So I’m at the Sapphire event last night and at each Q&A, there’s the question, “Why did you write a sequel to Push?” And Sapphire says that the question is asked so much that it’s in the reader’s guide, but her answer starts with “This is not a sequel. A sequel would be about Precious. This is the story of Abdul, Precious’s son.”
Now I know that the second time the question was asked, the attendee was actually asking a different question, which was, “When you were writing Push, did you know there was a story about Abdul waiting to be written, and how much did you know about him? Did you know about his ordeal? Did you see the story as the other side of childhood abuse? “ Every novel raises more questions, doesn’t it, and so often, readers ask authors to write more about their favorite characters.
But Sapphire’s statement is valid. Is that a sequel? Or is it more of a cycle? I thought immediately of Sebastian Barry, I think there are lots of examples of this, and if I wasn’t spending all day juggling author dates for fall (we’ve got a little collision going in mid September—I’m hoping to sort it out by tomorrow), I’d do more research on novel cycles about relatives. Please feel free to comment on the blog with examples.
This is a phenomenon that is not limited to novels of course. There’s a storied history of memoirs where installments cover different members of a family. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, was followed by Half-Broke Horses, which focused on Walls’s grandmother. In a sense, this example is a hybrid, as one was a memoir and the other a biographical novel. But Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, his “mother” novel, was followed several books later by A Wolf at the Table, his “father” novel. One interesting thing about that pair of books was different his father was portrayed from one memoir to another. And of course the tone was completely different too.
And lo and behold, I’ve just finished reading a memoir that is another sterling example of this phenomenon. It’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller. Released last year by Penguin Press (coincidentally, the same imprint that published Sapphire’s The Kid), it came out this week from Penguin on Tuesday, and Fuller will be appearing at Boswell on Tuesday, July 10.
Fuller made a name for herself with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of growing up in Africa, moving from country to country as the governments collapsed, finally landing in Zambia, where the family now ran a fish and banana farm.
Let’s just say Fuller’s mom Nicola wasn’t too keen of what she calls “the awful book.” Yes, it’s sort of a “she who must not be named” situation. So after a few detours—Alexandra Fuller wrote about the family’s neighbor in Scribbling the Cat, and detoured to a story closer to her current Wyoming home in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. But she decided to return to the family, deciding that Nicola Fuller of Central Africa was simply too big a character to be limited to one story, and rather than be a supporting role, she was worthy of center stage.
The new book is part history, part travel tale, as Fuller retraces her mom’s steps, from the Scottish Highlands (her Mom considers herself one million percent Scottish) to a class reunion in the Kenyan tourist town of Mombosa, just after the bombing of a hotel.
The story is funny in places, disturbing in others. It’s chronological, but Fuller, by jumping back and forth from present to past, gives it a modern feel, almost like we’re sharing stories on the farm, drinks in our hands. Fuller does a surprising job of giving us empathy for a tough family, fighting on the wrong side of the Rhodesian war (remember, they were pretty much ostracized by the world for this). Hey, we as readers can forgive a child living through this, but the parents?
As Fuller notes, everyone’s a victim in memoirs. We were all Germans against Hitler, Jews that didn’t collaborate, Vietnamese that were bombed. When you write about an aggressor, you risk alienating readers, don’t you? But redemptive really is the word for this story. Nicola is human, amusingly, agonizingly, frustratingly, angrily, lovingly human.
And that, in a sense, brings me back to Sapphire. It’s so much harder to read about Abdul, the aggressor, the young black male, the boy who wants to be a star instead of the girl who wants to be loved. Unlike Fuller, Sapphire had to deal with some tough reviews on her new book, although interestingly, the three major British papers had universal raves. So is Abdul (or JJ) redeemed by art? That is the question. Interestingly enough, the folks who really get into this book are the caregivers and social service workers. Almost everyone I've talked to who really connected with the story was a teacher, an AIDS nurse, a social worker, or a volunteer coordinator.
Fuller, on the other hand, has had pretty much universal love for Cocktail Hour. Here are a few reviews:
The Sunday New York Times review from Dominique Browinng
David Robson in the Telegraph
Binka Le Breton in the Washington Post
Robin Vidimos profiles the author in the Denver Post, tieing into her hardcover Tattered Cover event.
So one more thing. This was originally going to be a straight reading/talk/signing, and then I started speaking to Mitch Teich at WUWM's Lake Effect about how well the Eva Gabrielsson went. He told me how much he enjoyed it and how he’d love to try this again. And I thought about how I didn’t actually get to see the event, because I was in New York. We looked at the schedule, and Teich talked about how Fuller’s book helped him understand how rich memoir could be. It was a seminal, ground-changing story for him. And we said, heck, let’s see if we can make this work.
And I think it will! See you there.