You could put a lot of labels on Alexandra Fuller, but she would prefer you didn't.
"When we put labels on, we can't hear one another, and I think that the quality of our listening gets impaired if we go at our stories from sort of a team-based, lockstep political point of view."
That philosophy to not label, but instead to tell a person's story in a forthright, entertaining and honest fashion, may be part of the reason Fuller's writing has earned her accolades around the world.
She is the author of four acclaimed nonfiction books and one of three featured speakers next week during the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University.
Prior to leaving on a publicity tour to Paris and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, last week, Fuller was walking along the banks of the Snake River near her home in Jackson, Wyo., during a telephone interview.
The snow was crunching under her feet on the brisk morning, and she spotted some moose along the riverbank, a far different setting from her childhood growing up in war-torn South Africa. As Fuller walked, she chatted in her distinctive South African accent of her formative years, her colorful mother and her books -- one of which tells the story of a Mormon roughneck killed on a Wyoming oil rig.
Born in 1969 in Glossop, England (near Manchester), Fuller has no memories of her early days in England. Her family moved back to Africa when she was a toddler.
Her father, Tim Fuller, was British and her mother, Nicola, was Kenyan. Alexandra was the only one of her siblings born in the U.K.; her parents moved there from Africa after the death of her older brother from meningitis.
"Tragedy sort of impelled them to go back and try to live in England, but my mother couldn't bear it. It's too gray and dreary," she said.
The couple's decision to return to Africa grew out of what Fuller categorized as a "bizarre love triangle" between her parents and her mother's native land.
"My mother loved land and she is so incredibly attached to it and would die for it, and my father loved my mother and was so incredibly attached to her and would die for her," Fuller said. "So the three of them stayed together."
So the family moved back to Africa and settled in what was then Rhodesia, a place where a bloody battle for independence was about to engulf the family. Change was coming to South Africa, the apartheid system of racial segregation was faltering and the young Alexandra -- known as "BoBo" to her family --was coming of age. The groundwork had been laid to stir the fires of this budding writer.
"There was this massive internal shift as well as this phenomenal external shift that made me question everything," Fuller said.
A love of books
Fuller's family farmed close enough to Mozambique that they could hear the border land mines going off when people or animals stepped on them. Because of the land mines, Fuller said, she did not go to school during those times. Instead, her mother taught her to read and write and instilled in her a passion for books.
"She finds math and science very boring and she loves words," Fuller said of her mother. "So she never bothered to teach me to count, but she spent an inordinate amount of time teaching me how to tell stories."
As the war intensified, her parents joined up to fight against the liberation army, her father as a soldier and her mother as a police reservist.
Fuller writes in compelling detail of her childhood in her first book, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood" (Random House, 2001). The book was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002, the Booksense Best Nonfiction Book, a finalist for the Guardian's First Book Award and the winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.
Fuller has described her madcap mother as a "fiercely glamorous, hard-drinking woman capable of terrifying and sometimes racist madness and equally terrifying compassion, and a woman whose madness was fueled by the death of three of her children."
Fuller's other two siblings also died during infancy as the family struggled to survive in Rhodesia's harsh environment.
Her newest book, "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" (Penguin Press, 2011), is a prequel/sequel to her first book and a love letter of sorts to her mother. Fuller paints a vivid, funny, but unflinching portrayal of her mother's idyllic childhood as a white girl whose best friend growing up was a chimp in imperialist Kenya.
The book details her mother's struggles as a white woman during the Rhodesian civil war and how her baby brother's gravesite -- along with many others -- was left unmarked as a result of that war.
"Humans have an unerring capacity to ignore one another's sacred traditions and to defile one another's hallowed ground," she writes of the incident in the book. "Surely until all of us own and honor one another's dead, until we have admitted to our murders and forgiven one another and ourselves for what we have done, there can be no truce, no dignity, no peace."
Cowboy with dreams
Her childhood in Africa certainly affected her writing, but Fuller said her books are not political. Instead, she tries to paint an honest portrait of the people she examines in her books and the injustices she sees in the world.
"I think coming from South Africa is where I'm really intolerant of injustices and I'm intolerant of the way that people get around that sort of injustice," Fuller said. "I had it literally in black and white, growing up under apartheid."
Fuller paints one of those injustices in her book "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant" (Penguin Press, 2008), in which she tells the true story of a modern-day Wyoming cowboy working on that state's oil rigs. Fuller moved to Wyoming in 1994 with her husband Charlie Ross, an American river guide she met in Zambia where her family had moved.
Raised in a Mormon family from Wyoming, Bryant idolized his father, dreamed of owning an F350 pickup, loved to hunt, shoot and fish, and had trained mustangs straight off of the desert.
Like anyone else, he had dreams for how his life would go. Instead, the 25-year-old fell to his death from an oil rig due to lax safety measures on the part of the company, Fuller said.
When she wrote the book, Wyoming had one of the highest oil-rig death rates in the nation. Colton's death was the third in six months on a rig contracted by Ultra Petroleum, which had revenues of more than $592 million in 2006. Fuller said she was appalled by the carelessness with a human life -- all in the name of energy extraction.
"You get fined more for shooting a moose out of season in Wyoming than you do for killing a roughneck," Fuller said. "They are literally getting away with murder."
Fuller said she wanted to expose the injustice of what happened to Colton, but found it interesting how some people immediately went into a defensive posture because the book was critical of the oil company. She was just trying to tell Colton's tragic story, but was labeled by some as an environmental activist.
At the WSU literature conference, Fuller hopes to address the ineffectiveness of labeling and its relationship to the freedom of speech enjoyed in this country.
"I can say, 'Well, I'm in this club and I'm on this team and I'm in this group. Yay! We agree and isn't everybody else foolish?' But's that very middle-school thinking," Fuller said. "Instead of a really sort of robust, muscular and responsible use of voice, we sort of get these ranting tirades. I think we lose the dignity of our intelligence when that happens."
Instead of ranting tirades and political diatribes to throw to the inflamed masses, this storyteller strives in her writing to engage readers by getting them to think and listen.
She perhaps sums up her philosophy about writing best in her book "Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier" (Penguin Press, 2004.)
"What is important is the story," Fuller writes. "Because when we are all dust and teeth and kicked-up bits of skin -- when we're dancing with our own skeletons -- our words might be all that's left of us."