Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Glynn Pogue, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Elizabeth Alexander about her book The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Elizabeth Alexander’s critically acclaimed memoir The Light of the World is pure decadence. It’s an invitation into a life so rich and vivid on the page, it comes as no surprise it’s the work of a poet, a skilled wordsmith most noted for delivering her moving poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barak Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
In her first memoir, Alexander’s delicate prose transports us as guests at the quaint Connecticut home she and husband Ficre built, complete with fruit-colored walls reminiscent of his childhood home in Eritrea. Alexander settles us amongst the lush garden out back that Ficre painstakingly maintained, where we can smell the peonies. She lets us savor the delectable meals Ficre, an artist and a chef, lovingly prepared. She brings us along on a cross-country vacation with the couple and their two boys, where we get a touching glimpse of the pair’s unshakeable bond. And she fills us with terror when the fairytale turns to nightmare as the couple’s young son finds Ficre at the foot of their treadmill, dead, after his heart gives out.
Alexander’s telling of love and loss is strung together in a collage of fragments; vignettes flow into snapshots of memories, excerpts from poems, Ficre’s recipes and Alexander’s frank realizations as she sorts through her emotions. It is not chronological, there is no distinct beginning. The device is striking, intimate and vulnerable; the result, a testament to the power of love and art. As Alexander writes, "Ficre painted to fix something in place, and so, I write to fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember even though I know I will never forget."
Glynn Pogue: Given your background as a celebrated poet, were there any difficulties or surprises in moving from poetry to memoir? Furthermore, why memoir? Did you consider telling the story in a collection of poems?
Elizabeth Alexander: I never imagined I would write memoir but the form insisted on itself. It came from the same place that poems come from, in the deep, mysteriously-motivated boil of interior language and music. At first I lamented that I was not writing poems but then I realized what was important was that I was writing, in a voice that felt powerful and new to me. I was surprised how much I loved writing in this voice and felt its capacity, which seemed to me as infinite as poetry is.
GP: You and Ficre were both in your mothers’ wombs at the same time, but in two different worlds; you in a very accomplished family in America, he in a war-torn Eritrea. In what ways was it challenging or exciting to love cross-culturally? Do you continue to keep elements of Eritrean tradition alive in your home?
EA: Our families of origin held much in common – his father was a judge with an unshakable commitment to justice and his mother’s is a line of wise nobles. In both of our families that ethos of standing for justice and progress on behalf of your communities was indelible. We also both come from very strong and loving families – the wrenching experience of war and terror is what differentiated us. I have always been drawn to people from different cultures – it is part of the joy of American life and being part of a community of educators and artists from around the globe. It took very careful and ongoing observation and experimentation to bring together our cultural traditions, and now, we have a third thing, which is the hybrid family culture we created. For my children I have especially concentrated on keeping their father’s traditions a live and those, while rooted in his Eritrean-ness, are also characterized by his vast, open-hearted curiosity about others.
GP: The Light of the World offers an intimate depiction of Black love, pure and passionate. What are your thoughts on the importance of narratives on Black love and the Black familial unit?
EA: Thank you for this question. Our (black) stories have been under-narrated and distorted, and to some, our fundamental humanity is unimaginable. I think of W.E.B. DuBois being asked if black people shed tears – our individual and familial interior lives interest me infinitely, and I gravitate to work that explores those spaces. Black love is the force that has kept black people strong and standing despite centuries in harm’s way. Black love is beautiful and complicated, like any love. Black families are varied and complicated, like all families. I am moved by people who chose to cast their lots together. I am moved by people who choose intimacy over estrangement or shallow engagement. And I find black people to be infinitely rich and fascinating!
GP: You met Ficre as if by divine intervention. When he passed, you write of watching his soul leave his body and understanding that his spirit was greater than his physical. After his passing, you found yourself blaring Mahalia Jackson and longing for the routines of Rosh Hashanah to ground you in your grief. You write of the vivid dreams Simon had of Ficre at heaven’s gates. Can you speak more on how loving and losing Ficre has affected you spiritually?
EA: I would always have described myself as “a spiritual person,” attuned to quotidian revelation and mystery as well as interested in sanctifying rituals. Ficre’s death, and writing the book, has shown me how art-making bears witness to and calls out the spiritual dimensions of living.
GP: You write of Ficre’s presence becoming more “permeating, more essence, more distilled.” At this point in your grief, where is he most present?
EA: It is wonderful to have a store of memories that feels inexhaustible – we had a rich, long time together, though never enough. I evolved through his love and building our family so I cannot extricate the me of now from that evolution.
GP: Lastly, after such loss, what keeps you moving forward?
EA: Life is characterized by loss and struggle, we just hope the spaces in between are wider and light-filled. I am always looking to those light-filled spaces. What keeps me moving forward: First and foremost, my wonderful sons, on their journeys as young men. Second, the infinite beauty of creativity that is everywhere around us and which manifests human resilience. Third, the ongoing possibility of sharing ourselves and our love with each other. Finally, life itself in all its wonders, every single day.
Professor Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, and teacher. She is the author of six books of poems, two collections of essays, a play, and various edited collections. She was recently named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as well as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She previously served as the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years and chaired the African American Studies Department. In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her memoir, The Light of the World, has just been released to great acclaim.
Glynn Pogue is a writer and dreamer from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Her prose has been featured in Essence Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and the UK's Oh Comely Magazine, among others. Glynn is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at The New School, where she's at work on a collection of essays on race, class, identity and her beloved Bed-Stuy. For more visit glynnpogue.com