrived there and went to work. His words had directed my attention, but they were not much help in all the nitty gritty of daily life and teaching among, what turned out to be, Swazi "souls in common".

    Thank you as well, Alexandra Fuller, for your report of the closed minded life in the country once known as Southern Rhodesia. Never before had I heard or read of how life and thought had been controlled during those dark days in southern Africa. Very enlightening, for past, present and future.

    By Alan Browning

    From Sanford, FL, 09/20/2008

    So, you're your own person now, and can re-discover your roots and religion. What else is new? Are you saying we should understand our common humanity? Sure, but does that mean we should embrace the idiots and "rednecks", at both the governmental and working class levels of American, Zim, and so many other countries, who have looted these places and caused so much impoverishment and suffering among decent people? Be careful; your well-intentioned words are sounding perilously close to pap!

    By Mary Frey

    From Elizabethtown, PA, 09/20/2008

    I so appreciated Alexandra Fuller's account of her development as a young Rhodesian/Zimbabwean and as an adult discovering and embracing "soul." I was born and grew up in Rhodesia, leaving just as the war began. I always wished to know what it was like for young people when independence came to Zimbabwe, how they received and experienced the opening up of musty colonial institutions of learning. Thank you for posting her wonderful essay.

    By Godfrey Muwonge

    From Milwaukee, WI, 09/20/2008

    This story made me cry. Not because of guilt; not because of anger; but because of the relief that I, too, can vote my soul. More than that, however, I can heal. As an African who adopted America, the re-discovery of communion, kneeling and saying a prayer is a wonderful suggestion for mother, father and my brother and sisters who never made it here and will never vote because they passed on before democracy came their way. All I can do, as Alexandra so aptly suggests, is commune with those around me - my new family - and vote my soul, saying the prayer, "here's to you, ma..."

    By Anna Keating

    From South Bend, IN, 09/20/2008

    Yes, yes, yes. This is the story about the election I have been looking for and have yet to find. Thank you Ms. Fuller.

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