OutreachNC’s 2019 Book Club: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World

This month, as we plan adventures and embark on travels near and far, we are carrying along Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: a memoir. It’s the story of Alexander’s love, her husband Ficre, and his death at the age of 50, a shock to them all. It’s a story about a man from all angles, from his childhood in Eritrea to his journey to America to his life pursuing his passions, first and foremost his family. Alexander, a poet, writes in short, tight vignettes that feel, in the end, like poems themselves. She doesn’t write in a linear fashion, bombarding us with every detail of her husband’s life. Instead, she captures and provides snapshots that are poignant enough that we feel as if we’re sitting in their living room or in Ficre’s studio or in his restaurant, watching him work and cook and smile and toss a joke or two over his shoulder as the bolognaise sauce simmers. 

For anyone who has lost a love, and for those of us who are still lucky to have them with us, Alexander’s book is a gentle reminder that love is, after all, what it’s all about. 

10 Thoughts on Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World

  1. This book, an elegy really, is about more than one woman’s reaction to her husband’s untimely death. It’s a story, unfolding slowly and piece by piece, of love, and it’s not just a husband and wife love. It’s the love a man has for his African heritage. It’s a love of food. It’s a love of community and pain and children and all of the things we sometimes take for granted in between sips of coffee and meetings and workouts.
  2. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright and the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Before her current position, she spent 15 years as a professor of poetry and chair of the African American Studies department at Yale University.  
  3. On page 196, Alexander writes of her husband, “…the man lived. Not nearly enough, but not insufficiently. He found his life’s work thrice: as an activist; as a chef; and as a painter. He understood himself as something larger than himself: His mighty extended family of origin; his beloved native land and its people. He found love and became part of a new extended family, and a new people. He had children and made family, most important of all to him.” This passage makes us wonder if we have found our life’s work, if we have loved and created our own families (extended and otherwise) and if we have taken the time to sit back and see all of that we have in fact done in our time here. 
  4. Elizabeth Alexander’s husband was Eritrean, a land we’d heard of but knew little about. We dug around. Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Much of Eritrea’s growing economy is based on resources such as gold, silver, marble, granite and copper. The de facto national language is Tigrinya; although Eritrea is a multilingual country with no actual official national language. The majority of the Eritrean population is Christian with the second largest religious affiliation being Islam. 
  5. Elizabeth Alexander’s works include American Sublime (2005), a collection of poetry shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. She was also asked by Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his Presidential inauguration. Her poem is entitled “Praise Song for the Day.” 
  6. One of our favorite stories or descriptions in The Light of the World is when Alexander writes about the Eritrean coffee ceremony and not only her husband’s devotion to the ceremony but how this tradition is passed on to their sons. 
  7. After her husband’s death, Alexander describes going to his painting studio to manage his belongings. It’s a poignant passage, in which she writes on page 159, “Anticipating throwing away his paintbrushes makes me queasy. They are somehow biological, his DNA in the brush fibers.” 
  8. Our favorite line in the book comes on page 76, when Alexander writes, “In all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, There you are, my love.” 
  9. This makes us grateful for our people, spouses and otherwise, whom we want to hold tight in light of this reminder that life can be short. 
  10. Jeeves gives this book 4 out of 5 stars. Even Jeeves can appreciate lyrical writing and the poignancy of a love story told with such tenderness and detail. 

That’s it for us this month. We’re looking forward to Rosalie Knecht Who is Vera Kelly? We won’t lie: we’re going out on a limb with this one, a book about a woman working night shifts at a radio station in New York City who gets noticed by a CIA recruiter. What? We know. We’re intrigued, too. Fingers and toes on this one. 

We love sharing books with everyone and anyone who’s got a review, comment, thought, critique or favorite quote to send along. Feel free to write to us at editor@outreachnc.com and let us know your thoughts on Alexander’s elegy.