Grounded in grief
Elizabeth Alexander reads from her memoir, The Light of the World; a Lannan Literary Series event
“What a perfect May morning this is, one where I imagine he would have risen before us, fixed his coffee, and gone out into his garden. He would have stood upon his mount and watered the rows, sorting his head for the day. How will we now plant the vegetable garden? How will we thin the rows?” poet Elizabeth Alexander writes of her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, in her memoir about his death, The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing/ Hachette, 2015). Ghebreyesus was a chef, a painter, a gardener, and a father. Alexander is a Pulitzer Prize finalist who wrote and delivered the poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. She is a Guggenheim fellow, the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies at Yale University, mother of two teenagers, and a widow: In 2012, just four days after his fiftieth birthday, Ghebreyesus had a heart attack while running on a treadmill. Alexander reads from her memoir and is joined in conversation by journalist and book critic Maureen Corrigan at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Literary Series.
The Light of the World is unwavering in its direct approach to sadness and loss, yet it is also full of nourishment, bursting with numerous passages about food and a palpable abundance of love in Alexander’s household, before and after she lost her husband. “Now, the first full spring after his death, the still lives he set in the garden emerge. A small composition rises in a corner by the driveway: a stalk of grape hyacinth, scientific name muscari, derived from “musk” referring to the intoxicating scent which Ficre knew was my favorite olfactory harbinger of spring,” she writes.
After Ghebreyesus’ death, she told Pasatiempo, “I found myself writing, just putting words down to feel grounded, to stay grounded, to know what I was living through. To perceive what I was living through. Writing has always been my companion in life; it’s always been a way I have processed the world around me.” Though she had never imagined she would put something quite so personal into the world, her editor mentioned the possibility of a memoir. So Alexander kept writing and shaping, creating a prose so poetic that the book veers into the realm of cross-genre writing. “I am a poet first and foremost, and one of the things that characterizes our work is that not only does every word count, but every syllable, every letter counts,” she said.
The couple met in New Haven, Connecticut, in the summer of 1996, where Ghebreyesus owned and ran a restaurant with his brothers and Alexander was a visiting writer at Yale, working on a play. They fell quickly in love, got married a year later, and soon had two sons, Solomon and Simon. The couple’s shared intellectual and artistic connection drives much of the memoir, with Alexander writing at some length about Ghebreyesus’ use of color and subject material derived from his memories of Eritrea, in East Africa, where he grew up. As a young teen he attempted to join the military during the war with Ethiopia, but his mother, who had already lost one son this way, went to the front lines to retrieve him and then shipped him out of the country.
Ghebreyesus lived in Sudan, Italy, and Germany before arriving in the United States. He lived first in California, then New York, where he studied at the Art Students League of New York, and then New Haven. Alexander was born in New York City and grew up in Washington, D.C. Their families are scattered throughout North America, Europe, Africa, and other continents, and their wide circle of close friends comes from near and far. Alexander and Ghebreyesus’ New Haven home has been a central gathering place for holidays and get-togethers, and it’s clear that this is a family that appreciates houseguests and staying up late into the night discussing art and culture. Their two sons display intelligence and sensitivity. In a heart-rending passage, after Ghebreyesus dies, one of the boys invites Alexander to lie next to him as he falls asleep and to visit his father in heaven with him, something he senses she is not ready to do by herself.
The Light of the World falls into a genre often referred to as “grief memoir.” Other examples include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Many of the books are about the death of a loved one, but some wrestle with grief more symbolically, exploring the personal effects of traumatizing experiences and histories of abuse and oppression. Some critics have said that in our secular world, in which people have lost their connections to religion or cultural spirituality that provide grieving and healing traditions, such memoirs are handbooks for people in their darkest hours and for those close to them.
Alexander inserts recipes throughout her memoir; some are dishes Ghebreyesus cooked in his restaurant or for the family, and others came from friends and were cooked in the weeks and months after his death. The foods are fusions of African, Italian, American, and other global influences. None sounds incredibly difficult to prepare, and all fall under the banner of comfort food: pasta with pancetta, onions, and Parmesan cheese; shrimp with coconut, basil, and dates; spicy red lentil and tomato curry. Grieving people often forget to eat or don’t have the energy to figure out what to cook. In this way, Alexander seems to have provided a manual. “I hadn’t actually thought of the recipes in the narrative as an exhortation to a grieving person to eat, but that’s wonderful,” she said. “To me, the recipes gave a variation of language, which I thought was interesting, and they came in the way food comes in — the day-to-day making of food, the culture of food, the love of food, the routine of food, the body-health of food, the family of food, the communion of food.”
The life Alexander describes with her husband approaches an almost fairy-tale level of perfection, as if her family — and, by extension, every family in grief — requires a heightened sense of myth to convey how shattered they were by their loss. “I think most all of our lives have mythic patterning in them,” she said. “Most of our lives have heroes and heroic struggles and tragedies. All of these iconic types we know from great works of literature are kind of what life’s all about, in anybody’s family. Maybe there was something about writing from such a place of unconsciousness, in the wake of such sudden tragedy; all of those archetypes took over a little bit. I think in that regard my family is like all other families. We’re all larger than life in our intimate ways.”