FEATURE: Authoring Atonement

By on August 9, 2017

Dying and waking up again with writer Alexandra Fuller.

(Photo: Jonathan Crosby)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – There’s a tradition among Shona tribes—Zimbabwe’s largest indigenous group—of atonement. For three days, victims and perpetrators of violence come together and share their perspectives. On the first day, the victims tell their stories. On the second, the perpetrators tell theirs.

That’s what Alexandra Fuller tries to do in all her writing: atone, account, reflect. Her latest book Quiet Until the Thaw is no different—except that unlike her other books, which are memoirs, it’s a novel, and she is not the subject. Fictional Lakota men are. And a white woman, some have criticized, has no business writing about Native Americans.

Fuller knows that. She expected such a reaction. “I came into this project very aware of appropriation,” she said. “I anticipated the question. I get it.” Indeed, Fuller understands the inherent danger in white people co-opting the stories of people of color. That in itself, she admits, can be a form of violence.

But the other reality, she said, is that white people tend to listen to other white people before they listen to people of color. Indeed, Fuller first learned the injustices in her home country of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, by reading critical white authors. “The first writers to awaken me were white,” Fuller said. “Whites in southern Africa had the only real access to editors and publishers, so that’s a good part of the reason, but even when black writers began to find a way to get their work published, it was the white writers whose work first gave me the beginnings of a sharp awareness of who I was—I was [among the people] they were writing about, the villains of the plot. They’d described our system of oppression, and me and everything around me was undeniably part of that system.”

(Photo: Jonathan Crosby)

In America, as in the Rhodesia of her youth, white people are the perpetrators of “violent racial capitalism,” Fuller said. So they must also be directly responsible for trying to dismantle it.

“Since white supremacy was created by white people, it has to be undone by white people. Obviously, minorities have been trying for a few hundred years, and haven’t succeeded, meaning the architects of this thing better get busy.”

Fuller spent months on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota researching for her novel—her first work of fiction. And though the subjects and the culture were foreign to her, the visible, lasting impacts of colonization and racism were all too familiar.

Quiet Until the Thaw chronicles two Lakota cousins from youth through adulthood as they grapple with generations of injustices that occurred during and prior to their lifetimes. What they share in history and ancestry, they lack in likeness: one, Rick Overlooking Horse, tries to navigate his life quietly and peacefully. His cousin, You Choose Watson, takes a more violent approach. Through prison sentences, parenthood, war, treaty negotiations and broken promises, they learn that their lives, like their histories, are inextricably linked, even when they seem completely at odds.

Oppressive parallels

Fuller was born in England, but moved to Southern Africa when she was just two years old. She grew up through a series of wars and dictatorships, through apartheid and intense colonization. She has detailed and worked through the ways she and her family contributed to, or at least were complicit in, racial violence in three separate memoirs. From an early age, she and her siblings learned a false narrative that black people were dangerous. She understood that, even as her family struggled financially and personally, there were certain privileges being white granted her—she could have a nanny fired at the snap of a finger, for example.

“You can only consume that amount of violence for so long before it comes out in your children, and I know that because that’s what happened to me,” Fuller said. “My portal through this was the grief, and work and liberation with working through my own lifetime of what being a white settler means—on two continents, by the way. I’ve spread out the pain.”

So when she first arrived on the rez, she recognized “the stamp of racial capitalism” from her own childhood. The Indian reservations of today are not all that different from the tribal trust lands in Zimbabwe, where a powerful minority of white people oppressed black Zimbabweans, confining them to a small slice of land. Fuller saw these parallels, and she wanted to hold a mirror up to herself, and to her readers. “I was just trying to shed light, that’s all I can do,” she said. “People here have a very hard time owning their violence.” Look at Pioneer Day, she said. It’s a celebration of white people taking over Native land. And people still celebrate it without any sense of the irony.

“The Indian war is not over because every single treaty between the U.S. government and Native communities has been violated, ignored, changed,” Fuller said. So she weighed her options: Was it more dangerous for her to tell this story, or not to?

Fuller says she came onto the reservation “on my knees.” For the first time, she was the minority. She started her journey riding 200 miles on horseback with 400 Lakota to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. “I was out of my depth completely,” she said.

One of the men she interviewed, the inspiration for her main character, made sure she knew her place. “I’d been on the rez a couple months, he said to me: ‘I don’t mind answering your questions—you seem interesting, you seem like you have a reasonably decent heart for a white woman and won’t be completely irresponsible with this. But you need to know that before I say anything to you, I have to forgive you first.’”

Changing one person

Fuller cannot delineate between telling her own story, and telling someone else’s. After her novel was released in June, she said a handful of interviewers (this reporter included) asked her about the difference between writing novels and writing memoirs.

There is none, Fuller said. Storytelling is a huge responsibility, whoever the subject. And she is no stranger to the admonishing: She shouldn’t write about her childhood because it is unfair to her family. She shouldn’t write about her divorce from her American husband, with whom she had three children. She shouldn’t uncover the ugly truths of Wyoming’s coal mines.

“I’d have to be a different person if I did what I was told,” Fuller said.

(Photo: Jonathan Crosby)

But if she’s learned anything, it is that she cannot write to change the world. That notion, she said, is a “complete delusion … such self-important egotistical rubbish. The only person I can change is here.”

She admits she embarked on her novel to be a “voice for the voiceless.” But what she learned instead were her own biases—the subtle yet pervasive myths she still held onto. “All my writing is just a reflection of myself,” Fuller said.

But that, she says, is enough. A big part of change, and of healing, is atonement. “There can’t be reparations without account.” It is painful, Fuller said, and “there is no one more allergic to pain in this country than the white middle-class.” Still, she says every awakening she has is liberating, and if she can help someone else wake up, she’s done more than her job.

Fuller used to pose this scenario to her three kids: You are one of three people trapped in a room with no doors or windows. The other two people are asleep, and you realize the room is running out of oxygen. Do you wake the other two up, or let them sleep through their deaths? Most young people, Fuller says, say let them sleep.

Her response: “No, you idiots, you wake them up. Part of waking up is being alerted to the condition of your suffering. Also the condition of your mortality.”

Besides, Fuller said, one those people might have the key. “You may wake up the person with the ability to lead you out of where you are.”

Recognize, rinse, repeat

Fuller just returned home from her book tour. She found, however, that in many places she visited, her audience was not there for her novel. They were there for her memoirs, especially her first, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight. In it, she examines race, war and complicated family dynamics through the lens of a young white girl in Rhodesia.

“The book that still resonates with most people is the first, but differently now,” Fuller said. Where readers once felt shock, now, perhaps, they feel a sense of recognition that “extreme violence of racial capitalism is coming back to hit us, the way it did these white Rhodesians in what is now Zimbabwe.”

Indeed, the violence Fuller witnessed growing up and the violence she sees in the United States are uncomfortably related. “I feel like I’m in this horrible, horrible film where you get to do, in a completely different universe, a life that you think can’t be repeated because it’s so violent, so self-evidently wrong, so based on lies and fear and greed and self-preservation.” 

(Photo: Jonathan Crosby)

Fuller wrote her first book perhaps as a warning for generations down the line. “I thought, well, it’ll be so long before this cycle shows up again, my kids won’t know what it is.” But the people she sees in power today are characters she’s met before. “These are knee-buckling dangerous times.”

She’s not shy about her opinion of the president: “Possibly the worst to have hit this country since the white man showed up and started to screw things up.” But she is critical because she’s seen it before. The tyrants of her past, she said, constantly pushed the boundaries of what they could get away with. The leader of her present does the same. “You can do these things, and people aren’t outraged, in fact they’re encouraged,” Fuller said.

Then there’s the “distrusting and shutting down of the media.” Fuller says the current administration’s attack on the media make her blood freeze. She thinks about it, and puts her head in her hands. “I know how this ends, is the problem… it doesn’t end well for anybody.”

She recalls a poem by German anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller that begins: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.” It ends: “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the Rhodesia of Fuller’s childhood, the only acceptable identity was white, straight, and gender conforming. To question that was an affront to national identity, and people died because of it. “We’re hearing this now,” Fuller said. “We’re hearing language that questioning white supremacy is to be self-hating.” Racism is alive and well, she said, but the people most responsible are the people with the most to lose, so they refuse to listen. But Fuller keeps trying.

“The thing I just keep coming back to over and over again is how toxic silence has been. People say you can’t change the past. That’s true. But you can have a profound impact on the present, by being present and by being accountable.”

“Lazy” work

Fuller moved to the states, and to Wyoming, in the early 90s, newly wed to an American and with a young baby girl. She tried to live the “American Dream.” She had three children, all of whom she adores and admires. But it was a lifestyle that was “really unbearable for me.” There’s a high price to pay for the American Dream, and for her it felt like it meant relinquishing her freedom.

“A woman comes to the point where she either completely loses her mind, or takes charge of it, speaks it,” she said. So she divorced her husband in 2012. “This liberation for me, I was so hungry for it. I was either going to go mad, or do this.”

By “this,” she means live in a yurt with her partner Wendell Field. It’s both freeing and familiar, she said, to live in an environment where she is 100 percent responsible for her quality of life.

“It reminds me of living in a village in Zimbabwe,” she said. She dug her own phone line. She plants her own food, though Jackson’s climate doesn’t always yield a fully stocked fridge. She knows the wood stove that heats her home “intimately.” She knows how much water she uses, because she carries it all home herself. And it’s liberating, she said. That space, and her own self-reliance, has allowed her to reflect and write and open up in ways she could not have known. To atone.

(Photo: Jonathan Crosby)

And all of this is related to her work. But “some of the work looks very lazy”— a fact Field continually points out, Fuller admitted. Sometimes, it looks like the two of them sitting around a campfire in the yurt park, just holding space for each other. Sometimes it looks like meditation. It looks like sitting in one of her many hammocks, and garlic growing in her garden, and the note to mice asking them not to eat it. (Field wrote that note, but Fuller kept it around.)

Almost always, it is a practice in listening—to her 23-year-old daughter, who has “courage and wisdom decades beyond her,” but “the experience of someone who’s only had two and a half decades on the planet.” To her 20-year-old son, who just recently wrote an article in PJH about his complicity in a sexist adolescent culture. To her 11-year-old daughter who, like her sister, gives advice well beyond her years, like not to bring a new romantic parter to the rodeo with family you’ve never even met. And it is listening to the subjects of her stories. But most importantly, to herself.

Back to the Shona tribes of Zimbabwe. On the third day of the atonement, the victims and the perpetrators of violence sit together under the same roof. “You all died that day,” Fuller said. “You’ll be infected with the trauma of your victim, and those will be your demons.” Both parties are at once equal,  because “everything is cyclical. It doesn’t matter. The only cycle you can truly undo is your own.” So Fuller continues to wake up, and die, and wake up again. She continues to atone. “In as poetic a form as I can put it.” PJH

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