Conversations with America: Alexandra FullerSEPTEMBER 20, 2008
- Alexandra Fuller in Wyoming
- (Courtesy Alexandra Fuller)
- View the Slideshow
- Conversations with America: Concluding the Conversation
- Conversations with America: le thi diem thuy
- Conversations with America: Oliver Sacks
- Conversations with America: Annette Gordon-Reed
More From Julia Barton
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.
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)