Poet Elizabeth Alexander’s new memoir, The Light of The World, has critics buzzing. Now, the award-winning author and scholar chats with Robin D. Stone about the mighty love that inspired her to write after the sudden and unthinkable loss of her husband.
Imagine living the life of your dreams: two beautiful children, a joyous marriage, a career doing work that inspires and satisfies your soul. And then imagine that suddenly the love of your life is gone. Three years ago, that was Elizabeth Alexander, distinguished poet, after her beloved husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, fine and fit at 50, collapsed and died while on the treadmill in their Connecticut home. No surprise that after Ficre’s passing, Elizabeth, 53, would turn to her words. The result is her highly acclaimed memoir, The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing, $26), a deeply intimate and lyrical portrait of Black love at its best. Here we talk about loving across cultures, and living a life of gratitude despite heartbreaking loss.
ESSENCE: Why is it so important, especially for your sons, to acknowledge Ficre’s life? Often people don’t want to upset the children by speaking of the dead.
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: At the very base level, if a feeling or a thought of any kind is in my children, I want to hear it. I want them to feel that they don’t have to spare me. We miss him beyond words, but he is with us. He is still their father and the love of my life. He’ll never not be their father. So we talk about their father with tears and with laughter.
ESSENCE: Ficre was Eritrean. Talk about what it means to love across cultures.
E.A.: Coffee ritual and coffee making is very sacred to Eritreans. Before I could make coffee for my mother-in-law, I practiced and practiced. And I remember when she looked at me and—with one of the few words that I do know—she said, “Tu’um,” which is “very good.” Like, “You did it!” And that was so important. I think that that’s the beauty of cross-cultural exchange. One challenge is that I come from a tiny family. He grew up with many siblings. And because of the long war in Eritrea, people were always coming through. The solution was living in New Haven, in a house with a guest room.
ESSENCE: The cardiologist mentioned how Ficre’s past—being a war refugee—most likely affected his health. What should readers take away from that regarding stress and their own health?
E.A.: There’s a strong thread in the book of living healthfully. The value of fresh food, of cooking your food. The value of joy. The value of travel and opening your heart to different kinds of people. In all ways but one, he lived very healthfully. He was a committed yogi. He was exercising when he died. He was a smoker. He didn’t want to be a smoker. But he was in the grips of it. When you think about being a 16-year-old—war everywhere around you—you walk out of your country. You say good-bye to your mother and don’t know when you’re going to see her again. Your father has been exiled. Your siblings have scattered. And then you have to keep remaking yourself—in his case, as a refugee in Sudan, in Germany, in Italy. I speak Spanish and I speak it okay. But I’m not my full self when I’m speaking a second language. Our whole relationship was Ficre speaking in his fourth language.
ESSENCE: You paint a lovely portrait of your man: striking, resonant voice, masculine and tender. How was it loving a man who could show that type of sensitivity?
E.A.: He used to say that back home men hold hands. For example, the passeggiata—the Italians colonized Eritrea so they have a lot of Italian words—so for him, the passeggiata, the after-dinner walk, was very sacred. You may be arm in arm with a male friend, with a favorite cousin. Or your uncle would choose you, as a young boy, to be the one who got to walk with him. And so he treated my sons with that tenderness. And he used to talk about the crisis here in which Black men and boys are not valued enough. And he said, “My hands are on my sons…and that is how they will know that they are loved.” That makes me feel a little bit emotional. They will never forget that grounding from their father on their bodies.
ESSENCE: How did that endear him to you?
E.A.: From the very beginning I felt totally swept off my feet. Actually, just as suddenly as he left this earth, he dropped into my life. In the book there’s a scene where I fall asleep in the car, feeling like he will not let anything happen to me. And at that point I was in my thirties. I knew how to take care of myself. And to suddenly surrender very quickly was a big surprise.
ESSENCE: Let’s talk about that surrender. Many of us stop looking. Where were you when he fell into your life?
E.A.: I was thinking about becoming a mother on my own. And I said, Let me not be so light about this. It’s not easy to raise a child by yourself. Just sit still a minute. And he appeared. I wasn’t looking. We didn’t have friends in common. We didn’t find each other online. To me, the more important thing was saying yes.
ESSENCE: Today, with the Internet, people are connecting all the time. How do you know it’s love and not lust or loneliness?
E.A.: I think that you know by first knowing yourself and being able to do what my father did. I remember saying to an old friend that, “This relationship, it’s really easy. It’s really nice.” I had no good words. He’s nice, I’m happy. It’s good. Good, happy, nice. And then I said, “I must be missing something.” And he said, “Girl, when it’s right, it can be easy. Trust that. Drama need not accompany you in your relationship.”
ESSENCE: You share many intimate moments. Like the three-day vortex of lovemaking when you first met. This is grown-folk, sistergirl stuff. What made you feel comfortable enough to share that?
E.A.: I could leave that out. But you know what poets do? We tell the truth. The body tells the truth. What my body was saying to me was, You are being transformed right now. Something of body and spirit is happening and you’re in the presence of it.
ESSENCE: This loss is still new. What keeps you moving forward now?
E.A.: It is. And sometimes I act like that’s not true. But I keep going in a lot of ways. You have a child—you understand this. That’s what I have to do—shepherd them. But also it is the joy of this life. There is love in the world and there is beauty in the world and we should live every day with the knowledge of that. Not only because it could all go away. But if it goes away, there is more. Not to replace it, but for us to encounter. And we meet challenges sometimes we could never imagine, but it is true that Black women, we were not meant to survive, but we were built to survive.
Robin D. Stone (@Robindstone) writes about mental and physical wellness and runs healthjones.com. Go to elizabethalexander.net to see if the author will visit your town for a reading from and a signing of The Light of the World.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.