Elizabeth Alexander on The Light of the World, May’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Booksellers have named The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander (Grand Central Publishing) the number one Indie Next List Pick for May 2015.

Alexander, the distinguished poet who composed and delivered the poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, married the love of her life, Ficre Ghebreyesus, in 1996. The couple soon welcomed two sons, Solomon and Simon, and established a loving and lively home in New Haven, Connecticut.

Ghebreyesus, a prolific painter and chef, was born in Asmara, Eritrea, and spent time in Sudan, Italy, and Germany as a political refugee before arriving in the United States, where he dedicated his life to his family, his art and education, and his home country’s independence.

“Once upon a time, halfway around the world, two women were pregnant at the same time in very different places, and their children grew up and found each other,” Alexander wrote about their union.

In 2012, Ghebreyesus died very suddenly, just days after his surprise 50th birthday party. In the time following his death, Alexander found herself writing out snippets of memories of her life with Ghebreyesus and the family they had created.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

“I was finding out how I felt by writing. I was trying to fix moments and memories in time because I didn’t know what might slip away forever in the way that my husband had just slipped away forever,” Alexander told Bookselling This Week. “I didn’t think it was leading to a book, I just thought that I was processing the world with words in the way that I do.”

Though she simply wrote for herself in the beginning, Alexander said, “Bit by bit by bit, it became clear that it was a larger thing: that it was something that would be meaningful to more than me, that it was actually a work of art, that it wasn’t just me keeping track of my grieving.”

The author of five books of poems, including the Pulitzer Prize-finalist American Sublime, as well as two collections of essays and a play, Alexander rooted the prose in The Light of the World in poetry.

“I loved writing this way. I felt like it gave me the really, really hard and dense satisfaction of writing poetry — it’s so hard to write poetry! — and all of the riches and pleasures and the possibilities of language,” she said.

In The Light of the World, Alexander shares the first poem she wrote after Ghebreyesus’ death, which envisions her family as a three-legged table, where there once were four legs. Alexander and her sons are finding a new balance now, she said, and though they’re a trio, they are also still a quartet. “Ficre is still with us,” she said.

From the immense body of work that Ghebreyesus left behind, including hundreds of paintings and photographs, the painting Solitary Boat in Red and Blue was selected for the cover of The Light of the World.

“The boat is solitary and it is crossing waters, perhaps from this life to the next, perhaps from one part of the world to another,” Alexander said, and just like the painting, The Light of the World is about journeys: the way in which she and Ghebreyesus found one another and the way they built a family. “There’s also the solitary journey of leaving your body and leaving this life, as well as a journey of a family to reconstitute. The fact that there is no one in the boat lets us have all of those different interpretations in it,” she said.

That the image is a little bit lonely but peaceful is comforting to Alexander. “The little star flowers that you see falling down on the boat are a touch of Ficre’s magical realism that is present in all of his paintings, and that’s who he was in his life,” she said. “He sprinkled life with magical flowers.”

Alexander believes there is something for everyone in the book, whether they are looking to read about the intimacy of family life, an immigrant story, or an American story. But at the bottom line it “is about grief and love and about grief that’s acute because of how much love there was,” said Alexander. “We will all encounter grief and we will all lose loved ones in our lives. That is just the sad truth. So if art is something that can help us move through those seemingly impossible junctures in life, then I’m proud to have made something that might give people food for thought and comfort.”

Alexander expressed her gratitude for The Light of the World being chosen as an Indie Next List pick for May and noted that independent booksellers have helped her to become who she is. “I learned in independent bookstores. I became who I am as a writer and a thinker, sitting on the floor of wonderful independent bookstores in my neighborhood,” she said. “Those spaces were generous and formative for me. So that’s why this particular nod is really, really meaningful.”

Alexander holds degrees from Yale University, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the Inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. She and her sons now live in New York, where they are surrounded by loving family and friends.