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A Startling Mosaic of a Life, a Country, a Continent

Marian Palaia’s novel, The Given World, was shortlisted for the Saroyan International Prize for fiction, longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for first novel, and recognized by Kirkus as a 2015 Best Novel. She lives in San Francisco, California, and in Missoula, Montana, with her Mongolian Barking Shepherd, Tupelo. She and Ted Kaczynski were neighbors in the early 1980s, when she was the littlest logger in Lincoln, Montana.

When we meet Bobo, who is Alexandra Fuller’s younger self in her memoir DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, it is very late, or very early, and she is in the loo. Her older sister Van is there with her, holding a candle, on the lookout for spiders, snakes, and scorpions, while Bobo pees. Bobo is maybe five, and has woken her sister instead of her parents to accompany her, because waking her parents might mean being mistaken for a “terrorist” and getting shot.

By mistake, her mother says. To which Bobo says, Okay.

“As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa, because she isn’t armed.”

By the time Bobo is seven, she can field-strip and reassemble her father’s Uzi. Her mother carries one as well, everywhere she goes. This is Rhodesia in the 1970s, and Bobo’s family, along with all the other white families, is at war. The native Rhodesians will win, and the place will become Zimbabwe. We get, from Fuller’s telling of the tale, that it never should have been Rhodesia in the first place, never should have “belonged” to the whites, but it is something she doesn’t say directly. Because this is not a sociological study: it is the story of her life. It is the story of much of Africa’s life, too, when colonialism seemed the most natural thing in the world, to some. Alexandra Fuller’s generation straddled two starkly different realities, and the juxtaposition, the way she writes it, is powerful.

It is Fuller’s refusal to editorialize, which allows her readers to think, and to draw their own conclusions (something I wish more writers would do), as well as her ability to write stunning sentences and descriptions, that draws me back to this book every year or two. Like Mary Karr in THE LIARS’ CLUB, Fuller simply lets what happened speak for itself. She doesn’t rationalize, and she doesn’t emphasize either beauty or brutality, things that ought to, and in this case do, contain their own emphasis.

DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT is a startling mosaic. I’d venture to say that most of us who were alive and cognizant in the ‘70s had no idea about the unrest taking place in the region. If we thought about Africa at all, it was abstract: we thought about proxy wars and isolated incidents.

But, in addition to being its own mosaic, this story is also part of a larger one that extends over much of the planet, as it has done so for many lifetimes, and will for a very long time going forward. And in a world where there is no such thing as homogeneity of experience, knowing each other’s stories, whether they correspond neatly to our own or not, is critical, if we are to remain human. This book works, in all its vital humanness.

 


Marian Palaia is the author of THE GIVEN WORLD.


Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
Alexandra Fuller

In this candid memoir, Alexandra Fuller recounts her childhood spent on a series of farms in southern and central Africa while her father fought on the side of the colonial government in the Rhodesian civil war. Unsentimental, gritty, and often hilarious, it is a captivating portrait of continental and familial unrest.

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By mistake, her mother says. To which Bobo says, Okay.

“As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa, because she isn’t armed.”

By the time Bobo is seven, she can field-strip and reassemble her father’s Uzi. Her mother carries one as well, everywhere she goes. This is Rhodesia in the 1970s, and Bobo’s family, along with all the other white families, is at war. The native Rhodesians will win, and the place will become Zimbabwe. We get, from Fuller’s telling of the tale, that it never should have been Rhodesia in the first place, never should have “belonged” to the whites, but it is something she doesn’t say directly. Because this is not a sociological study: it is the story of her life. It is the story of much of Africa’s life, too, when colonialism seemed the most natural thing in the world, to some. Alexandra Fuller’s generation straddled two starkly different realities, and the juxtaposition, the way she writes it, is powerful.

It is Fuller’s refusal to editorialize, which allows her readers to think, and to draw their own conclusions (something I wish more writers would do), as well as her ability to write stunning sentences and descriptions, that draws me back to this book every year or two. Like Mary Karr in THE LIARS’ CLUB, Fuller simply lets what happened speak for itself. She doesn’t rationalize, and she doesn’t emphasize either beauty or brutality, things that ought to, and in this case do, contain their own emphasis.

DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT is a startling mosaic. I’d venture to say that most of us who were alive and cognizant in the ‘70s had no idea about the unrest taking place in the region. If we thought about Africa at all, it was abstract: we thought about proxy wars and isolated incidents.

But, in addition to being its own mosaic, this story is also part of a larger one that extends over much of the planet, as it has done so for many lifetimes, and will for a very long time going forward. And in a world where there is no such thing as homogeneity of experience, knowing each other’s stories, whether they correspond neatly to our own or not, is critical, if we are to remain human. This book works, in all its vital humanness.

 


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