Grounded in grief

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - EL­IZ­A­BETH ALEXAN­DER

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.”

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