A Black Art Love Story

An interview with Elizabeth Alexander about her memoir The Light of the World.

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"It's a black art love story," explains the poet, professor, essayist, and newly minted memoirist Elizabeth Alexander on a balmy October afternoon. Her book The Light of the World, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of her whirlwind romance with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and his sudden death in 2012.

Before beginning The Light of the World, I was aware that Alexander's husband had passed away but wasn't aware of any of the details. Alexander is a giant in the literary world (and the world-world, really). I was admittedly nervous to even begin the book, especially because I am at the beginning of my own love story. I couldn't imagine losing my partner, much less losing them so suddenly.

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In the early pages of the memoir, she writes, "Tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love ... loss is not felt in the absence of love." I arrived at the text expecting an unattainable level of sorrow but was pleasantly greeted with a grand gesture of love, courage, and kindness.

That said, I did struggle to complete the book. I'd read twenty or so pages and would cry on and off for a few days. In fact, before I could properly begin our interview, I tearfully explained to Elizabeth that I'd postponed our meeting because I simply couldn't stop weeping. I felt bad betraying her love story, but it was the truth.

Months later, I think about my confession and wonder if it was selfish. Was it wrong to center the conversation on my own emotions? Perhaps. Either way, Elizabeth, a warrior for the soul, sat down with me to discuss her writing process, her love of Ficre, and where she was one year after the memoir's publication.

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Kimberly Drew: Let's begin at the end. In the afterword you write: "I would remind myself as I wrote between sentences I was alive." Could you talk about what this means to you?

Elizabeth Alexander: [This] was a journey with a book unlike any other. In part because when you write poems or when you write criticism, people don't come to it for the same reasons. People come for the story in a memoir, people come for the persona in a memoir. People find their poems and essays on black culture in other ways and for other beautiful, beautiful reasons.

I love that it is [about] black love and it is black love in art. It's black love with the companion of music and paintings and beauty and food and words and the depth and riches of global black culture. Anybody can share that, but I love that it's a black art love story.

KD: I had a lot of difficulty finishing The Light of the World because I couldn't stop crying. I was wondering if you could talk more about your process and how you were propelled to write the text.

EA: It was time out of time, it was its own weather. I wouldn't exactly say that it was a fugue state, but it was certainly a state unlike any other. I did not have a lot of my usual self-consciousness and was thinking on a lot of tracks at the same time and placing things where I think they belonged. I was just living, existing, moving, second to second to second to second. It was actually a very powerful state to be in.

One thing that I did know self-consciously was that I would not always be in this time and space. You know, as I've said before, I was writing to know that I was alive. I stayed alive because I will and am a person who does — and also because I had children, so that was what I had to do. I wasn't writing to stay alive, but writing knowing what I was experiencing and moving through.

KD: Could you talk about what role self-care plays in your practice as a poet, now a memoirist, and where you find those moments for interiority? I think about it as this process of multitasking: you have these expectations, you have responsibilities, and then you also have the responsibility to yourself; I am wondering how you navigate through that.

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EA: Well, it does my heart good that you understand that, generationally, and that you're coming from that place. The dedication of The Black Interior (2004), my first book of essays, is to Barbara Christian, June Jordan, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Sherley Anne Williams, Audre Lorde, Toni CadeBambara, and Claudia Tate, a cohort of brilliant black women thinkers, a generation-ish ahead of me, who died too young of mostly cancers and who labored in a way and who were "the first ones" or "the only ones." They had community and they made community. That's what I inherit, but with my closest sister-friends of my generation, we said: "We're not going to go down like that."

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So we have a pact with each other and have for decades about always keeping self-care in the conversation because it's crucial, because there are stresses of being the only one or one of a few. I'm not a big-scale warrior, but I'm a total small-scale warrior. I'm always trying to make it better, call out the imbalance, make spaces better, reform institutions, redistribute resources; that's always how I've moved and it's exhausting. Really, also being the one who tries to call out the racism or the sexism or whatever the -ism is of an environment, we saw those brave women do it and do it in their lives and in their writing, and so that is our charge.

I will say also two more things about self-care. One is that — and this is just advice — that you need to have people in your life with whom you laugh from your core. I'm aware when I'm just falling out laughing so hard, how good [it is]. Our bodies need that shake, our bodies need to go to that joy space. I think also to the food in the book, but I think especially about the red lentils and all of the life that's in the red lentils, the cilantro, the ginger, the bright spices. Taking those red lentils into your body is taking life into your body. Needless to say, what you eat matters.

KD: Could you talk more about your writing process?

EA: I'm an enthusiast, and I am a multimedia-ist. Though trained in a discipline of English, I've always had visual arts and music and other kinds of things in the mix. So I've always been interested in a kind of a gathering. I have always been that way in my interests and affinities as well. Just kind of organically, I don't know why. Do you speak Spanish? Do you speak French? Do you speak Portuguese? Do you speak English, but who are all these brown people around the globe and what is the thread that connects us?

I think that my wiring is more toward enthusiasm, and how do we bring it all in and then let the art sort it out. That's what I love about art. It has its own brain. Take, take, take, take, take, take, take, and then what comes out on the other side, it's not necessarily for the artist to explain it. To have that space alongside the scholar teaching brain that does have to sort and order is a nice freedom for me.

KD: In the text you mention not wanting to be "stuck in memory" as you articulated your narrative. What does that mean to you?

EA: I'm interested in history, memory, dreams, and tremendously rich sources, but I also don't believe in wallowing in nostalgia. I fear that. What does it mean to go back to a default place? What does it mean to know that there's always a fascinating black woman in history who I could make a poem about? The facts of our history and the variedness and distortedness of it are so powerful and completing, you can always go there and be adequate.

I've forgotten many things. I've left selves behind, but they're still there. So a look backward hopefully doesn't go back to the same groove, but I'm always worried about that groove.

KD: You tell an intimate story in every sense. Could you talk about privacy and vulnerability? Has your relationship to privacy shifted?

EA: Yeah, that's so interesting. I am extremely private, though I have lots of public aspects to the work and I love lots of people. I love memoir as a genre, but I never would have thought I would have written in it because it just seemed almost presumptuous. So that's different from privacy. I just don't like when people "Blah, blah, blah" about their life at the wrong stage.

When you write poems or essays, they are about an obsessive true self, but there is some artifice. You could learn a great deal about my inner self by the things that I choose to shine my critical light on. That's very, very intimate, but there's the object. I could tell you I love this pumpkin, and I'm talking about the pumpkin all day long; I'm really talking about myself, but I've got you caught up in the pumpkin.

KD: Right.

EA: Similarly, too, with poems, there's the object, the artifice, the making of it that gives just that little difference where even if the real-life me is in those poems, it's very different from memoir. Each and every syllable, it happened to me. I think that there's no other way of saying that the occasion and then the work just called me into space where privacy wasn't even the issue, where I thought, Oh, I guess this is one thing that it means to be an artist, is that sometimes you are involuntarily called to something and you just ... you've got to answer that call. What would I have done, where would I have put everything I put in this book if I didn't make this book? I don't know. I can't imagine.

In a way, this makes me a bit emotional to think about it ... Ficre believed in me as an artist, that that was my bone, more than anyone on earth, ever. So a small piece [of me] is thinking, Oh, I guess you were right, baby. You know? I guess you were right because this happened, and I had to do it. I don't feel like that's pretentious, I feel like that's just the truth. That's just the truth.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Kimberly Drew is a curator, the creator of the popular Black Contemporary Art Tumblr, and the person behind @museummammy on Instagram.

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