Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight has been met with justified acclaim. I use this book in my courses quite a bit, and now I’ve suggested it to some Swarthmore alumni reading groups (whose members would be very welcome to comment here after they meet to discuss the book). I’ve tried to circulate some questions to the reading groups, and run into some email trouble, so I figured I’d duplicate those questions here for the benefit of all and sundry.
A few words on the book itself: it’s one of those books which I love to teach because it’s distinctive, powerful, and unafraid. It’s the diametric opposite of the careful monograph: it has rough edges and raw surfaces, it makes a reader uncomfortable rather than soothed. There’s a tremendous amount to discuss in it, from Fuller’s stylistic ambition to write from a child’s perspective to its naturalistic recounting of the white settler mentality in southern Africa.
It’s a memoir of growing up in a white farming family in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, and then following her parents to Malawi and Zambia after independence, where they continued to pursue farming. I suppose what I like best about it (this will be clear from my questions below) is that it refuses to indulge in the usual liberal after-the-fact confessionals, the typical structure of the coming-of-political-age story among white southern Africans that mirrors the didacticism of most postcolonial black African fiction. It’s not that such writers, like Peter Godwin, for example, are insincere in offering such narratives, but that structured narrative does tend to cast other whites who have not “come to awareness” similarly as a brutal Other, beyond our comprehension or sympathy.
Anyway, here’s the questions I posed to the reading groups for their discussion:
1. Fuller works very hard to maintain a view of southern
Africa from a child’s perspective. Would you rather know
the history of those years from the inside out, through
her eyes, or know something in advance from an
authoritative, “objective” view? (This is always hotly
debated in my classes when we read the book.) If you’d
like to know something in advance about historical
background and context, take a look at Wikipedia
(www.wikipedia.org) on the following topics: Rhodesia,
Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. (Feel free to pose questions here in the comments as well.)
2. The back cover calls the book “unsentimental and
unflinching”. This is especially true of her description
of the racial attitudes of white settlers: she does not
apologize for them nor explains them away, but neither
does she justify or excuse them. There’s almost nothing
conventionally “confessional” here except perhaps her
invitation into the home of a black African, pp. 235-239.
When I’ve read this book with classes in the past, some
people find this very unsettling; others appreciate the
honesty. How do you react to this choice?
3. Fuller says here and elsewhere that she and her family
are Africans, if “accidental Africans”. She makes it very
clear that she resents anyone trying to qualify or refuse
that statement. How do you react to that claim?
4. Fuller calls this book a declaration of her love for
Africa. What is it that attracts the Fullers to Africa?
Why do they come? Why do they fight so hard to stay?
5. How much of the family’s interior lives is an
expression of their exterior situation? Is her mother’s
psychological condition just that, one individual’s
psychology, or is it an internalization of some
instability or madness in the family’s social circumstances?
6. What’s the source of the violence and chaos that
surrounds the Fullers’ world? Who or what is responsible
(if anyone or anything)?
7. If all you had was this book, what could you say about
black African individuals and communities? Do readers of
this book really know anything about southern Africa when
8. The incident involving Violet and July (pp. 117-129) is
potent. What does it say about the mutual entanglement (or
lack thereof) of white and black lives in late 1970s
For more on Fuller, see
(a 2002 article by her about a trip to Zimbabwe)
(an interesting interview with her)
(another interview, more concerned with her second book,
Scribbling the Cat