Life Is Affirmed in Elizabeth Alexander’s Memoir The Light of the World

Loss is a universal truth. As horrific as it is to face the loss of a loved one, especially suddenly, there is always a reminder that life is a force that can’t easily be stopped, or as author Elizabeth Alexander’s husband told her the nights she’d wake from fitful dreams: “It’s not easy to die.” These words are recited and echoed in Alexander’s latest book, The Light of the World, which chronicles the life and sudden death of her husband, artist, Eritrean activist, and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus.

The title of the book, Alexander says, came from three passages that eventually became the epigraphs in her book. “[O]ne is from Derrick Walcott where I started [my writing], ‘O Beauty, you are the light of the world!’ So there’s the idea that the beloved is someone who just makes up open our mouths and sing, just lights up the world around us,” she says.

The other passage stems from the Gospel According to Thomas concerning death, which, as Alexander says, asserts the idea that when a person of light dies, the world becomes darker. “So I thought that spoke to the darkness, not just what comes to us individually, but in the world entire when any light is extinguished by death,” she says. “And then, Lucille Clifton’s ‘the light insists on itself in the world’ brought me back to the idea that even after somebody dies, their light is indistinguishable. Their body may not be on Earth, but the light that is within them, that is now within the people that they love, is indistinguishable.”

After the death of her husband, Alexander took to her artistic outlet of writing to come to terms with her new reality. The courage to write the book came from the universal pain and strength from experiencing loss. “I think that, first of all, my personal tragedy is sadly universal in the sense that we all carry grief. Grief is a common denominator of different kinds. If we have not yet experienced catastrophic loss, sadly, we all will,” she says. “I felt that there was something universal that was there but that it could only be told in the absolutely detailed particulars of writing about this person, this love, this family, this life. It was this writing… that helped to ground me as I was moving through the loss of my husband.”

Alexander says that describing what was happening to her through her art “reminded me in the most profound ways that art is an offering I make, [and] that making art is also a way that I live and know what is happening to me.” This statement is reflected in part of her MSNBC Morning Joe interview, in which she said, “Art helps us to know what it means to be alive.” Alexander elaborates on that statement, saying art is constantly trying to savor or re-create life. “I think that when you make art, you try to capture… the life force as it is manifested… trying to create and lix the life around us in art is what art is. "It’s a facsimile of life itself. I think that people seem to need [art]… It is one of the ways that we know that we are alive.”

This recognition of the power of life is also reiterated in Ghebreyesus’ statement to Alexander: “It’s not easy to die.” Alexander says she believed that statement before her husband’s death, and she believes it even more after. “Even though we lost him suddenly, he had lived so much life. I think that what he was reminding me of, which I still believe, is that we are not made of paper,” she says. “That feeling of fragility, we all feel it sometimes, but actually, life force and human beings are strong and can endure all kinds of things. He had endured things that you might imagine would break someone — living through war, living through death squads, walking out of his country, walking to freedom — but he survived. Not everyone does, but he did, and many people do. I might have thought how would I survive the catastrophic and sudden loss of a loved one, but my sons and I survived. Human beings can be very strong, and I think in order to be strong, we need to know that we are in a larger context than just ourselves.”

Alexander read from her book at Books & Books yesterday, and she was excited to see how readers received her book. “I think what’s really interesting about being a writer is that you never know how people receive it. That’s what’s so fascinating. A chunk of the book was published in the New Yorker in February, and I got literally hundreds of emails from strangers, and not all of them were writing about the loss of a spouse. People were writing to me about so many beautiful, powerful things about love and about loss and about other aspects of the intensity of life as well.”

The man at the center of the book might be gone, but Alexander believes her husband would be immensely honored, especially because he had always been her biggest champion. “I’m certain he would be very, very proud because he believed in me as an artist as no other, and he always pushed me to things that were beyond what I had done before. He actually believed I could do anything, and I, at first, didn’t believe I could write this book, but I have. I always feel buoyed by that belief.”
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Monique Jones