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February 23, 2015

Book Notes - Alexandra Fuller "Leaving Before the Rains Come"

Leaving Before the Rains Come

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Alexandra Fuller's Leaving Before the Rains Come is a powerful memoir on marriage, family, and divorce set on two continents.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Ms. Fuller writes with ferocity and precision, and she turns the story of her marriage and its disintegration into a resonant parable about a couple's mismatched views of the world."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Alexandra Fuller's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come:


My latest memoir (Leaving Before the Rains Come) started out to be a story about my father but ended up being a story about me, and about the slow possession of self that anyone must come to in order to be an authentic person. In the process of this self-possession, I explored what it meant to be the daughter of colorful, complicated parents (British, but who have spent the vast majority of their lives in southern Africa); the increasingly silent stalemate of my twenty-year marriage; the role of mother and women in the US (where ‘you can have it all' actually seems to be code for ‘you can DO it all'); and my eventually realization that all of us can only truly hope to be ourselves. Not "good" daughters, wives or mothers, but women (or sons, husbands, fathers, but men). I mean, it is inevitable that we will disappoint most of the people in our lives, but if we can figure out our bedrock, we at least won't end up being a disappointment to the person to whom we are most accountable – ourselves.

In every way, this book is noticeably more silent than anything I have written before (my other books are so full of music I included playlists in the back of two of them). Maybe this is because my father – who ends up being a major character in this memoir - is taciturn and often complains about all the noisy women in his life (my mother, my sister, me). And the man I married – who is less a major character than a cypher in the book, but nonetheless has much to do with the book's trajectory - was always turning down the music and begging me to find middle ground.

I never could find the middle ground of anything. From as soon as I knew that margins and edges existed, that was what I wanted to be exploring. This short playlist celebrates that truth.

ABBA "Angel Eyes"

In the first chapter of the book, I write about how, if my parents had a soundtrack, it would be Artie Shaw, or Doris Day (all crooning nostalgia) but that my sister, Vanessa, and I were raised on the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA. I think there is a generation or two of white southern Africans who can't listen to these songs without being cast back the weddings and house parties of their childhoods.

When I was writing the book, I was inspired to buy a copy of ABBA's greatest hits and was mortified to find myself sitting by the CD player with tears streaming down my cheeks. We were raised with so few clues about social justice (the white Rhodesian government wasn't big on such things), we had no idea that a world beyond our very closed borders existed, and we were listening to ABBA! We hardly stood a chance. Revolutions and grand ideas don't happen when kids are listening to the world's most addictive pop. Which may have been the point.

IPI NTOMBI "The Warrior"

On the other hand, as I confess in the book, Vanessa and I learned to dance to Ipi Ntombi's "The Warrior" - a South African musical about a young man who must leave his village to find work in the mines of Johannesburg.

Don't get me started on the contradictions: On the one had we were being raised in an overtly racist culture by an overtly racist government and our parents and the parents of everyone we knew, and every white male over the age of 18 and under the age of 60 had been conscripted into the Rhodesian army, and there we were waggling our hips to pastiches of South African indigenous music. But something about those rhythms must have broken ABBA's spell, because it wasn't long before I was starting to listen to Shona artists, without really listening, by which I mean it just seeped into my consciousness and one day I found myself able to hum along to the music.

THOMAS MAPFUMO – "Tombi Wachena"

Just to admit that you listened to Shona music as a white Rhodesian was an act of rebellion, but Shona music was the weather system of my rural Rhodesian childhood. It was played all around me, in the villages, compounds and in the small stores where women would come to do their marketing; salt, oil, dried fish. I so remember those little establishments, always with a busy tailor whirring cloth through his fingers on those old treadle sewing machines which have a rhythm all their own.

I especially love this 1977 single by Mapfumo – a simple love song that has nothing subversive about it - because it reminds me that our first acts of rebellion often happen unintentionally and internally, in our heads, when we are too young to even know that they are acts of rebellion. And that so often, rebellion isn't inspired by something overly political, but by something catchy and uplifting such as this song.

Mapfumo, also known as "The Lion of Zimbabwe" is truly one of the heroes of Zimbabwe. He is a year younger than my mother, which I find astonishing because he feels restlessly and perpetually current and to be pressing against the conditions of whatever injustices present themselves. In the 1970s, he resisted the Rhodesian government – creating so-called Chimurenga Music (Chimurenga, meaning "Outcry" is the name given for the liberation war which eventually saw the end of white minority rule) - and in time he has become a courageously outspoken critic of the tyrannical rule of Zimbabwe's longstanding dictator Robert Mugabe.

PÉPÉ KALLÉ AND THE EMPIRE BAKUBA – "Pres du Coeur"

After I married my American husband, and we were living in Lusaka Zambia in the early 1990s, you could not move without hearing Pépé Kallé, or hearing about him. I spent long days at home while my husband tired to negotiate getting permits for the safari company he was working for. My closest companion in those long months was the man we had hired to take care of the horses. During the rainy season, when it was too wet to do anything with the horses, and the electricity spluttered off, we sat gossiping in the kitchen and listening to the radio.

Known as "Africa's Elephant" because he was over six foot tall and weighed over three hundred pounds, I would say Pepe Kelle was Zaire's equivalent to ABBA. All you have to do is listen to this song to know why. I remember the big story about Pepe Kelle around this time was that the band's dancing dwarf, Emoro died while on tour in Botswana.

That story alone reminds me how surreal everything felt in Zambian in those years. It was as if we were all coming out of decades of socialism to this bigger, brighter, newer world where a carnival atmosphere was the norm.

ANNETTE BRISETTE – "Nah Nah Nah"

When my husband and I left Zambia with our baby daughter and moved to the States, I was so incredibly homesick, I experienced it as a physical longing. I remember being baffled by my adopted country. Everyone seemed in such a terrible rush, and although there was so much abundance, there seemed to be very little in the way of the kind of accidental, spontaneous joy that I was used to in Zambia.

I found this song quite by accident. And I played it over and over to my little daughter, Sarah in our Idaho kitchen when it was too cold and snowy for me to take her outside for long. I was still living as if we were in Zambia – I'd buy twenty-five pound bags of rice and beans and flour and cook everything from scratch (modern conveniences common in most American kitchens terrified or stymied me). So my memory is setting the bread to rise, and dancing Sarah around and around and I think this song perfectly captured the enormous love I had for my daughter, and the great sorrow I had at leaving Zambia.

KOKO TAYLOR – "I'm a Woman"

And finally, here is the song that epitomizes a woman coming into her own. I think Koko Taylor is such an exuberant, unapologetic voice for women everywhere (or for unafraid men!). When I finally went home to see my family in Zambia – after all the dust of the end of my 20-year had settled, and I embraced the full wonderful contradiction of being less alone than I had in all my life, I think this could easily have been the song that carried me there. Dad said, "I should probably have warned you from the start. Living your own life can be bloody frightening, and you will be lost half the time. But if I had told you that, you might not have set out in the first place, and that would have been a terrible waste."


Alexandra Fuller and Leaving Before the Rains Come links:

Bookforum review
Chicago Tribune review
Economist review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review
Washington Post review

The Daily Beast profile of the author
Expat interview with the author
Globe and Mail interview with the author
NewsHour interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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